Copyright 2012 by Lynn McEachern

All rights reserved.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

PRICE OF MEMORY

~ ONE ~

Indigo, Maine

October 2023

Monday morning and a double homicide.

On a normal Monday morning, you'll find me sitting at my desk, working my way through coffee and doughnuts and shooting the breeze with the other detectives on staff. Or reading the news, or waiting for a call. Catching up on paperwork, that sort of thing. You usually wouldn't find me speeding to the scene of a double homicide, especially not here in Indigo, Maine. That sort of thing just doesn't happen around these parts.

My name is Lucie Nickerson, and I'm a detective. I'm bored, and I'm tired, and I'm fed up, and I'm burnt out. I'm also a native of the aforementioned Indigo, Maine, although I've only been back in town for about three years (although it feels a lot longer than that). The last twenty-some years, I was living and working and just generally living a good life in the Big Apple with my detective/NYPD partner and husband, Simon Nickerson.

"Do you feel like speeding it up a bit, perhaps?"

Delightfully dry, and deliciously sarcastic. That's my current partner-in-crime (fighting), Claudia Friemann.

Claudia hails from somewhere out midwest (a small enough town to make Indigo seem like a bustling metropolis to her), and she's awesome. We're great friends, and we work together pretty well, too. She's not crazy about my driving, though, and she's never too shy to tell me so. Mischievously, I smashed my foot down on the accelerator. There weren't a lot of cars out on the road this time of day, and I had the overhead light flashing. I didn't bother turning on the siren. Too early for that kind of racket.

"Got white knuckles?" I teased her.

"You drive too damned fast!"

"Hey, don't blame me, blame the car."

Claudia had been promoted to detective just shortly after I'd transferred here. They'd asked me to mentor her, but honestly, it was a toss-up as to who mentored who (or whom? I'm never sure when to use who and whom. Whatever. I'm a cop, not an English professor.). Anyway, Claudia was amazing, and her talents were wasted in this one-horse town.

The only mentoring I ever did was introduce her to an old high school chum by the name of Alan. She married him last summer. He went from your basic "teenage gawky" to "midlife hottie", and he's a chef who owns a fantastic seafood restaurant that's famous for its chocolate desserts. Come on, now. Does life get much better than that? Claudia owes me. Big time.

She looks like a "television detective". We make an odd pair, I guess. She's the same age as me (forty-four, although neither of us look a day over thirty. In my own personal opinion, that is.) and she's tall, slim, graceful and glamorous, with her golden brown hair and eyes. Beside her, I look like leftovers. I'm short and chunky and I have an attitude. I have long black hair and big brown eyes and a big, dimply sort of smile. Simon once said that I was a cute little pitbull.

Claudia's screech distracted me from my reminiscing.

"Slow down, goddammit! You drive like a maniac!"

"Hey, I told you, it's not me, it's the car," I said innocently, taking a corner on three wheels. "These new plug-ins are a blast to drive." I squealed to a stop at the curb in front of the Indigo West Side Elementary School: The scene of the crime.

"Indeed," Claudia grumbled.

"They're a lot peppier than the old fleet," I continued, putting the car in park and turning off the ignition. "And a hundred times better than those old gas guzzlers that they had when I started out. These are almost as much fun to drive as my motorcycle."

"The one you wrecked last year?"

"Well, yeah..."

"I'll drive on the way back."

"You always say that."

"This time I mean it."

"You always say that, too."

She growled. I took the hint (don't push her too far, not this early, anyway) and shut my yap.

We climbed out of the car. Claudia paused and rummaged through her bag for something, and I just folded my arms and leaned against the driver's side door, so I could take a good look around. I always liked to take a minute or two, just to absorb the big picture and get the gist of things, the vibes, before sinking my fangs into the details.

What a gorgeous day it was. Exactly the kind of autumn weather that I lived for. Nice little breeze happening, warm sunshine, the earthy smell of decaying leaves. Comfortable during the day, and just cool enough at night. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths to clear the cobwebs.

"I could stay here like this all day. Autumn is my favourite time of year."

"Me, too," Claudia said, a wistful note in her voice. She sounded like she was overdue for a vacation. She loved the outdoors as much as I did. I felt like I could easily go for another vacation, myself. Right about now, in fact. But I had reasons for that, reasons that I didn't want to think about right now.

A bit reluctantly, I opened my eyes again and looked up at the school. It was set up at the top of a nice, sloping lawn, and was surrounded by lush grounds and trees. Very picturesque. Just like everything else in Indigo. Trees and green stuff and growing stuff and a few miles out, the Atlantic Ocean. Mother Nature seriously kicked ass around here.

"Look at all those kids gathered out front," I marvelled. "When I was growing up, Indigo had maybe forty thousand people, tops. People were just starting to move into the new subdivisions when I left right after high school. Now look at the place. We've got, what, over a hundred thousand people now? Hundred twenty?"

"One hundred eighteen, more or less," Claudia said absently. She was scanning the crowd. "Did the technology boom really increase the population so much?"

"Not at first," I said. "Alltchip did."

"Of course. I should have realized." Claudia had activated her PC, and began to tap on the screen. I pulled a pen and notepad out of my pocket. I'm old school.

"And of course," she added, teasingly, "Alltchip is your very favorite thing."

"Pfft. I have absolutely no use for that technology. Unless it's medically necessary, of course. Otherwise, I hate it."

"And that's why the government originally commissioned it. To help people." She was baiting me, trying to bring me out of my cranky mood. It wasn't working.

"It should have stayed that way," I said, sourly. "I mean, medical, education, training...fine. I have no issues with that. But look at how many people live their whole lives based on those tiny little Chips plugged into their skulls. If I want to read a book, I'll read a damned book. I won't plug a Chip in my head to have the text spoon-fed to me. Same as music, and movies, and TV shows..."

"I know," Claudia replied. She'd heard this rant from me before, and even agreed with me, somewhat. She wasn't a big Chip user, but she didn't share my beefs against Alltchip. "Shall we go? Or do you just want to stand here and gripe against technology all day?"

"Jeez," I muttered. "Someone chugged a couple of glasses of Bitch Juice this morning. Not naming names, but there it is." She shot me a look. I think sometimes she forgot that she owed me, big time. I sighed. "Okay, let's go."

I waved to the media types as we passed by. A few of them groaned, a couple of them glared, and I know I heard one of them refer to me as something that rhymes with "witch".

"They look happy to see you."

"Yeah."

Truth was, I was a bit of a...witch...when it came to them. Just doing my job. Just trying to make sure they didn't cause trouble. I didn't think that was too unreasonable, really. I know I wasn't in New York anymore, but that wasn't any reason to relax the rules.

Anyway. Back to the case.

The school had quite a long driveway, one that extended from the bus parking zone in back, all the way down to the road, and then down around the other end of the lawn, also down to the road, to make a half-moon shape. Circular driveway, I think it's called. Probably easier for the buses in the wintertime.

Rightd now, though, both ends of the driveway were sealed off with crime scene tape, and there was an officer guarding each side, as well as a couple of officers stationed in between the two, to block access from the road. With so many people on the scene, that was a pretty good idea. I could see a bunch of uniforms milling around near the front doors, too. Quite the turnout. A double homicide was big news here in little ol' Indigo.

I wondered if we had enough backup. Parents had started arriving. News travels fast.

Claudia and I approached one end of the driveway, which was being patrolled by one of my favorite cops, Jonny Kimber. He's a coffee-colored hunk of a man with heart-melting dark eyes and a smile like a sunny day, and hey, I'll admit I've checked him out once or twice. Hard not to. I do have a pulse, after all.

"Hey, Jon," I greeted him. "Who's the officer in charge?"

"Hi Lucie. That would be one Orr Harrison," Jon said, in his rich, deep voice. He could read the phone book to me any time he wanted to. Twice, even. He nodded up at the school entrance. "Orr's inside, supervising the Crime Scene Techs. Stephen Keelor's in charge outside."

"Good," I said. Then I glanced back at the gathered journalists. They were still standing around down by the street. For now, anyway. "Any trouble?"

"Not yet, but you just got here." Out came that smile. I almost needed sunglasses.

"Hey, now."

"I'm just saying."

More parents had started to arrive, and some of them were panicking. Damn it. I didn't want to let them on the grounds. Understandably, they were worried about their kids, but I didn't want things to get nuts. I was wondering how to handle them, when the teachers figured it out for me. Some of them headed down to the street, to head them off. "Claudia, they're gonna need some help," I said.

She motioned to a nearby patrolman and spoke rapidly to him. He nodded and hurried off, presumably to bring some backup down to the street. "There," she said. "We'll let Steve know about this."

"Good."

"I'll keep an eye on things," Jon said.

"Thanks, Jonny." I gave him a flirty little smile in return, and Claudia whacked me on the arm.

"What?" I groused, as we made our way up that long driveway.

"Stop flirting with him. We've got a job to do."

"Oh, like you weren't looking," I scoffed.

She grinned. "Of course I was. But I can keep my focus. Unlike some people around here. Like, perhaps, you."

"I'm flippant to help me cope with the horror and pain and misery that I have to deal with on a daily basis," I grumbled.

She rolled her eyes. "Stuff it."

"The pain...the pain..."

She whacked my arm again, and we continued up the hill. What a long freakin' driveway. I'd hate to be the one shovelling snow here. Hope they had a snowplow. I took in the surroundings along the way.

It looked like a pretty alright kind of school, as far as schools went. There was a good-sized playground and sports field in back, just past the parking lot. I wondered if they saw much use. Of course, this was just elementary school. The kids probably still played sports and games and probably weren't hard core heroin junkies or technology zombies yet, perhaps.

Jon had said Orr Harrison was in charge of the crime scene. Randomly, I said, "Did you know that Orr Harrison is named after Bobby Orr?"

Claudia looked puzzled. "Who's Bobby Orr?"

"Hockey player from the seventies. Orr's gramps was a huge fan."

"So why didn't he name him 'Bobby'? Why 'Orr'?"

I shrugged. "No idea. But it's kind of cool."

"I suppose." Claudia was used to random shit from me.

The school itself was one of those big-ass brick boxes from back in the fifties, solid and roomy. The students were all gathered out on the front lawn, clustered in groups or by themselves. They looked scared and excited. Some were crying. I took a rough estimate - about three hundred kids, along with a couple dozen adults. Teachers and employees. Most of the adults were helping with the parental situation. A few remained with the kids, keeping them under control. The scene was pretty well-organized. Kudos to Orr and Steve on that. A crime scene with a bunch of kids was never easy to manage. I still had a bad feeling about it, though.

By the side entrance of the school, there were three ambulances and several patrol cars. One of the ambulances was slowly pulling away, and from inside, I could hear a weird sort of howling. Creepy.

"Do you hear that?" Claudia whispered, elbowing me.

"Sounds like someone's hurt. Bad." I frowned. "Didn't sound too good, that."

Stephen Keelor saw us, and made his way over.

"What the hell was that howling?" I greeted him.

"The perp," he said, his eyes flicking over at the crowd. "They had to sedate her before she hurt herself. She's crazy."

"Damn," Claudia said, softly.

"Yeah," he agreed. "It was pretty bad."

"She? She didn't sound real good," I observed.

"Wait'll you see what she did in there, Luce. To them two little kids. She ain't sane, you ask me. Jesus." Steve was older than me, heavyset and blunt with boozy eyes and a smoker's voice. We've tipped more than a few back, and he always lets me win at pool, even though he shouldn't. He eyed me and said, "Bring your barf bag, kiddo. It's nasty in there."

I had no doubt that Steve had seen plenty of nasty in his time, and I've never heard him talk barf bag. "Thanks, Steve," I said, giving his arm a supportive little squeeze. I turned to Claudia. "Got the outside? I'll get the inside."

"Got it."

Steve let me in the side door, with a muttered, "Hang tough, kiddo." I nodded and climbed up the short flight of stairs to the main floor, as he had directed, and made my way down the long, hollow corridor. As I walked, I thought of Orr Harrison with a little tingly feeling.

He was, hands down, probably the second-hottest man that I had ever seen. He was younger than me - only thirty-five - and could absolutely be described as a total babe. Medium height, nice muscles, sweet personality. Short, silky black hair, smouldering black eyes, a mouth perfectly made for kissing, and cheekbones that any runway bitch would give her last low-fat rice cake for. One smokin' hot man, in short.

He and his wife Jenn had moved to Indigo a couple of years ago, from Chicago. He'd worked in Computer Crimes, and also in Homicide. Unfortunately for him, there'd been no openings in the detectives' division here, so he'd gamely donned a uniform and worked his fine butt off in case an opening ever came up.

Crappily for him, he and Jenn had split a few months later. We all thought he'd move back to Chicago, but for some reason he stayed in Indigo, and pretty soon he was spending his evenings with the rest of us at the station's favorite watering hole. We became great pals, since we often occupied neighboring bar stools. But we didn't start sleeping together until a couple of weeks after Simon and I split up.

It wasn't love or anything. We just really liked each other. Our little fling wasn't going anywhere permanent. We knew that. For me, it was just something to do, or maybe it was a quick shot of self-esteem, until Simon and I patched things up and got back together. Maybe that made me a scumbag. I don't know. But I do know that Simon wasn't sleeping alone, any more than I was. So I guess maybe that evened it out some. And as for Orr, well, I didn't know what was going on inside his head. But I guess I was his "transitional fling", just as he was mine. I hoped he didn't have anything more in mind, anyway. I was pretty sure he didn't.

I could hear voices echoing off the white-painted cinder block walls, and figured that I was getting close to the action. There were dozens of class portraits lining the hallway, and it seemed that they watched every step I took. Creepy. Flat, dead, black-and-white gazes following my progress. With the hallways deserted and my footsteps echoing, I felt like I was walking into an old horror movie.

When I came to a hallway intersection, I turned right to follow the voices, as Stephen had instructed. A camera flash went off, making me flinch. Camera flashes always bothered me, oddly enough.

About four rooms down, on the left hand side, Orr was standing just outside a classroom that had been cordoned off with crime scene tape. His handsome face was grim. He glanced up as I approached.

"Hey," I said.

His dark eyes went all soft for a moment, and my heart started pounding. My God, it should be illegal to look so good. "Luce. Your case?"

"Lucky me," I replied. He nodded.

"It's bad."

Remembering the howling I had heard coming from the ambulance, I had to agree with him.

I peeked past Orr into the large, old-fashioned classroom, and promptly wished that I hadn't.

They were right. Fuck, it was bad. Blood all over the place, desks overturned. A Crime Scene tech was making a video of the scene, while another tech took pictures with a complicated-looking camera. The flash went off a couple of times, making me twitch again.

Looking around, I did a quick visual grid of the place. Started with the ceiling, as always, I was shocked to see blood spatter that high up. These were old-fashioned twelve-foot-high ceilings. Must have been a hell of a lot of force behind that spray. Damn...

I let my gaze crawl along the cheerfully-painted cinder block walls, along the large touchscreen that dominated the nearest wall, and I wondered when touchscreens had replaced the dusty chalkboards of my youth.

Fun little posters of the alphabet and the number system decorated the blue-painted walls, which were now flecked with crimson. The touchscreen itself looked like a work of abstract art, the red blood vivid against the flat grey. Yuck.

The Crime Scene Supervisor, Branden, was one of my favorite people ever. Short, chubby, head full of red curls and nice green eyes. I've always wondered if he was descended from Hobbits. He was a cheerful sort of guy, with a big grin and freckles, and he told the worst jokes ever. But he made up for that with his work. He was good. The best.

Right now, he noticed me and detached himself from his group of white-suited techs who were gathered around something on the floor. I glanced past them and my breath caught in my throat.

Two small, blood-soaked bodies lay sprawled on the floor.

"Aw, shit," I whispered. Beside me, Orr nodded and placed and hand on my shoulder. Probably to restrain me from howling and kicking the door off its hinges. He knew me too well.

"Luce," Branden said, his voice tinny from his helmet. "Your case?"

"Yeah." A tech gingerly picked up a handbag - the perp's, I guessed - and dropped it, contents and all, into an evidence collection bag.

"It's a mess," Branden said. "Nearest we can tell, so far, is that she went nuts. The teacher, I mean. She went completely apeshit."

"The teacher did all this? By herself?" The place looked like an explosion had gone off. "No shit? She an Amazon or something?"

"Naw, she's just a little thing. Not much bigger than you. Caught on surveillance and everything. Took four teachers to pull her off those two little guys and hold her down." Branden waved a gloved hand toward the small bodies, which were just now being bagged.

"Any idea why she went nuts?"

Bran shook his head, and Orr answered, "No. We've taken statements from the survivors, and the teachers who subdued her." He shook his head sadly. "No one has any idea what the hell happened. According to the kids who got here early, she was sitting at her desk, drinking a coffee. Not all the kids had arrived yet. It was about fifteen minutes before start of class. And then she just snapped. According to the kids, she was raving, screaming, paranoid. She kept yelling that someone or something was trying to 'get her'." He shrugged. "Now, some of the kids are saying that she was getting twitchy, or edgy. That she seemed really upset about something. Maybe so, or they might just be saying that now, based on what happened afterwards. It's hard to tell from the cameras. We're checking for any drugs. The hospital's been instructed to run a full screening on her. We're tracking down family and friends." He sighed. "No smoking gun yet."

I nodded, impressed. "When can you have a full report?"

Branden glanced around, assessing the progress that his team had made so far. "Say a couple of hours?"

I checked my watch. It was not even ten yet. "How's a two o'clock briefing work for you?"

"Yeah, great."

"Good. Thanks, Bran." I turned to Orr. "You got this?"

"Yeah, no problem. See you at two."

I gave his hand a quick squeeze, and he held me there for a few seconds. His dark eyes bored into mine, intense. I had to remember how to breathe.

After that charged moment, Orr nodded, released me, and turned back to the crime scene. I turned and walked out the way that I had come, deep in thought. I was some glad just to get the hell out of there.

Outside, I paused on the school steps and took a look around for Claudia. Also, to get my mental shit together. Usually, I loved the challenge of working on a new case, but this one was going to suck real bad. I just knew it.

God, I was tired.

Tired, and depressed, and bored, again and again and again. All the time, these days. How much longer could I do this? How long could I pretend to really care, to do a half-decent job? I was going nuts here, and I didn't know how much more I could take.

I gave my head a shake. Get back to work, leave the personal shit at home. I had no focus lately. Zone-outs like this were getting more frequent, and it worried me. I stalked across the lawn to join the others.

Claudia was out near the front entrance of the school, talking to a tall man. Short dark hair, beard, mid-thirties, handsome. Dressed like a teacher, except for the blood smeared down the front of his clothes. I guessed he was one of the teachers who helped subdue the perp.

They turned at my approach. "Hello," I said, politely. "I'm Detective Lucie Nickerson." I flashed my shield, held out my hand. He took it and gave a quick handshake. He had sharp blue eyes and a kind smile.

"George Nicholas. I teach science, across the hall from Tina Cogg." At my puzzled look, he added, "You know. The woman who...uh..."

Oh. Yes. "Were you one of the teachers who subdued her?"

"Yes."

"So hopefully none of this is yours?" I gestured at his bloody clothes.

"No...I'm fine..."

Right. He sure didn't look like he was fine. He looked like he was just one wrong word away from freaking out.

I nodded, sympathetically. "Good job, sir. Really. You're a hero. Who knows what might have happened, if you hadn't helped out?" I touched his elbow and smiled. "Thank you."

Behind his beard, I could see he was blushing. "No problem," he mumbled. "I was glad to help."

"We're finished for now, Mr. Nicholas," Claudia said. She handed him a business card. "If you think of anything more, please contact me. Thank you for your help."

He nodded and pocketed the card, then ambled away to join a group of students. I pulled Claudia aside.

"Prepare yourself," I whispered. "They're going to bring the bodies out any second. We should try to move these people over. Have the next-of-kin been seen to?"

"Yes. They've been escorted to the station."

"Good. Poor things. Let's clear the area."

"I'll get on that. Oi! Steve!" Claudia waved at the patrolman, and together, they began to herd bystanders away from the side doors.

Myself, I kept an eye on the journalists, who were surprisingly still standing down by the street. So far they'd behaved themselves, but once the body bags appeared, they'd get a little antsy. I kicked up my purposeful, 'don't-fucking-try-it' stride, and headed straight for them.

Too late. Behind me, I heard the doors open, and cries of dismay rose up from the assembled crowd.

Damn it. I hated this.

I pushed the hurt down, where it wouldn't get in the way of doing my job. I didn't look back, but increased my speed. Sure enough, the media types were getting a little restless. This was big news for Indigo, and they all wanted a piece of it.

"Back! Get back, now!" Jon was shouting at them. Sure enough, they were starting to crowd him. I freaking knew this was going to happen. Determined to keep things under control, I broke into a jog, wincing at the twinge in my bad knee.

Just then, one of the younger journalists - a kid I didn't recognize - ducked under the tape, slipped past Jon, and sort of 'crab-scuttled' up the lawn. He had his camera out and was snapping pictures like crazy. And that, right there, was exactly the kind of stunt guaranteed to make my blood boil.

Cursing, I burst into a sprint and tackled him from the side, smashing him (and that fancy camera) to the ground. Something snapped, and man, I hoped that it wasn't bone. Personal injury lawsuits could be such a pain in the ass.

"Ouch! Hey! Police brutality!" His muffled voice whined from underneath my elbow and shoulder as I pinned him down.

"Freeze!" I twisted, trying to reach my handcuffs. "You're under arrest!"

"You can't do that!"

"Yeah? Fucking watch me."

I felt arms lifting me up. Grabbing quickly, I hauled the rodent with me, making sure to twist the collar of his shirt real good. His face started to go all purple.

"Detective, no!" Jon's deep voice was amused. "He's not worth it, Lucie!"

"Sure he is," I growled. I could feel Jon's rumbly laughter at my back.

On my feet now, I released my hold and said, "Arrest him for trespassing at the scene of a crime, please."

Jon's white grin flashed. "My pleasure."

The kid, who didn't look a day older than twelve, gawked incredulously at me. "Hey, I was just doing my job!"

"No," I snapped, pointing at the assembled journalists watching. Some looked pissed off, some were laughing, and I swear I saw money change hands. "They're doing their jobs. You're trespassing."

"Yeah, well, you broke my camera! You're gonna buy me a new one!"

"Keep it up, kid, I'm gonna fucking well tear you a new one. Get him out of here." I snarled, disgusted, and turned just in time to see the two remaining ambulances pulling away. And then I stopped in my tracks.

All the students, teachers and parents were staring at me with their mouths hanging open.

Great. Well, at least I'd managed to distract them from the sight of their friends' bodies being taken away. There was always a bright side, I guess.

Claudia walked towards me, amused and annoyed. Behind me, I could hear Jon reading the still-whining kid his rights.

"I counted at least two dozen recording devices. You'll be all over the internet within minutes."

"Oh, great," I moaned. Just what I needed. I looked again, and sure enough, sunlight reflected off all kinds of camera lenses. At my glance, a few people, then a few more, then finally most of the crowd, began to clap and cheer. I stared at them.

"They think you're a hero," Claudia said, softly.

"Why?"

She grinned. "For obvious reasons. You silly thing."

"I'm no hero," I mumbled, blushing. I gave the crowd a quick little wave, which resulted in even louder cheers, and I turned away, burrowing self-consciously into my hooded sweatshirt. "Oh my God, let's get out of here. This is embarrassing."

"I thought you were behaving a little too well lately," Claudia murmured, matching my limping stride. "You haven't tackled anyone in at least a week."

"That you know of. I was on vacation last week."

"Of course."

As we approached the media crowd, a babble of questions hit us. I rolled my eyes.

"Hey, guys," I called, over their voices. "Hey! You know the drill. Contact our PR department for the official statement. Right now, all I can say is that there was, indeed, an incident, and that we're investigating. Thank you."

A few more questions were shouted out, which I ignored. "Bye," I called, opening the car door. "Let's get out of here," I said to Claudia.

"Sounds good."

Just before I could slide in (the driver's side, of course), one journalist hollered out, "Nice tackle!"

"How much did you win?" I asked.

"Ten bucks."

Grinning, I shook my head and said, "Illegal gambling," which brought a round of laughter. I waved and started the ignition.

As we were pulling away, I saw another patrol car drive away, with that idiot photographer kid stuffed into the back seat, red-faced and yapping furiously.

Served him right.

~ TWO ~

We drove away in silence - not a bad silence, as in a pissed-off silence, but a lot-to-think-about silence. It was good to get away from the crime scene, and as we got closer to the downtown area, traffic thinned out a little. It was still early enough that not much was going on in town yet. All the action was where we'd just been.

Claudia was doing God-knows-what on her PC, her graceful slim fingertips lightly brushing across the touchscreen. She was working, and I was brooding again. It seemed that was all I ever did anymore, and I was tired of it. It's pretty bad when you're sick of yourself, isn't it?

"I feel like a zombie sometimes. Like I'm just going through the motions."

"I can tell." Claudia didn't look up. "I worry about you."

"Don't."

"You need a break."

"I just had a vacation!"

"And a change. You're in a rut."

"Yeah, no shit. What, you mean like a new job?"

"Alan's looking for some servers at his restaurant."

I burst out laughing. She always cracked me up with that deadpan delivery of hers.

Claudia grinned, and kept tapping away at the small touchscreen. I hit a couple of bumps in the road, and she grumbled as she plugged the PC into the car's Access Unit. Easier to use the larger touchscreen, especially if I was going to keep hitting every pothole.

"Got anything good?" I asked, as I signalled a turn. We weren't far from the station, but I wasn't heading there just yet. We had plenty of time before the briefing, and I really needed someone to talk to, so that maybe I could get my head on straight for the day.

"Preliminary notes," she murmured. "The usual. You know I like to get started early, while it's all fresh in my mind."

I pulled into the drive-thru lane at Mug's Coffee Shop & French Fry Palace (that's the name of the place, I'm not kidding), and placed an order for two large coffees. Black-one-sugar for Claudia, triple-triple for me. The aroma of greasy, salty fries floated through from the window, and it smelled incredible. Best fries in town, hands down. Seventeen different kinds. A million different toppings. Delish.

Claudia seemed oblivious, even after I set the coffees in the cup holders and drove off. When she got into her notes, she really got into them. I rolled down my window and took a deep, fortifying breath of the warm October breeze that blew in through the opening.

Claudia was frowning at her PC and slamming on the car monitor now. She always did this when the computer couldn't keep up to her. For the sake of the poor equipment, I figured it was time to intercede.

"Chill, Sis. Why don't you use voice input for notes?"

"I feel silly doing that."

"Why? I do it all the time."

I cruised into a parking space bordering a large walking trail park, located smack in the middle of town. Lots of trees, a picture-perfect pond, some still-blooming flowers, a few benches. Really nice place, one of my favourite coffee break stops. The leaves had pretty much turned for the season, and they reflected off the pond's surface in gorgeous streaks of red and gold. They sort of reminded me of those framed Monet prints that Simon had hung on the walls back at the farmhouse. Using my phone, I snapped a couple of pictures. Maybe I'd email them to Simon. Or, maybe not. Who was I kidding? I was probably too chicken.

"And that would be why all your notes need to be censored. You tend to get a little too relaxed with the voice input," Claudia quipped. Then she sniffed, and glanced down at the coffees, just noticing them for the first time. "Oh, thanks," she said, surprised.

"Welcome." I chuckled.

Claudia glanced out the front window. "Why have we stopped here?"

I took a sip of the steaming brew. "Just needed a minute."

I closed my eyes, tried to picture something nice and peaceful. Sunset at the beach. Hiking through the woods. Driving through the back roads in autumn. A sort of peace settled on my tense shoulders, and I let my mind wander.

Back when Simon and I had first split up, I'd indulged in a couple of days of self-destructive pity. The third day, when I'd gotten sick of lying in bed crying and sulking, I'd hauled my ass upright and took a good, long, difficult look at myself in the mirror. I sure as hell didn't like what I saw. I was only forty-four, but I looked like crap. What my Dad would have called a "hard ticket".

No way was I in any kind of shape to do my job. I wouldn't have passed a physical, I bet. No wonder my husband was sick of me. I was sick of myself.

So, I'd given myself a good kick in the arse and started to get my shit together. I cut back on the junk food, the partying, the drinking, and even spent an hour or so every day walking, stretching and toning. My bad knee cut down on my beloved martial arts, but I could still do some of the workouts, as long as I modified them. Within a couple of weeks, I was looking good and feeling better. Of course, hooking up with Orr did wonders, too.

I opened my eyes, and saw Claudia watching me closely. She was frowning.

"Is everything all right, Lucie?"

"Fine." I stared out the windshield. A couple of squirrels were running up and down the tree trunks, playing some kind of squirrel game. They were adorable. I wondered how the hell they managed to move so fast.

Some old coots were sitting on one of the stone benches nearby, under the spotty shade of a huge old oak tree. One of them dumped a bag of bread crusts on the ground, and then they waited for the show to start.

The squirrels got there first, but it didn't take long for some birds to come swooping in. A couple of ducks headed over, and then the seagulls showed up to establish their authority. It was turning into a regular ol' donnybrook, and the old guys were grinning ear-to-ear. I thought they were kind of cute.

Claudia's voice cut through my reverie.

"And you're lying to me because..."

I frowned. "What, am I transparent today? You're a mind reader? What?"

She waited patiently. Finally, I gave in. My voice trembled, and I tried to keep it steady. "Simon asked for a divorce." My eyes started to sting, and I looked away.

"When?"

"Last week." I let out a shaky breath. "I called him when I got back from the beach on Friday. I told him...I said that I wanted to work things out. That I still loved him, and that I didn't want to lose him."

I've never been good with expressing feelings, not at all, and it had been hard as hell to open myself up like that, even to Simon. I was more 'show' than 'tell'. It was like I had hung my naked soul out for him to see, and for him to take shots at. It took all my courage to do it.

It had only taken one shot to break my heart.

My face crumpled, and I waited until I could speak again. "He...he said that he couldn't...care less."

Claudia made a small sound of sympathy.

"He said...that he'd moved on. That there was someone else. He said that..." My voice caught, and I paused for a moment. "He said that it was time we filed for divorce." I set my coffee down and wiped at my eyes. We were both quiet for a moment.

Then Claudia said, "I saw Simon on Friday night, actually. He and his 'friend' were at the same bar as Alan and I."

I frowned, sniffed. "And you were going to tell me this when?"

She frowned back. "This morning, actually. Then we got called away. I didn't want to tell you last week. I didn't want to ruin your weekend." She hesitated, then added, "I can't say for certain, but...he didn't look happy, Lucie. He seemed rather depressed. I didn't speak to him. I didn't want to. He saw us, and he waved, but we ignored him. I think that may have hurt his feelings."

I nodded, and downed the rest of my coffee in one gulp. It was still a bit too hot, and burned my throat, but I didn't care. "So, who's the lucky lady? Or do you think I could guess?"

She sighed. "You'd guess correctly. Just as you suspected, months ago."

I grimaced. "What a cliche. When did Simon get so stupid?"

"The assistant and the boss. Indeed. Very stereotypical."

I seethed. "I knew - I just knew - the first time that Simon accused me of running around on him, that little Miss Taylor was behind it. Skank."

"And it was her business why?"

I made a disgusted noise. "Oh, apparently she had seen me out partying with the gang after work. 'Partying' and 'running around' meant the same thing in her empty little head, and she went running to Simon right away. It was none of her damned business, but I guess she decided to make it her business. Skank." I shook my head. "You know, the first time I met her, I could practically see the words 'agenda' and 'marriage wrecker' written all over her perfect little face. And of course she set her sights on my husband. Who wouldn't? I can't blame her for that, anyway."

Seriously, my husband was a hottie. Four years older than me, tall, very nicely toned. He sort of looked like a longer-haired, blonde version of Dirty Harry. Yum. Although, in my wifely opinion, Simon was so much hotter. Much hotter. And, what was probably the clincher for little Miss Skank, was that huge trust fund he'd inherited from his parents. Simon was pretty well off financially, and didn't actually need to work for a living. He just liked to keep busy.

I shifted restlessly, and leaned back against the headrest. "You know," I mused, "It's a good thing that I'm not the jealous type. Simon's been turning heads since I met him, and he's just gotten better-looking over the years. Mileage has definitely been his friend." A thought struck me. "I wonder if Skank will agree to the same pre-nup that I insisted on?"

I referred to the document that gave me absolutely zip in case of a divorce. Funnily enough, that had been one of our biggest arguments. Simon hated the idea of a pre-nup, and I wouldn't marry him without it. I'd won that argument after threatening to cancel the wedding. One of the very few arguments I've ever won with that man. I've been told that I'm as stubborn as a jar with a rusted lid, but Simon's got this...this...way. I don't know how he does it, but I can never seem to say 'no' to him. And don't think he doesn't know it. He knows it, all right, and he uses it. Devious creature. Oh well. There are worse things, I suppose. Like being apart from him. That one's real high on the Crap-O-Meter. Near the top, in fact. I suppressed a sad little sigh.

"I doubt it," Claudia said, her voice snapping me out of Sad Land. "I hope he's appreciated the fact that you didn't marry him for his money."

"Me, too." I took a deep breath, blew it out. "Oh, well. I'll talk to him again. If he's..." My throat closed up, and I waited until I could speak. "If he's...happy...then I'll step aside." No matter how much it tears me apart to do so.

Claudia finished her coffee, then said, thoughtfully, "But what about you? You won't be happy. What will you do?"

"Don't go there. I can't think about it."

"Maybe you and Orr..."

"No," I interrupted, gently. "We're just 'friends with benefits'. Nothing more. He's got his own issues to deal with. Besides, Orr's a great guy. He deserves better than to be second choice."

Claudia was silent for a moment. She seemed to be weighing her words. The old guys got up and strolled off. The birds and squirrels had disappeared, the bread crusts were gone, and it was getting late. Time to get back to work, I guess.

Abruptly, Claudia said, "But how do you feel about Orr? Because I think you're wrong. I think he cares for you very much."

I smiled. "I care for him, too. He's really something. But he's not Simon. And he can do a lot better than me. Maybe someone a bit closer to his age, even? He's messing around in cougar territory, you know. Maybe even T-Rex territory..."

Claudia shook her head disbelievingly, but said nothing. After a moment, she said, "Let's take a little walk around the pond, stretch our legs for a bit."

"Sure." It was too nice to stay indoors anyway. The sun was hot overhead, streaming through the trees. Unbelievably beautiful. I'm a bit of an outdoors-junkie, have I mentioned that yet? I tried to get outdoors whenever I could. I hoped we weren't running late, though I doubted it was lunchtime yet. No one had called, so I guessed they didn't need us back at the station right this minute.

We wandered around, kicking at leaves, and then we sat on a crooked stone bench beside the pond. I gathered a few fairly flat rocks and methodically flung them with sideways throws, to see how many I could skip. Used to be pretty good at that when I was a kid. My first throw pissed off a swan near the center of the pond, and sank after three pretty weak skips. Guess my technique wasn't what it used to be.

"Lucie?"

"Mmm?" I skipped another stone, this time falling short of two skips. Jeez. Pathetic.

"I want an honest answer this time. Are you okay?"

I turned and met her concerned gaze. The park was quiet, peaceful, and Claudia, with her golden coloring, blended in nicely against the fiery foliage in the background. "As good as I'm gonna be, I guess. Why?"

"Well, we didn't hear from you at all last week."

"Hey, I messaged you." I untied my ponytail, shook my hair out, and retied it. I dropped the rest of the stones into the water. Tucking my hands into the pockets of my hoodie, I stood, and we started walking again. Some fat pigeons looked disappointed when they saw that we weren't going to feed them.

"Just to say that you were busy and that you'd see me when you got back."

"Which was true."

She gave me a look. "Luce."

"No, I'm fine." I yawned and stretched. "I spent the week hiking along the coast. And going for long drives all over the place. It was awesome. You should try it sometime. I had the music cranked up, and I sang along at the top of my lungs. Stopped at a million or so seafood shacks. Gorged myself on lobster and fried clams. I even found a place that had poutines rapees. Ever try those? They're amazing." I smiled. "I wish Simon had been with me. He'd have had a blast."

"That sounds fun."

"Yeah. It was a great vacation. Friday night, when I got home from a good, long beach hike, I called Simon. After that...well, I didn't feel real sociable. I'm sure you can understand."

"I'm sorry, Lucie." And she meant it. I could tell.

"Don't worry." I smiled, sadly. "You know what the really pitiful thing is?"

"What?"

"He still loves me."

Claudia gave me a careful look, disbelief and curiosity simmering in those tea-colored eyes. "What makes you think that?"

I grinned a little. "Because I know Simon. If he doesn't care about someone, he's polite, and professional. I've seen him that way with one of his older brothers, the one he can't stand. But if he gets mad, or nasty, it's because he cares and he's pissed. He has to really care to get as pissed off and vicious as he was the other night. Of course, I could just be pathetically hopeful..."

She didn't say anything for a long moment. Then she shrugged. "Well, as I said, he really didn't look very happy at the bar."

"Maybe because he'd probably just gotten off the phone with me."

She frowned a little. "No...I don't think that was it." Claudia looked hard at me. "He barely spoke to that ska- I mean, that woman. He barely made eye contact with her. If I had to make a guess, I'd say he was - not angry, so much - as uninterested. Of course, I can't be sure..."

I grinned. "In other words, maybe we're both being pathetically hopeful." I felt unreasonably cheerful all of a sudden. And hungry. "Well, we'd better get going. Get a leg up on this weird case. Feel like grabbing some lunch first? The briefing's not till two."

"Sure." We ambled along the leaf-strewn gravel path until we reached the car. We climbed in, and I let the spiffy new guidance system back me out onto the road. Traffic was getting heavier now, and I sort of nosed my butt into the lane.

Claudia gave me a curious look. "Weird case? Why do you say that? It seems fairly open-and-shut to me, Luce."

"Really?" I glanced at her. "Feels like anything but."

"Oh no. Not those famous instincts of yours." She said this with a half-teasing, half-serious groan.

"Yep. Sorry."

It had taken just one or two cases with Simon, before we both realized that I had a fantastic gut instinct for detective work. Myself, I thought it was cool, and very useful. But I was pretty tired of people giving me a hard time because of it.

Not that I believe in this stuff, but my astrological sign, Pisces, was apparently noted for having phenomenal instincts. Just as Simon's sign, Cancer, could be considered really difficult to deal with. Unless one was a Pisces, because apparently Pisces and Cancer were astrological soul mates. Like I say, not that I buy into this stuff, but at this point, I'd take any little bit of help I could get, and I'm not above emailing Simon with our astrological soul mate stuff. Orr was a Scorpio, and apparently that was pretty good, too.

I shot a warning glance at a car full of teens with the music blasting. They promptly lowered the volume, and I could see seatbelts being snapped into place. I glared for a second or two, until they drove ahead.

"You know, there is something odd that I've been thinking about."

"Like what?" I kept my eye on the kids until they turned down a side street. Debated following them, then decided against it.

"Well, it is that you rarely see such incidents, as this morning's, around here. Indigo is a very low crime, low violence type of

region."

No shit. That might be why I'm so effing bored, I thought, but didn't say aloud. Instead, I just said, "Oh, right...?"

"But something similar happened on Saturday afternoon."

"Why were you working Saturday?"

"Alan was catering a wedding. I was bored."

"Oh." At the mention of his name, I abruptly turned down a side street, toward Alan's restaurant. He did an express lunch service that was amazing. I had visions of flame-broiled chicken breast, smothered in his famous mushroom and sea-scallop sauce, with sweet potato fries, hot jalapeno cornbread... Claudia realized where we were heading, and she grinned.

"Yes. Anyway, a young man - well, a teenager, actually - was at home Saturday afternoon, with his family. He was in his room relaxing, when he began acting much like that teacher did this morning. He went berserk, no reason or warning. He started screaming that his family was 'out to get him', that everyone was 'after him'. Very odd. They were able to subdue him before he could do any real damage, but the neighbors called the police. There were no charges pressed, although he did do some damage to the house. His family is taking care of it."

"Why were you on that call?"

"As I say, I was bored. I just went along for the ride."

I shook my head and chuckled. "That's Indigo for you. Boring. Where in town was it, exactly?"

"The west side."

"Ha. That explains the neighbors calling the cops for a bit of noise. Bunch of busybodies up there."

She rolled her eyes. "You can say that again."

I swung the car into the parking lot, hunted for a space. It was nearly full. "That's seriously weird, Claudia. Especially for Indigo. And the school is on the west side, too."

"Something in the water?"

"Pfft. Yeah. Can you send me the files? I just want to have a look."

"Sure, after lunch."

"If I still have a job," I said, thinking of my journalistic take-down earlier. "Depends how hard I tackled that kid this morning."

"Good point."

~ THREE ~

Overstuffed with that mushroom-chicken stuff and some chocolate mint thing that was so good, my toes were still curled, I lazily drove back to the station, thinking that I could use a good nap right about now. Claudia sat in the passenger's seat with a glazed expression on her face.

"Remember when I introduced you to Alan?"

"Of course," she replied, in a drowsy way.

"You owe me. Big time."

"Of course."

We were both pretty dazed from that huge meal, so neither of us was in a real chatty mood. I cranked up the music to keep us from falling asleep. It took just under two songs to get back to the station. Once we got there, I slipped into my usual parking space, and Claudia heaved herself out to plug the car in.

"Thanks. For everything," I said, meaning our earlier conversation. I knew she'd understand. I should have talked to her sooner. I hated to unload on people, though. I hated explaining myself. The thing was, though, that whenever I talked out my problems with her, it seemed that everything just seemed so much more simple and clear afterwards. Maybe her reasonable, calm demeanour rubbed off during our conversations. She just seemed to make things make sense. I made a mental note to open up more, to stop trying to handle everything on my own. But really, yeah right. Fat chance that I'd stick to that resolution. Truth: I could be my own worst enemy sometimes.

"No problem. Well, Lucie, just so you know, I'm here for you. Alan and I both, of course. With all the chocolate you can eat. After all, we owe you. Big time." She wrapped an affectionate arm around my shoulders and gave me a quick squeeze. "Don't do anything drastic without talking to me first. Promise me."

"All right," I said. I hugged her back, my eyes stinging again. Friends like this didn't come along too often. "Thanks, Sis," I said, using our nickname for each other. "Don't worry. I'm fine."

"I'm sure you are."

"Now, I guess I should go get my ass handed to me."

"Most likely."

Chuckling, we trotted up the stairs and went in the back entrance. We waved a hello to some patrol types just coming up from the basement, and climbed the stairs to the second floor, which held the Detectives' Division. A fancy name for what was basically a big room full of desks.

The city of Indigo wasn't very large, so neither was the police force. The precinct captain was C.J. Hollinson. I had no idea what the initials stood for. Cranky Jerk? Apparently he'd been quite the hotshot, back in the day. I wouldn't know. Couldn't see it, really. I was in NYC at the time. C.J. was only a few years older than I, and I remember him from when I was growing up here. He was one of the big names in local high school football. I think he was a decent sort, way back when, but he was a complete dickhead now. In my own personal opinion, of course. Station gossip had it that he was on his third marriage, and it was going downhill, and that he had a bunch of kids running around. Ugh, that couldn't be much fun. Hell, I couldn't handle one marriage, let alone three.

The good thing for us, though, was that he rarely ventured down from his third floor lair. Overseeing our division was Lieutenant Margherita Cameron, and she was the complete opposite of Captain Dickhead. Professional, approachable, and no slouch in the detecting department herself. She was a pretty good boss. I liked her a lot. Okay, so I kind of envied her, too. I wish I could put clothes together like she could. She had nicely-styled short blonde hair, dark blue eyes, and was perfectly tall. I absolutely envied tall. And I doubt she ever had to check for food stains on her clothes before meeting the press (unlike me). I remember one time a reporter mistook a ketchup smear on my t-shirt for blood, and it took me a good ten minutes to convince him that I wasn't covering anything up. Jeez. Reporters can really piss me off sometimes.

Unlike larger precincts, the ICPD only had detectives, not specific designations such as homicide, vice, etc. Our cases could (and did) range anywhere from homicidal axe-wielding psychos to finding lost kittens. More kittens than psychos. Seriously boring. But at least I had a desk by a window.

The Detectives' Division, as I've mentioned, is a very large, airy sort of room. It takes up half the second floor, in fact, and has those nice old-fashioned high ceilings and tall windows. Hell to heat in the wintertime. Hard to keep cool in the summertime. I loved it, though.

The briefing room and staff washrooms made up the rest of the floor. The building itself was built during the same era as the school we'd been at this morning, and had much of the same bricky, box-like design. At the far end of the room, a glassed-in office had been built to accommodate the Lieutenant, with window blinds for privacy.

Currently on staff, we had four detectives. No room in the budget for more. Myself, Claudia, and Codie and Riley. If I had to give them labels, Riley was the funny guy who ran the station's bowling teams, and Codie was the army vet type who threw absolutely amazing barbecue parties every summer. Good guys, good to work with. If I wasn't crazy about Indigo, at least I had some great teammates.

On the first floor of the station, all the 'cop stuff' took place. The break room and washrooms were located there, too. And in the basement, there were designated areas for supplies, locker rooms, interrogation, file storage, and the gym. Our shooting range was the next building over. Computer Crimes and the Crime Scene Techs took up most of the third floor, with just a bit of room left over for Hollinson's office.

The precinct itself was located in what used to be the main drag of Indigo, until Alltchip changed the landscape. We were in a pretty, touristy part of town, surrounded by small shops, boutiques, diners, pubs, coffee shops, a bookstore, and even an art gallery. The hotel I was currently calling 'home' was just two buildings down the street. Nice and close.

I waved a hello at Codie and Riley, and took a left towards Margherita's office. I knocked on the doorjamb, and peeked around. She was sitting at her desk, flipping through some papers. "Come in, Lucie," she said, after a quick glance.

I wasn't so much worried about getting in trouble, as I was about losing my temper. This wasn't the first time that I would be called on the carpet for smacking someone.

I slipped in and stood before her desk, waiting. Behind her, several potted plants (courtesy of me) vied with books for shelf space. Light breezes flowed in through the open window.

She looked great as usual today, in a tailored pantsuit and a dark blue tank top that set off her eyes. I wished I had her pulled-together-ness. Hell, I felt that I was dressed up when my hoodie and jeans didn't have too many holes and stains.

I glanced down. At least my sneakers matched. One day I'd worn two different ones, by mistake. No one had said a thing. Kind of sad, really. Everyone was so used to me being a total slob that they'd probably assumed I'd done it on purpose. Thankfully (and obviously), we didn't have a dress code.

And bang, right out of nowhere, my mind flashed back to mornings when Simon and I would be sitting in our car, just before going to work at the NYPD. He used to pull my hair out of its ponytail, and he'd patiently run his fingers through the tangled mess. He'd retie the ponytail, much neater than before, and his long, strong fingers would gently tuck any loose strands back behind my ears. His blue-grey eyes, normally so serious, would study me warmly for a moment, and his lips would tilt up at the corners, almost unconsciously. And then he'd give me a soft, lingering little kiss, just at the corner of my mouth. Every morning.

Oh my God, I missed that so much.

Margherita's voice snapped me out of my happy place.

"You took out another journalist this morning, I see."

I nodded. "Trespassing at a crime scene."

She sighed. "Sit down."

I sat.

She studied me. "And no one else could stop him? You had to do a full flying tackle?"

"Yes," I said. "I was the closest."

Her lips tightened. "Why?" I could tell she was exasperated. "Why a tackle? And an arrest? Why not just a warning?"

"So he won't do it again. And trust me, Lieutenant, he knew he was trespassing. He ducked under the tape and ran around, snapping pictures like his life depended on it. He knew he wasn't supposed to be there." I shrugged. "He just didn't give a shit. They all know they won't get in any kind of trouble." My voice was bitter.

She made an impatient sound. "It's going to cost you. He's agreed not to press charges of police brutality, and not to sue, if we drop the trespassing charges. And if we - by 'we', I really mean 'you' - buy him a new camera. He doesn't want his insurance rates to go up."

"And he wants to stay on our good side."

"That, too."

"Fine." I'd expected worse, to be honest. "So..."

Margherita cut me off, irritated now. "When is this going to stop? When are you going to get yourself under control? Your anger issues..."

"Probably the day that one of them stumbles into something that they shouldn't be stumbling into, and gets themselves shot and killed," I snapped, interrupting her. "And when that happens, we're going to be facing some pretty awkward questions, don't you think? Along the lines of, "Why didn't we crack down harder on these twits when they trespassed before?" And it's not fair that it'll be you and I taking the crap for it, when it ultimately comes down to Hollinson's lack of backbone. He tells us we have to put a stop to their nonsense, so we take a stand, and then he countermands us, and then people get hurt. It's ridiculous!"

Well. So much for not losing my temper.

Margherita started to say something, and I cut her off again.

"Lieutenant, we're all only as strong as our weakest link, and if this precinct isn't willing to stand behind its officers in enforcing the law, then sooner or later, someone really is going to get hurt. All we're doing is training these people how to get around the rules. What if it's one of us who is injured or killed trying to save some idiot reporter who is breaking the rules for the tenth time, because he or she's gotten away with it nine times before? How the hell do we explain that to the families afterwards?"

I paused, mostly because I was out of breath, but also because I realized that I had jumped to my feet; and, while I wasn't exactly yelling, I sure as hell wasn't whispering. People were staring. Yup. Way to handle the temper.

"Sit down, Lucie!"

Feeling bad now, I sat. But I wasn't done.

"Lieutenant, sitting or standing won't change what I'm saying to you. It's time that the Captain starts backing us up when we try to do our jobs, to do exactly what he's ordered us to do. It's frustrating and unprofessional, and frankly, I'm fed right up with it. If making a point costs me the money to buy that little bastard a new camera, then fine. But you people need to start listening. Someone's gonna get hurt, and you know it. It's just a matter of time."

I leaned back in my chair and folded my arms. I continued, in a softer tone. "I'm sorry for throwing a fit here, Margherita. You don't deserve to have me dump on you, but someone has to start leaning on Hollinson. I'd be happy to do it, but I don't have any authority. I guess that leaves you." I grinned. "Unless you'd be so kind as to authorize me?"

She shot me a look. "Absolutely not," she said, firmly. She knew me too well. Then she shook her head. "You need help, you know that? Anyone else would be cracking the disciplinary whip on you. I've been letting you get away with too much. This really needs to stop. Now."

I stared her down. "You know I'm right." The words, useless as they ultimately were, hung in the air between us.

She sighed. "Your opinions are...not wrong. But your actions are. What's it going to take to get it through to you?"

"Are you going to do anything about Hollinson?"

Her shoulders slumped. "I'll talk to him, yes. Again. For all the good it will do."

"I'm sorry," I said, meaning it. "I know it's useless. Can't we go over his head?"

She frowned, and I realized that I was being unfair. Who was I to ask her to risk her own job? Sighing heavily, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. "This place is driving me fucking nuts. I'm serious. It really is."

We were both quiet for a couple of moments. Neutral territory. Then, Margherita said quietly, "I can arrange for counselling, Lucie."

I grimaced. "Not again. It was a waste the first time."

"Give it a chance. For real, this time," she urged.

I sighed huge, shook my head, and stood up. "Don't worry about it. Everything's fine. I'll try to be a good little girl." She made to interrupt, but I continued. "Briefing at two, if that's all right. I've got to get back to work."

Margherita studied me for a long moment, then nodded. "All right. But get it together, Lucie. I'm watching you. And you're running out of chances." She rubbed her forehead tiredly. "Any loose ends on this morning's incident, or is it open-and-shut?"

"Lots of loose ends, actually."

"Really?" Surprised.

No, not really, but I wasn't letting this one drop until I knew the 'why' behind the 'what'. That's a little quirk of mine. Of course I've seen senseless violence in my time. But this one just didn't feel right to me.

"Yeah, absolutely," I said, hoping I wasn't lying. "See you at two. And let me know about that kid's camera."

"I'll do that." Margherita turned back to her notes. Conversation over.

I let myself out, and returned to my desk, feeling three pairs of eyes watching me curiously.

I sat down, and slumped my head down to rest on my hands. I hated being a bitch. She was right, though. I needed something. Not counselling - I'd tried that, and it had been a huge waste of time. So what, then? A break? I'd just had a week off.

Maybe - and I hated to finally admit this to myself -maybe I was finally at the 'walking away' point.

After all, I didn't want to be here, in Indigo. I only came back here because Simon wanted to move here. If he and I weren't going to be together, then why was I making myself even more miserable?

Maybe I'd call him again tonight. Maybe it was time to settle things, once and for all.

Invigorated with a new feeling of purpose, I sat up, and shuffled through some papers and stuff on my desk. As I moved a pile of magazines, an envelope fell out and landed face up on my desk. My heart sank.

"Oh, no," I groaned. I grabbed a pair of rubber gloves out of my desk drawer, slipped them on, and carefully held the envelope up for inspection.

Addressed to my maiden name, Lucie Grace. Just like the others. How the hell had it gotten past the front desk? They'd been told to watch for these. Maybe I should tell them to flip through magazines, too.

The envelope was light green and nearly square-shaped, just like the kind of envelope used to mail greeting cards. The other envelopes had been the same type, but different colors. I wondered if the sender was stealing them from greeting card stores.

The Massachusetts postmark didn't mean much. The other ones had all been posted from various parts of New England, with no discernible pattern other than the fact that they were all within a day's drive. My inner gut was telling me that the perp was located nearby, and was going to a lot of trouble to post these from different locations.

The flap was taped shut, which, again, was just like the others. There would be no DNA, if this one followed to pattern. Whoever was sending these was very, very careful. Unfortunately.

I took a pair of scissors, and carefully cut the side of the envelope open. I shook it carefully. As with the others, a photograph fell out and landed, face up. My breath caught in my throat.

It was a naked arm, from the wrist to just below the shoulder.

"Another one."

I hadn't heard Claudia come up behind me.

"Yeah," I said, my voice a bit unsteady. "Can you call the CS boys? And Margherita?"

She darted off. Delicately, I lifted the photo by the edges, and carried it into the briefing room. I should have waited for the CS Techs, but I couldn't. This whole thing creeped me out way too much.

We had a corkboard set up behind the door, since this wasn't exactly an active investigation. We weren't sure what the hell it was. Copies of the previous five photos were pinned to the board. CS had the originals. I held the image up. Perfect fit.

"Another one?" Margherita's crisp voice cut through my fog, reassuringly. I hadn't heard her approach. "What part is it this time?"

"Arm," I said, still holding the photo up. Behind her, a CS Tech named Eric entered the room, collection stuff in hand.

Six photos in all, now. They'd started arriving at the station about two months ago.

They were shots of a woman's body, or so we assumed. Looked female, anyway. She appeared to be naked, and restrained, face down, on a surface of some sort. The surface was covered with a red blanket. The woman was bruised in places, and was covered with welts, as though someone had whaled into her with a leather belt. The restraints bit into her skin, but she didn't seem to be struggling. I didn't think she was dead, though.

The first photo that had arrived was of her right foot. Second, her calf, from ankle to knee. Third, knee and thigh. Fourth, right buttock and hip. Fifth, part of her waist and right hand. The new photo showed a bit more waist and most of the arm. These pictures made me sick to my stomach. I didn't know why. Just...I don't know. I had a real bad feeling about them.

"Is this it?" Eric, tall and loose-limbed and smart-alecky, held out the collection bag for me to drop the photo in. "Where's the envelope?"

"On my desk."

He went to pick it up for analysis. They'd find nothing, just like before. The photos were being printed on a home printer, not a commercial one, so there was no way to trace their origin. No notes, no nothing. We had no idea who the woman was, or why they were being sent to me. And why use my maiden name? Someone from my past, maybe? I'd gotten Simon to send my old high school yearbooks to my hotel room for me to look through, but I just couldn't peg anyone that I knew as being this weird. Of course, it might have been a complete stranger.

Or it might not even be someone from Indigo at all. I mean, I'd worked for the NYPD for thirteen years before I married Simon. And it seemed a heck of a lot more likely that I had unknown enemies in New York than I did here in Indigo.

The information sheet posted with the photos was nearly blank. We didn't have anything, really. Hell, we didn't even have proof that a crime had been committed. The bondage might have been consensual. But I doubted it.

Just to be safe, I'd called NYPD and gotten a list of all my previous cases, anything that I'd been involved in, especially before I'd gotten married. There was nothing that stood out. But I still had a weird feeling that I knew exactly what this was about. It was driving me nuts. Even the Feds were keeping an eye open. We'd sent copies to them, and they couldn't find anything.

"Well," Margherita sighed. "We'll pass this on to the FBI, too. We may as well get back to work." She patted my shoulder. "Don't worry, Lucie. There's nothing we can do for now."

I nodded. "Anything come back yet?" I was referring to the mass emailing we'd done to cop shops across the country.

"Nothing. Sorry."

Margherita returned to her office, and we wandered back to our desks. I still had a few minutes before the briefing, so I plugged my PC into the touchscreen. "Claudia?"

"Yes?" Her desk faced mine. We'd pushed them together. It was handy for gossip sessions, and gave me a chance to push some of my potted plants over on to her side to make room for any new ones. She always pushed them back. It was a jungle in here.

"Any word from the hospital yet?"

"Not yet." She gave me a mischievous little grin. "Why don't you call them? Make yourself useful?"

She was trying to tease me, get me out of my bad mood. "Yeah, I'll do that," I said, summoning up a weak little smile for her benefit.

"How did it go with the Lieutenant?"

"Slap on the wrist. I've got to buy the little prick a new camera, though."

Claudia shook her head disgustedly and went back to her notes. We shared the same opinion on the matter. She didn't tackle people, though. That was probably the difference. I sighed, and reached for my cell phone.

"Indigo, Maine. General Hospital," I said softly into the phone's connect feature. A moment later, I heard the ring tone.

"Detective Lucie Nickerson, ICPD," I identified myself to the pleasant voice on the other end of the line. "I'm looking for information on a Tina Cogg, who was admitted this morning."

"One moment, please."

A curt voice picked up. "Dr. Boudreau speaking."

"Hi, Doctor. I'm Detective Lucie Nickerson, ICPD. I'm calling for an update on the condition of Tina Cogg, who was brought in earlier -"

"She's heavily sedated," he snapped, interrupting me. "You could have gotten that information from your policemen guarding her room. We'll let you know when she's ready for questioning. Good day." Click.

Why are we always the bad guys? I wondered, staring blankly at the phone. We're all on the same side. Why can't we just play nice?

"What news?"

"He hung up on me."

Claudia snorted. "How rude."

"No shit."

"What did he say?"

I rolled my eyes. "She's all doped up, don't call us, we'll call you." I shook my head. "We're not the bad guys, you know. We really aren't." I leaned back in my chair and folded my arms. I could really use another coffee.

"Of course we're not," Claudia said, absently, and keyed some more. My touchscreen lit up. "Here are the files from Saturday's incident. Have a look and tell me if anything activates your famous intuition."

"Thanks, Sis." I keyed up the files for viewing.

Alex LaForge, age 18, senior Indigo West Side High School. I scrolled down. No priors, no previous issues. He'd been at home, relaxing with his family on Saturday afternoon. He'd been in his bedroom, when suddenly he burst into the living room, freaking out, attacking his family and screaming that they were 'out to get him' and 'plotting against him'.

Well, that was interesting.

My nose twitched. Of course, it could be a coincidence. But if there was one thing that Simon had nagged...er, taught... me never to buy in to, it was coincidence.

Luckily, Alex had been subdued before anyone had been seriously hurt. The neighbors had called the police. No charges were laid. His explanation had been that he was tired and under stress.

Possible...but.

I wondered if I could get a chance to talk to him. He'd still be in school right now, but maybe I could call him later. I was pretty curious about this.

I was still sitting at my desk half an hour later, in my 'thinking' pose, when Orr showed up and placed a steaming coffee before me. The office was empty. Claudia was conferring with Margherita, and Codie and Riley were nowhere to be seen. Quiet. I smiled up at Orr.

"Sweet. Thanks."

"Sorry to wake you from your nap." He grinned.

"Piss off."

"Love you, too. Ready for the briefing?"

"Yeah, more or less." I straightened up, and gave him an appreciative once-over. He was one fine-looking man. "Well, let's go."

We crossed the hall to the briefing room, where three long tables formed a horseshoe shape. There was enough table space to seat about seven or eight people comfortably, and more could be added.

At the open end of the horseshoe, a large touchscreen dominated the wall. It was the same as the one back at the school, minus the blood spatters. A podium stood at the left, beside the monitor, and a large wooden desk and beat-up old chair were situated on the other side. Floor cabinets were set along one wall, and doubled up as a small kitchen-type of space. That's where we kept our coffee maker, a small fridge, and a microwave.

Orr and I weren't late, but we were the last ones to arrive.

"Everyone here?" I asked, setting my coffee and notepad down. "Is Captain Hollinson joining us?"

"He's busy," Margherita replied. "We'll give him a recap later."

"Of course he's busy," I snipped, before I could stop myself. Margherita shot me a warning glance, but I felt like doing a little dance. He rarely attended briefings. What the hell did he do all day, anyway? At least we'd be able to conduct this briefing without his pointless arguments.

Margherita sat directly facing the monitor. Claudia and Branden sat to her right, and Codie and Riley were sitting to her left. I wondered why they were here.

"Slow day, boys?"

Riley grinned. "Surprised?"

I smiled and shrugged. "No, not really."

Codie said, "We're gonna take a quick minute to discuss the Picture Lady, if you're okay with that."

Oh. "Sure, of course."

Orr sat down next to Claudia, and I stood up at the podium, to get the ball rolling.

"Hey, everyone. I know we're here about the two homicides that took place this morning, but let's start off with an update about the Picture Lady," I said, using the unofficial nickname we'd given the group of photos. I gestured toward the door. "Could someone close that, please, so we can see the photos?"

Branden jumped up and pushed the door closed. The new picture was already posted.

"We received another photo today," I said. "The one at the top, showing the lady's arm. That's one photo per week, so far."

Codie held up a hand. "Actually, Lucie, we didn't get one last week."

"Oh. That's odd. I wonder why not?"

Codie frowned. "I was thinking maybe it was because you were on vacation last week."

A chill ran down my back, and everyone looked a bit uncomfortable. I met Orr's worried look with one of my own. I'd told him about the photos right from the start, and he knew how much they upset me. My mouth actually went dry, just like they say in books. This was getting too creepy, and I don't do real good with creepy. I'm a bit more straight-forward.

"Good thinking, Codie," Margherita said. She stood and made a note on the information sheet beside the photos. "Lucie, be on guard. Whoever is sending you these pictures apparently knew that you weren't here last week. I don't like the implications of that. Regardless where these envelopes are coming from, it's possible that the perp is observing you."

I tried to say something, but I guess my mouth wasn't working just yet.

"Of course, the observation could be electronic," Riley interjected. "We should have your place swept for bugs."

"Good, Riley. Can you handle that? Lucie, if you don't mind?" Margherita sat down again.

"I don't mind," I said, in a hollow sort of voice.

"Good." Margherita looked worried. "Luce, I want you to stay around people as much as possible. We don't know what's behind these pictures, but I don't want you alone and vulnerable. Stay armed."

I nodded.

"I doubt Lucie's in any danger yet," Codie said, leaning back in his chair. "The perp's had a couple of months to do something, if he or she wanted to. We still don't know what's really going on. Hell, maybe it's some kind of kinky come-on. But the overall picture's a long way off from being complete. I'd say we're due to get a few more pics before anything happens." He shrugged. "Just my opinion."

"Okay," Margherita said. She jotted a few notes on her notepad. "Good ideas. Follow up on that. Any thoughts, anyone?"

No one said anything else.

"Okay. See me if any of you have any more ideas. Now. Today's incident, Lucie?" Margherita gave me a reassuring smile.

"Right." I took a deep breath. "At eight-twenty-four this morning, Officers Orr Harrison and Stephen Keelor responded to a nine-one-one call from Indigo West Side Elementary School."

"They secured the scene and took the perpetrator, second grade teacher Tina Cogg, into custody. When backup arrived, the crime scene was being analyzed by the technicians, and the grounds were sealed off by backup. The perp was sent by ambulance to Indigo General for assessment. She is currently under police custody at the hospital, and according to the doctor, heavily sedated. She'll be unavailable for question for an undetermined period of time. When Claudia and I arrived, everything was proceeding properly. Orr?"

He gave me a little smile as he stood and made his way up to the podium. I sat down where I'd be able to watch him clearly. I really liked to look at him, I'll admit it. His uniform fit him real nice. Orr began to speak in that sexy, soft, deep voice of his.

"We responded to the nine-one-one call, and we were first on the scene. We called for backup before we reached the school, knowing that so many people on the premises would need to be controlled, and the two of us couldn't do it all by ourselves."

"When we arrived, the school had been evacuated. The students were all assembled on the front lawn. The school principal took us to the classroom where three teachers were restraining Ms. Cogg. With difficulty, I have to add. She's small, but her agitated state lent her considerable strength."

"Stephen Keelor directed the EMTs and backup in securing the crime scene. The perp was taken into custody and escorted to the hospital. Prior to this, the EMTs attempted to provide CPR to the two victims, but they were already deceased." Orr sighed, then continued.

"I stayed inside to supervise the Crime Scene Technicians. The school is closed for today, while cleanup is taking place. All reports and statements have been filed." Orr paused. "Any questions?"

No one had any. Margherita said, "Thank you, Officer Harrison. Well done. Lucie?"

"Yes. One minute." My cell phone buzzed, and I recognized the name on the display. "It's the hospital. I've got to take this." The room went silent, and I tapped my phone. "Lucie Nickerson."

"Miss Nickerson? Dr. Boudreau here." He sounded excited.

"Yes, Doctor?"

"Just something I thought you might find interesting. Preliminary scans show some unusual discrepancies in Tina Cogg's brain activity. They may be new, or they may be unique to her, although I suspect not. The scans have been sent for analysis."

Wow. "Doctor, that is interesting, very much so! Have you any theories?"

His tone became annoyed. "Of course not. I'll let you know as soon as I have any more information for you."

"I see. Thank you very much, Doctor. Any idea when -"

"No. Good day to you." Click.

"He did it again," I murmured, staring at my phone. Across from me, Claudia chuckled, and I met her amused look. "He hung up on me again."

"He must like you," she teased. "Why was he calling?"

"He...this is interesting. Preliminary scans show some sort of discrepancy in Tina Cogg's brain activity. The scans have been sent for analysis. Don't call him, he'll call us."

Margherita shot a glance at me. "Intriguing. Is she able to be questioned yet?"

I snorted. "Not yet. That's why he hung up on me." I shook my head. "Cops aren't the bad guys, you know. We're really not."

"Of course we're not," Margherita said. "Well, make a note of that information. Let's continue."

"Yeah. Branden?"

Looking considerably more human now that he'd shed his Crime Scene jumpsuit, Branden pushed his chair away from the table and straightened up. At the touchscreen, he plugged his PC into the linkup and images appeared on the screen.

He touched the monitor, and two side-by-side closeups moved to a prominent position. They were gruesome.

"Okay, then," he began. "This is the crime scene. This here..." He indicated the first small body. "...is Bruno MacLelland, age seven. And this..." He pointed at the next image. "...is Jeff Wyler. Also aged seven." Another touch of a button, and the images were replaced with two standard-type school photos. A lump formed in my throat at the sight of the cute little boys.

Everyone went quiet. Branden continued. "Okay. So, what we've been able to determine is that Ms. Cogg became suddenly violent. According to witnesses, she was in the classroom before class started, drinking a cup of coffee and relaxing. One teacher...a Mr. Justinson...thought she was trying out a new Memory Chip. She'd mentioned picking up a new one over the weekend."

"Wait," I said, nonplussed. "A Memory Chip? In class?"

"Class hadn't started yet."

"Yeah, but students were already there, and..."

"Yeah, Lucie, but you know what? People shouldn't be using Chips in class, or while driving, or while working, but it happens." Bran shrugged. "Everyone does it. I'm just saying."

I shut up. I didn't do any of that stuff, but I was a dinosaur anyway. So Simon often told me.

"According to some of the students," Branden continued, giving me a look, "She seemed grouchy and irritable when they began to file into the classroom. They thought she was talking to them, but she seemed to be talking to herself. At one point, she became agitated, and spilled her coffee all over herself and her desk. Apparently she didn't seem to notice. I don't know how she wouldn't, but you can even see on the surveillance videos that she's oblivious to it."

"Little Bruno went to see if she was all right, and he grabbed some tissues to mop up the mess." Branden paused, and rubbed his forehead with his hands for a second. He took a deep breath, and continued. "Video surveillance shows what happened next. She became...aware...of Bruno's presence. She...uh...grabbed him, and smashed him, head-first, into the wall. He appeared to be rendered unconscious by the blow. She dropped him to the floor, and when Jeff Wyler ran forward to help him, she slammed her fist down on the back of the boy's neck. He went down like a rock. She then...Jesus." He paused for a moment. "She grabbed this desk..." The image changed to show an ordinary school desk, battered and smeared with blood. "And she used it to...to beat the kids to a pulp. Literally. She crushed their skulls."

The room went absolutely silent.

I had goosebumps running up and down my spine.

Orr's face crumpled, and I reached out to squeeze his hand. No one said anything for a few moments. How the hell could anyone do such a thing? No matter how long I'd been doing this job, I just couldn't get my head around some things.

Branden's deep voice broke the silence.

"We're checking the contents of Ms. Cogg's coffee mug, testing for drugs, of any sort. We've got her purse and there are officers collecting personal possessions from her home. She lives with her mother and younger sister. They're being interviewed." He paused, then asked, "Any questions?"

"Yeah, Bran?" I raised my hand. "How...was it an adrenaline rush, or what? I mean, how was she strong enough to slam things around like that, including lifting the desk up and slamming it up and down repeatedly? Drugs? What?" I hesitated, then said, "What could cause this? And the altered brain activity? Could it be related? Any idea?"

Bran shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine, at this point. We just don't have enough information yet. Adrenaline rush, sure, why not? That would account for the sudden surge of strength. We just need the reports from the hospital."

"To find out how to proceed, yes." Margherita stood. "Excellent work, everyone. And I guess that's that, then. We'll just wait on the hospital..."

I raised a hand. "I don't think this is as simple as it seems."

Everyone looked at me with varying degrees of resignation. They were used to my whacked-out ideas by now (I preferred to call them 'hunches'). But that didn't mean that everyone liked those ideas. It usually meant a lot of extra work. On the plus side, though, my hunches were usually right. Mostly.

"Lieutenant, there was a similar incident earlier this weekend. I have a feeling that the two incidents are connected, and I'd like a chance to investigate further. We can't proceed until we've got what we need from the hospital anyway, so if you don't mind..."

Margherita stared at me for a few seconds, then sighed. "Fine. As long as it doesn't interfere with anything else that comes in."

"Great. Can I have Claudia's help on this? And Orr's? In their spare time, that is?"

"Sure," she said, rising. "In fact, with those strange pictures coming through the mail, it only makes sense to give you a little extra protection. Orr, I'll speak to your Lieutenant about having you temporarily assigned to this case."

"Sure," he said, his face creasing into a smile. Orr had a stunningly sexy grin at the best of times, and I think I saw Margherita's knees wobble a bit. Couldn't blame her on that.

With a blink, she recovered, and said, "Good briefing, you guys. Get to it. Thank you."

People began to file out of the room. I snagged Branden's arm before he could escape. "Bran, can I have a look at the evidence? And can you dump all your files to my PC?"

"Sure, Luce. You and your 'bodyguard' want to come upstairs?"

I rolled my eyes, and he chuckled. "Shove it," I said. I gathered my stuff and followed Branden upstairs.

I peeked into Captain Hollinson's ridiculously-organized office as we passed by. He was tapping away at his touchscreen, a frown of concentration on his still-handsome face. His dark hair and moustache were salted with grey, but he still had a firm jawline and piercing dark eyes. Fit and trim in his dark uniform, he looked a lot younger than he was. Almost like a TV cop. We sure had a lot of good-looking cops in our department. It was enough to make a girl (like me) insecure.

A mischievous urge hit me, and I grinned real huge and waved my arm, leaning through the open doorway. "Hi, Captain!" I called out breezily.

He looked up from the touchscreen, and glared at me. After a second, he gave me a quick nod, then returned to whatever the hell he was doing. Sheesh. Mr. Personality.

In the Crime Scene Department, I wandered around the main area, checking out the pictures and posters on the walls, while Branden prepared the evidence for viewing. It was an interesting area. I studied the barely-comprehensible trade posters, interspersed here and there with posters from Bran's favorite criminal investigation show. I've never seen real Crime Scene Techs dressed like that when on the job. Or should I say not dressed? I've seen girls in Vice who were more covered up. Orr and Claudia stood off to the side, conversing in low voices. Finally, Bran called us in.

There wasn't much. Not that there really needed to be. There was no question of who had committed the attacks. The school's video surveillance system had caught everything.

On the table before us, we examined Bran's offerings. Some bloodied pieces of...whatever. Cogg's coffee mug. Contents of her purse.

"What about her medical history? Any prescription medications?" Claudia asked, flipping through a pile of notes.

"No, nothing. Her health seemed fine." Branden shrugged.

I leaned over the table, snooping through the contents of the purse. They were neatly arranged and labelled. Wallet, keys, a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, PC, sunglasses, tampons. Absolutely ordinary. A small plastic Memory Chip case containing a couple of novels, a concert, a games Chip, a fantasy Chip. Looked like she and I had similar reading and musical tastes. I wasn't into games, though, and the fantasy Chips always seemed somewhat weird.

Simon had a collection of "Wild West" Chips that he liked to indulge in occasionally. Fantasy Alltchips were kind of role-playing daydreams. I'd tried them, but they really weren't my thing. I could use my own imagination, thank you. Although the image of Simon in a cowboy hat and a six-shooter in each hand was kind of sexy...

"Anything?" Orr's sultry voice was right behind me.

"Nah." I straightened, and blushed.

"I've got that concert," he said, pointing to one of the Chips. "It's pretty good."

"Did it make you go all apeshit and homicidal?"

"Um, not yet, no."

"Then it's not the culprit."

Orr chuckled and took my arm. "Ready to go?"

"Yeah. Hey, Bran?"

Branden broke off his conversation with Claudia and turned to me a bit reluctantly. I'd always suspected that he had a crush on her. Of course he did. Every guy in the station did. "Can I have a printout of this?"

"Sure." He pointed to his desk. "There are some printouts at the bottom of that pile."

I grabbed a copy, to compare to the Alex LaForge files. "Thanks, Bran. We're gonna head out. Call me if anything turns up."

"Will do."

We trotted to the stairs. On the way by, I leaned in to Hollinson's office again and gave him another big friendly wave and smile. He curled his lip at me with a dark look.

Orr and Claudia and I returned to the briefing room. "Well, that was a bit of a waste," Claudia said, leaning her butt against one of the tables. "How are you planning to proceed now?"

"I've got a couple of ideas. You guys want to come over to my place tonight for supper? We'll brainstorm."

Claudia shook her head. "If you can spare me, I've got some loose ends from a couple of cases last week to finish up, and I want to do a bit of research on brain activity."

"Good luck with that. Did they do a scan on Alex LaForge?"

"There was no reason to."

"True. I'm gonna give him a call later, see if he can shed any light on things. Orr? You coming over?"

"As ordered." He smiled. "I'll bring pizza. Seven?"

"Yeah, good."

They left, but I stayed in the briefing room for a while, to do some thinking. With everyone gone, it was a good spot to concentrate, but this time it didn't help. I had all kinds of thoughts rolling around, but nothing that made much sense. The only thing I was halfway thinking, even with no evidence to back it up, was that the case was going to be bigger than we guessed.

Looking back now, I wonder. If I'd known just how right I was, just how big this case was, would I have continued the investigation? If I'd known what it would cost me, personally?

I don't know.

~ FOUR ~

About ten to seven, Orr showed up at my hotel room with the promised pizza.

Riley and a Computer Crimes tech named Evan had just left about half an hour earlier, and had pronounced my room "clean". I'm not saying that I rushed them or anything, but I wanted to grab a shower and relax a bit before Orr showed up. Somehow, the thought of showering with those two in the next room just didn't appeal.

"Hey," Orr said, smiling, when I let him in. He gave me a quick kiss and dropped the box on my bed. The heavenly, heavenly smells of cheese and pepperoni filled my hotel room.

"Hey yourself," I said, clearing a stack of files and my PC out of the way, to make room. I dug a couple cans of soda out of the small fridge that was part of the room's non-five-star decor.

This is what I'd been calling "home" for the last few months, and I guess I didn't really mind it, even though it was a bit crappy. It was a second floor unit, with street-facing windows, a comfortable enough bed, a decent enough entertainment console and an okay shower and bath. It was all right for the short term, anyway.

"I read those files you sent me on the LaForge incident," Orr said, flipping open the box. He looked really good tonight, wearing a pair of faded jeans and a soft, slightly-decrepit navy blue t-shirt. He had just the right kind of body for that look, and with that face, he looked like he should be advertising clothes in magazines.

Orr reached over and snagged the roll of paper towels that I kept on the work desk, tore one off, and slipped a piece of pizza onto it. He handed it to me, and I folded the pizza up and nibbled on the corner. I closed my eyes and sighed. I could live on pizza. I pretty much did, actually. Best thing ever. Well, along with anything that Alan served in his restaurant. I guess the thing is, I take all food very seriously. I've always been in love with delicious food. No fake butter for this girl.

I curled up on the bed next to Orr and popped open my soda. "What do you think?"

Orr shrugged, and said, "I don't know. Maybe."

"Just maybe?"

"Luce," he said slowly, "The attacks are similar. I'll give you that. But I didn't see anything to actually connect the two. And what does it matter, anyway? We've got the perp. Tina Cogg was caught on surveillance, babe." He bit off a large chunk of pizza.

"Hmm, yeah, but." I murmured, chewing. "I don't know. But Cogg's not ready to talk yet, and since Cameron's giving me a chance to look into it further, why not?"

Orr watched me carefully. "Tell me again. What makes you think there's anything more to this?"

"Why did Cogg go nuts?"

"No idea."

"The LaForge incident is similar, if not as severe, and it happened just a day or two before the Cogg attack. Same area of town." I shrugged, and grabbed another piece. "I just have a feeling, that's all. I mean, honestly, this is really out of character for this craphole town." I tried not to get irritated, but it was really frustrating when people weren't willing to at least open their minds a little bit. Just because something was different didn't mean it was wrong. I took a big bite and chewed, struck by that thought. I may have just hit on the secret to world peace, there. Different didn't necessarily equal wrong...

Orr shook his head. "The town is growing, babe."

"It's a possibility," I insisted, then added, "You know, just because something's different doesn't mean it's wrong."

Orr cocked an eyebrow. "What's different got to do with anything?"

"This case."

"It's flimsy."

The hell? I felt my temper flare.

"Fine. Don't help me, then. I can do this by myself," I snapped. "Why don't you give me the benefit of the doubt, here? Why can't anyone? For once? You know, Simon always did." Oh, shit, did I really just say that? Shit shit shit...

Orr's face just fell, like I'd smacked him one. I looked away, and he stared at the floor, his face coloring.

After a pretty uncomfortable minute or two, he quietly said, "I'm not Simon, Lucie. Sorry if that's not good enough for you. And I think you're reaching. I'm just helping out because it's a chance to get out of uniform for a bit. And," he added quickly, reaching for me as I turned towards him, "Because I want to be here for you. If you want me."

I looked at Orr, and was almost knocked out by the expression in those beautiful, clear brown eyes. Some guys wear their hearts on their sleeves, some guys hide their emotions, and then there are guys like Orr, whose eyes give away every thought, every feeling. Right now, the affection and concern in them made my knees wobble. Sometimes, he was all I could think about. And until my marriage was settled for one way or another, then all the time, my relationship with Orr was something I shouldn't be thinking about. At all. And that was something I didn't want to deal with, right now.

Why the hell did I let things get this far?

Thinking about it was tiring me out, and my weaker side prevailed. I scooted over, snuggled up, leaned my head against his chest, and closed my eyes. He wrapped his arms around me. We stayed like that for a while. I may have even dozed off.

The buzz of my phone startled me, shockingly loud against the soft background noise of the Red Sox game on the entertainment console. Sox were winning. You know, even when I lived in New York, the Sox were my team. I wouldn't be caught dead cheering for the Yankees. I had some standards, after all.

Orr's arms were heavy and warm around my shoulders, and his soft whisper tickled my ear.

"You gonna get that?"

"Yeah," I mumbled, digging my phone out of my pocket. I managed to lift my head enough to glance down at the small caller display. The station. I tapped it on.

"Nickerson."

"Lucie, hi, it's Corey." The night dispatcher. "You asked me to let you know about any assault calls?"

"Yeah."

"One just came in. Woman named Heather Newmann. Her kid Robyn had some kind of freak out, went nuts, started tearing the place apart." He read the address to me.

"That's the ticket," I muttered, slipping out of Orr's arms and rolling across the bed. I jotted the address down on a notepad that I kept on the nightstand. West Side. Again. "Who's got the call?"

"Michelle. Dan. They called for an ambulance."

Shit. "How serious?"

"Don't know yet."

"Thanks, Corey. I appreciate this." I sat up, swung my legs off the bed and pocketed my phone. "Get dressed," I said to Orr, who was watching me curiously. "There's been another assault." I clicked off the console, and packed up the pizza.

"Why'd they call you?" Orr began to pull his shoes on.

"I asked them to let me know if anything happened, especially on the west side." I grabbed my ICPD windbreaker and matching ball cap. My hair was a mess, and I wasn't in the mood to fuss with it right now.

Orr paused while zipping up his own jacket. "Are you kidding me?"

"Nope."

He shook his head. "You really are reaching, Luce."

I shot him a look. "Whatever. I'd rather try too hard than not enough. You don't have to come with me, you know."

Orr slipped an arm around my shoulders, and dropped a quick kiss on my lips. "Enough with the attitude. You know I'll follow you anywhere."

Oh, again with the conflicting emotions in my gut! I couldn't keep doing this. Men could be a royal pain sometimes.

We walked out to his car. It was another gorgeous night, just cool enough. It was dark out, but the skies were clear, and full of stars.

I wish we didn't have to work. It'd be great right now to go for a drive down to the beach, or out along the back roads. I hadn't done that yet with Orr. He was still such a city boy. I wondered if he'd like it farther out in the boonies.

"Where to?" We climbed inside, and he started the car, and I slipped my seat belt on.

"Fourteen-twenty-five Suffolk. West side," I said wistfully.

With a confused look, Orr backed out of the parking lot and on to the road. "Something wrong?"

"No," I smiled, a small sad smile. "I just wish we could go for a drive or something. It's a nice night."

He smiled back, somehow understanding me perfectly. "Some other night, babe. For sure."

"Maybe a beach..."

"Under the stars. We'll do it." He squeezed my hand, held it for a long moment, and then we drove away.

We raced to Suffolk Street. I've been there before. Nice enough neighborhood, full of cute little bungalows and clusters of townhouses. Wouldn't want to live there, though. It was the kind of area where everyone knew everyone's business, and called the cops if you were too noisy. Still, it wasn't a dump or anything. Just a little too neighbourly for my taste.

The house wasn't hard to find. Mainly because the ambulance out front gave it away. A curious crowd had gathered in front, near the patrol car. Probably the most excitement they'd seen around here in years. Tongues would be wagging over coffee tomorrow morning, I'd bet.

We parked and saw Dan, who was overseeing the scene. He was a big, strong sort of guy, funny as hell, too. They seem to grow them big around here. Probably the clean Maine air and fresh lobster. He waved us over. "Hey, Luce, what's up?"

"Just in the neighbourhood. Dispatch filled me in."

"Michelle's bringing them out."

Orr placed a hand on my arm. "Want me to check things out there?"

"Yeah," I said, looking around. "I'm gonna see what's happening over at the ambulance."

He nodded, and walked towards the house, pausing to reassure anxious (nosy) bystanders.

Beside the ambulance, I could see a young girl, early teens, perhaps. She was crying. An EMT was talking to her. Another girl was strapped onto a stretcher and being loaded on to the waiting vehicle.

Before I reached them, though, I heard a racket behind me. Orr and Michelle were speaking to a tall blonde woman. Michelle had custody of a pretty, dark-haired girl in handcuffs. The girl wasn't struggling, but she was agitated. She was shaking her head, as though she had water in one ear and was trying to dislodge it. It was kind of weird, what she was doing. If she wasn't careful, she'd give herself a kink in the neck.

"Calm down, Robyn, or I'll have to stun you," Michelle snapped.

The woman - her mother, I was guessing - said, "...and she kept hollering about how we were all plotting against her, to leave her alone. That's not like her, not at all. And then she started swinging her hockey stick around. We got hold of the stick, but then she started slamming against things...she pushed the bookcase over, onto my daughter, April..." The mother's pretty face crumpled. "I didn't know what to do...thank God Rose had the presence of mind to call nine-one-one...Rose is my youngest..."

While the mother was talking, Robyn kept shaking her head, her eyes rolling. She was seriously creeping me out. I couldn't stop staring. Finally, her eyes focused on me. I walked over. I held my hands up in a peaceful gesture, slowly so as not to agitate her even more.

"It's okay," I said in a soothing tone. "Calm down. We're going to help you."

Her face contorted. "Take it OUT!"

Michelle turned toward her, a warning look on her face.

"S'okay, Michelle, I've got her," I said, reaching out to the girl.

"Thanks, Lucie," Michelle said, and turned back to the mother. I took Robyn's arm.

"It's okay," I whispered. "Take what out?"

"My Reader!" Robyn whispered, too, in a theatrical kind of way. "The Chip! Please! Take it out! I can't reach it!"

"Okay, okay, calm down, now. Hold still." Cautiously, I reached behind her ear and gently pressed the tiny spring-loaded door set into her skull. It took a couple of tries, but then a small Alltchip tumbled out, and landed in my outstretched palm. Robyn stopped twitching.

"Here, do you want this?"

"NO!" This time she screeched, and heads turned toward us. "No," she hissed. "I don't want it! Get rid of it!" People were openly staring now, but the girl didn't seem to care.

"Shhhh," I said. "It's okay now. You're safe. Relax."

She quieted down, but I kept an eye on her. Just then, an EMT came over. Orr said a few words to him. Michelle, although she looked confused, said, "Lucie, they'll take over now. We're sending Robyn to the hospital for observation."

"Pressing charges?"

"Not yet." She flicked her eyes toward Robyn, then gave me a meaningful look.

"No," Robyn's mother said quickly. "She's just tired."

Mmm, right. And this was all just one big coincidence.

I looked around and noticed that a second ambulance had arrived. The EMTs were walking toward us.

"Okay, good," I said. "Who's riding to the hospital with her?"

"I'll go," volunteered Orr. "I want to check on the Cogg woman, anyway. Take my car, Luce. I'll be over later."

Michelle gave me a look and raised her eyebrows at me, as if to say, You lucky bitch, you! I grinned. "Okay," I said to Orr, then swung around as a thought occurred to me. "Orr! Brain scan!"

"Sure thing."

He and the EMT escorted a much-calmer Robyn to the waiting ambulance. She turned back to me, and I gave her a small smile and wave. Things were pretty much under control by now, but I stuck around for another hour or so, helping out with the crowd and whatnot.

It was fully hours later, back in my room with Orr snoring softly beside me, when I remembered the Alltchip that I'd gotten from Robyn Newmann. I'd forgotten to turn it into evidence. Stupid, stupid!

Carefully, not wanting to wake Orr, I gently rolled out of bed and dug through the pockets of my jeans until I found the tiny Chip.

I padded over to the chair by the window and snuggled into it, using the ambient light from the streetlights to examine the Alltchip. Even though we were downtown, there wasn't a whole lot of activity happening. A few passing cars, a couple of drunks singing off-tune. It was only Monday night, and there wasn't much happening downtown. That was something I still couldn't get used to, having spent the last couple of decades in a city that never seemed to sleep. I missed it pretty bad. Indigo was just too damned quiet sometimes, population increase be damned.

I squinted. It was hard to read the tiny hand-lettered label in the weak light, but I thought it read, "Pirate Adventure, Demo 4/5."

How odd.

As far as I knew, Alltchip had specially-packaged Promotional Chips, but nothing like this. They would never put out anything this unprofessional-looking, at least not that I knew of.

I wondered where Robyn had gotten it. It was setting off my curiosity mode.

I tip-toed back to bed and set the little Chip on my nightstand. I'd look into it tomorrow. For now, I burrowed under the covers and cuddled close to Orr, who snuffled sleepily and wrapped a strong arm around me.

Ever since that night, I've regretted that we didn't do anything more than snuggle. I know I shouldn't, but I do.

Terribly.

~ FIVE ~

Well, I certainly don't know how I dragged my weary old ass into work the next morning, but I managed somehow. I was exhausted. Of course, I've always hated mornings, too. They start too damned early.

I'd hardly gotten any sleep. I'd tossed and turned last night, until finally I gave up, and just and sat in the window chair, reading and re-reading the case files and the notes I'd made on the Robyn Newmann incident.

It was pissing me off that I couldn't find an obvious connection. Gut instinct is hard to prove in a court of law. The funny thing about instinct is that it seems to whisper absolutely sensible things in your ear at three in the morning, when the world around you is sleeping. It seems like you're in your own little magical place, and all the secrets of the universe are just dangling right in front of you, waiting for you to pluck them like juicy little plums and make everything just right. Then, when you barely crawl out of bed at six to get ready for work, doubt sets in and makes you feel like a fool, even though that tiny secret little place deep inside your heart is still hoping that you're right anyway.

Of course, maybe I just needed a good shot of caffeine. Ha. I always needed a good shot of caffeine.

There had to be something, though. There just had to be. The violent crime rate was so low hereabouts that people joked about something in the water. I doubted the water supply was drugged - well, I didn't think it was - but Indigo was a ridiculously mellow town. Three incidents in four days. Not at all normal. Oh, sure, I knew things were changing all over the place, but didn't every generation say the same things about the next generation? The planet had been going to hell in a handbasket for thousands of years now.

Orr had left early, as usual, to shower and change at his own apartment. We both kind of like our space in the mornings, our own quiet time without anyone else around. We usually hooked up afterwards for breakfast, but I'd only gotten back to sleep around four this morning, and had fallen back asleep after the alarm went off. I hadn't even had time to shower. I'd just changed my clothes, threw my hair into a messy ponytail and brushed my teeth quickly. I hoped I didn't have to do any press conferences today.

Yawning, I rested my head on my folded hands atop my desk. If anyone asked, I was thinking, not napping. Margherita and Claudia were quietly conferring on something-or-other, and Codie and Riley had gotten an early start on whatever they were working on. It was nice and quiet in the office. The drive-through breakfast from Mug's of doughnuts and coffee hadn't done much to clear the cobwebs. And I couldn't get these cases out of my head. Three of them now. A connection that I couldn't prove, but one that I was absolutely positive existed. Frustrating as hell.

After all, what did I have? Three unusual, out-of-character attacks. One case of weirdly-altered brain activity. Still hadn't gotten any more information about that. Two of the perps were of the same age, and were, in fact, schoolmates. All three attacks had occurred on Indigo's west side, where it turned out all three perps were residents.

Tina Cogg was what threw off any connection. She wasn't a student at Indigo West Side High. She wasn't in the same age group. If there were any connection between her and the two teens, then... Wait. Maybe there was.

My head shot up so fast that I got a kink in my neck. Didn't Orr say something about a younger sister? I grabbed Tina's case file, flipped through it, and ran my finger down one page until I came to the list of family and associates. There it was. Her younger sister, Donna, who was a student at Indigo West Side High.

Well. It wasn't much, and it wouldn't convince anyone, but the hell with it. It was enough for me to go on. Three schoolmates, three attacks... I needed to talk to these kids.

"Hey, baby."

Orr dropped a soft kiss on the nape of my neck, making me forget about whatever the hell I was supposed to be thinking about. A case or something. I think I might have drooled.

He sat on the corner of my desk and dropped a bag of doughnuts in front of me, along with a large coffee. What a man.

"Morning," I croaked. I tried to remember if I'd put on fresh makeup this morning. Wait, did I even wash off yesterday's makeup? Ugh. "How do I look?"

"Huh?" His beautiful dark eyes studied me, a warm and playful glint in them. He had remarkable eyes. They were big, and bright, even this early. How did he manage that? I found myself staring.

"Do I look like shit?"

"Uh..." He grinned wide. "How do I answer that one without getting in trouble?"

"Never mind," I muttered, digging into the bag of doughnuts.

"Babe, you're always beautiful to me."

I rolled my eyes. "That bad?" I grabbed a maple glazed and munched on it while slurping my coffee. I sounded like a pig. A couple of patrol types passing through shot amused looks at me. I heard them snort once they got past. Nice.

Orr grinned even wider. "Hungry?"

"Caffeine," I rasped around a mouthful of doughnut. "Sugar. Tired."

"I bet. You were up some late last night." He took an almost-dainty nibble of a chocolate glazed. He had great table manners. It made me a bit jealous. I could probably have them, too, if I tried.

"Did I wake you? Sorry about that. I tried to be quiet."

"No problem. I just rolled over a couple of times and saw you sitting up, reading those files." His mouth turned down as he studied me. I guess I must have looked worse than I thought. "Find anything good?"

I swallowed the last bite of pastry. "Maybe. I might have a connection." I belched, and Orr shook his head.

"Oh yeah? What?"

"Alex LaForge and Robyn Newmann are schoolmates, at Indigo West Side High. Tina Cogg's little sister is also a senior there." I raised my eyebrows at him. "It's something."

"Not much." He was watching me in a weird way, as though I was sort of crazy. I suppose I was.

"Better than nothing."

Orr shook his head, and straightened up. He grabbed Claudia's chair and straddled it, rolling it close to mine. Close enough to kiss me if he wanted to. I wanted him to. But we were at work, after all.

The drooping, shiny leaves of the potted peace lily that Simon had given me for my birthday last March flopped in Orr's face, and he pushed them aside impatiently, only to smack the back of his hand into the cactus behind the lily. Oops. I guess maybe I had a few too many plants on my desk. Maybe I should give some away, make a little elbow room. I glanced around the room. Every desk had at least a couple of plants, and every windowsill and flat surface had some, too. All from me. Maybe I'd sneak a couple into Hollinson's office. Did I have anything poisonous lying around?

"Dammit!" Orr pulled his hand away. I could see little red spots from the cactus's spikes. "Ouch," he hissed, shaking his hand.

"Here," I said. "Let me see."

Orr glowered and winced as I held his hand steady and pulled tiny little cactus barbs out of his smooth skin.

"Luce, I have to ask you something. If your attack plants will let me," he added sourly. His voice was low, confidential.

"Okay." I gave him a sleepy sort of smile.

"Last night...I thought I saw you take something from that girl, Robyn. I thought I saw you put something in your pocket." He paused. "Want to tell me about it?"

...oh, right. I was going to end up in a smelly, steaming pile if I didn't handle...

Wait.

Three schoolmates.

Three assaults.

An odd Alltchip labelled "Demo 4/5", when no such Chip should exist, according to Alltchip's own business practises.

Robyn had been frantic to get that Chip out of her Reader. Terrified, almost.

Alex had been using a Chip before he went bonkers.

Tina Cogg's purse had contained some Alltchips.

Holy crap...

Okay, hit the brakes.

It was weak, far-fetched, pathetically so, but my inner gut was doing a little happy dance, and if there was one thing I'd learned in twenty-plus years on the force, it was to pay attention to those happy dances. This might just be the break I was looking for.

Orr was staring at me with a worried expression on his face. I bet I looked kind of strange, just then. "Ouch," he yelped, pulling away.

"Sorry," I said. I hadn't realized that I was squeezing his sore hand. My brain was in a zone.

I could get into serious shit for not turning that Chip into evidence.

But here's the thing. I really, really had to do my own thing, to see what I could find out on my own before I played nice with everyone else. I was sick to death of everyone shooting my theories down, anyway. Simon never did that. I needed a Simon, and I didn't have one anymore.

Well, hell.

My life sucked anyway. May as well do something I want to do, rather than something I have to do. I was gonna get in trouble anyway. What was that old saying, the one my mom used to say? 'May as well get hung for a sheep as a lamb'? I think, for the first time in my life, I actually understood what that meant. When I was a kid, I always thought she was saying "lamp", not "lamb". It made more sense now. Amazing how I could rationalize almost anything.

"Oh yeah," I said, probably not at all convincingly. I couldn't lie worth a pinch. "One of Robyn's wireless ear buds. She said the other one had fallen out, and asked if I could remove it for her. I tossed it."

Orr's eyes bored into mine. "Bullshit," he said.

I ignored that. "What's the news on the Newmann case?"

His mouth tightened, and he folded his arms. "What did you put in your pocket?"

"Nothing."

"Luce..."

Our stalemate was interrupted by Margherita and Claudia, who had just come out of the briefing room. They walked over to where we were sitting, pulled up a couple of chairs, and sat themselves down.

Once again, I was struck by how much they both looked like TV cops, albeit better dressed. Maybe I should try to dress a little better. Maybe wear nicer makeup, do something with my hair...hell, maybe I should just start with brushing my damned teeth on a regular basis.

I remember something my Gramp said to me when I was six years old and I'd broken my arm and collarbone trying to fly. Off the stable roof, mind you. He said, "You is what you is, and you ain't what you ain't. You can't fly like a bird, Lucie-Loo. You fly more like a bumblebee." Took me a long time to figure that one out. Took me a hell of a lot less time to figure out that he was three sheets when he said it. No matter. I liked the thought. It was sort of a compliment. And I think he meant that I was better at being myself, rather than trying to be someone else.

"Update time, everyone," Margherita said. "Lucie, I understand there was a similar incident last night?"

I gave them the rundown as far as I knew it. Orr filled in the gaps. He kindly said nothing about my suspected misdeed, but he gave me a few loaded glances as he spoke.

"I checked the hospital on my way in. April Newmann - Robyn's sister - was injured when Robyn pushed a bookcase over onto her. She's got a few cracked ribs, some nasty bruises. A broken wrist. She'll recover. Rose Newmann - another sister -has a few bruises, that's all. I had Robyn placed under observation. Lucie ordered brain scans done on Robyn. From what Dr. Boudreau can see, without in-depth examination, the abnormalities that were present on Tina Cogg's scans are also present on Robyn Newmann's. They're getting a specialist to examine them hopefully tomorrow or the day after. He has no idea what it means."

"Wow," I said. "How's Tina Cogg?"

"Still heavily sedated. She's not ready to talk yet."

We were silent for a moment. Then, Margherita asked, "How are you planning to proceed, Lucie?"

I needed - okay, wanted - Claudia and Orr out of my hair, but I wanted them working on a couple of things, too. Orr used to work in Computer Crimes. That could be useful. "I have some research I need you guys to do. Claudia, can you research the hospital situation for me? Especially the whole brain thing. I'm some curious about that. And Orr, I need you to research Alltchip Memory Chips for me." At that, he gave me quite the look, but I ignored it. "Alltchips. What they do, how they do it, what kind of effect they can have on the human brain. Such as, can they cause those brain activity abnormalities that we've been hearing about?"

"Lucie, Alltchips can't have any effect on the human brain. Not without medical supervision. That's the law." Reasonable Claudia.

"I know, Claudia, but I need an open mind on this. Orr? You good?"

His dark eyes bored into mine. "You're reaching." And treading dangerous water, but he didn't say that part out loud. He was thinking it, though. I shrugged.

Margherita watched us, then nodded. "Well, it looks like you've still got some time on this. And it's starting to sound interesting." She pursed her lips, thinking. Then she said, "Okay, sure. Go ahead. Keep me in the loop."

"Will do." I grabbed my bag, and stood up. "Thanks, Loo." With a little nod, Margherita returned to her office. Claudia and Orr stared at me for a moment. Claudia looked curious, and Orr looked skeptical. I sighed.

"And what are your plans today, Lucie?"

"I'm gonna try to talk to Alex LaForge. And Donna Cogg, if possible."

Claudia nodded. "I'll get to the hospital, then," she said. "Shall we check in with each other later?"

"Yeah. I'll call you guys later."

She nodded again, and motioned Orr out of her chair so she could get started.

Orr stood, and nodded toward the briefing room. I followed him there. Once we were inside, he gently pushed the door closed and faced me. We were alone in there. Kind of sexy, actually. I tried to focus on him, rather than those creepy pictures on the wall behind him.

"Luce?"

"Yeah?"

He chewed his lip for a moment, then sighed. "Don't be stupid. Don't forget to turn that "ear bud" into Evidence. Don't make a bad mistake even worse." Then he leaned forward, cupped my face in his hands, and dropped a kiss onto my forehead. I liked it. It felt nice. It felt safe. He gave me a long, serious look. "Be careful, babe." Then he brushed the back of his knuckles down my cheek. For a moment, I was tempted to jump back into bed and drag him with me.

Summoning a bit of willpower, I simply stared at him instead, then nodded. "Okay," I said, then I left with a quick glance back at him. The sun streamed in through the window and gave his dark hair a golden tint, made his black eyes look like rich, dark coffee. Nice and distracting. I sighed, and headed out to my car, wishing like hell that I really could just crawl back into bed with him, the hell with my job.

Looking back now, I wish like hell that I had.

~ SIX ~

Some thirty minutes later, I was sitting in the Indigo West Side High School's parking lot, nursing my third cup of coffee so far that day, and taking a gander at the surroundings. I'd taken my own car instead of a fleet car. I didn't quite blend in, but at least I wouldn't freak kids out with a cop car.

Clouds were rolling across the sky, and a brisk little breeze had sprung up. Felt good. It'd be nice to get a bit of rain, after weeks of a hot, dry autumn. My Dad used to call this 'Indian Summer', but I wasn't sure if that term was appropriate these days.

I had music playing; my 'thinking music', as I called it. An entire playlist made up of different versions of Pachelbel's 'Canon'. I don't know if there was a more beautiful piece of music out there, although 'Greensleeves' came close.

I didn't understand how it worked, but I'd read that music could directly affect humans, in a physical way. It was true for me. If I was tired, I'd listen to something with some power, with a beat, and that would wake me right up. Give me a shot of energy. When I was stressed, the slower, more soulful stuff always made me feel better. And when I needed to focus, good ol' Canon did the trick every time. Then there were times when I really needed to light a couple of candles, sprawl out on my bed, and crank up my Pink Floyd playlist. And right after November 11th, the Christmas music gets blasting non-stop. The first couple of years we were together, the Christmas music drove Simon crazy. I think he got used to it, though. Either that, or he just gave up protesting.

I was feeling a bit discouraged. My great idea this morning might be fizzling out already, leaving me with dick all to go on. I'd checked with Evidence before leaving, to see if a Pirate Adventure demo Chip could be found in Tina Cogg's belongings. Nope. Not even close. Nothing with a handwritten label, nothing at all out of the ordinary. Besides, the one I'd gotten from Robyn Newmann was so distinctive, I'm sure I'd have noticed if there'd been anything similar in the Cogg woman's belongings.

Of course, she might have used it prior to coming to school, and left it at home. That was a possibility. Hopefully, I'd be able to check with Donna Cogg, if she was at school today. Although the case file definitely indicated that Tina had been using a Chip in the classroom that morning, before class started.

According to Claudia, the mother was still at the hospital and had said that she'd sent the younger sister, Donna, back to school today, to try to get things as much back to normal as possible. Whatever normal was. I couldn't see the kid being in any kind of shape to be at school, but that was just me. Maybe she'd do better surrounded by friends than at home or in a hospital waiting room. No one liked being in a hospital. I took a sip of my coffee, and just like that, another idea smacked me upside the head.

I grabbed my phone and called Claudia. Quickly, I explained what I wanted, and she promised to check it out immediately and call me back. I stayed right where I was. Pins and needles, waiting for her call. I didn't want to be halfway through interviewing a student when she called. Besides, it was morning break (did they still call it "recess"?), and a lot of kids were hanging out in the schoolyard. A few of them glanced at me curiously (probably wondering whose Mom I was) but no one approached.

I'd counted to a hundred six or seven times before my phone buzzed.

"Yeah?" I snapped out, before the first ring had finished.

"Good thinking, Lucie," Claudia said. "You were right. There was a Chip found in Tina Cogg's Reader."

"Yeehaa. Did you see her? How is she doing?"

"No. There was no need to see her, she's still sedated. She...this is awful. She had ripped her Reader mostly out of her head during the assault. Using her bare hands."

Ewwww. "Have you got the Chip?"

"Yes, I've got it here. I'll drop it off at Evidence."

"Wait. What do you mean, 'mostly' out of her head?"

"They had to do minor surgery, to remove what was left of it."

"And they didn't turn it over to us?"

"I don't think it occurred to them to do so. It was bagged and stored with her clothes."

"Jesus." I shook my head. "Great work, Claudia. What can you tell me about the Chip?"

"Um." There was a pause. I tried to hold back my impatience, but that's never really been my strong point, and I started tapping my nails on the steering wheel. "Not much, really. It's covered with blood."

"Ugh. Gross," I said, meaning it. What the hell could make someone do that?

Perhaps unrelatedly, the memory of Robyn's Reader being difficult to open crossed my mind. Maybe... Was there something about that Chip that caused the Reader itself to malfunction? If that was the case, then really, what the hell were we dealing with here? I frowned, chewing on my thumbnail. This was getting over my head, I think. It might be time to talk to an expert...but my courage shrank in the face of that idea.

I waited for Claudia to continue. In the background, I could hear hospital noises. Right in front of me, kids were slowly heading back inside. A couple of guys thought they'd be cute, blowing kisses at me and shaking their asses. Jeez. Give me a break. Tomorrow's leaders.

"Hang on," Claudia spoke up. "I can make out the first two letters, barely. P...I... and there are numbers. Either 'two-one-five', or maybe a 'two-slash-five', as in 'two of five'. The 'one' is slanted, and longer than the numbers."

"Does it look handwritten?"

Surprise colored her voice. "You know, it does! How unusual. I wonder if this is an actual Alltchip product?" She paused again, then said, "Lucie - what is this all about?"

I took a deep breath, then released it. I wondered how much to say. She was going to think that I was nuts. What the hell. She probably already did. I said, "I'm sort of wondering if this Chip has anything to do with those altered brain waves. Have you found out any more about that?"

There was a silence. She thought I was nuts.

"Not yet," she finally said. "The specialist isn't due in before tomorrow or the day after. But...Alltchips can't affect the brain, Lucie. We discussed this."

"Not regular ones, no. But medically-administered ones?"

"But how would Tina Cogg come across such a thing? They're not available to the general public, and Alltchip monitors such a thing very carefully. And if they are medical Chips, why are they marked otherwise?"

"That," I said, firmly, "Is exactly what I'm trying to find out. This is just a hunch, Claudia."

"This is...quite a hunch. Whatever gave you such an idea?"

"Oh, you know me, I'm full of crazy ideas," I said, flippantly. "Anyway. I'll call you later. The students' morning break is just about over, and I want to talk to Alex and Donna, if I can."

"Good luck." She still sounded suspicious.

"You too, Sis. Talk to you later."

I clicked the phone off and tucked it in my jeans pocket.

Some of the kids were dragging their heels, not much wanting to go back to class. I didn't blame them. I wouldn't want to go back either. I never liked school.

I went in the main entrance. Fortunately Indigo High West Side was much like any other school, in terms of layout. Big open halls, painted cinder block walls, posters tacked everywhere. And yellow. Why was every school painted yellow? Was there a discount on yellow paint?

There were red arrows painted on the wall, with the words 'Main Office' painted above them. Seemed like a good idea to follow those arrows. They directed me to take a right, and about a quarter of the way down the corridor was a wooden door with a sign on it that said 'Office'. Seemed like a good place to start. Master detective, that's me. I pushed the door open, and was very pleasantly surprised.

"Diane? Diane...Hiller?" I stared at the receptionist. Pretty, dark-haired, with gorgeous eyes and a sweet smile, Diane had been one of my favourite people back in high school. She looked happy and efficient and very receptionist-y behind a sharp-looking desk setup. The entire office looked pretty modern, and wasn't even painted yellow. A couple of sullen-looking teens sat in the waiting area, an aura of "I didn't do it" hovering around them. Well, I guess some things never change.

"Diane Tritt now," she said, smiling at me. "Lucie Grace. I haven't seen you since graduation! What are you up to these days? I'd heard that you'd moved out to New York City?"

I grinned back. "Lucie Nickerson now. My husband Simon and I moved back here a couple of years ago. We met in New York. So, Tritt, huh? Anyone I know?" I searched my memory for a Tritt. The name was familiar, but I just couldn't place it.

She picked up a photo cube and set it on the counter in front of me. "Joey Tritt. I don't know if you remember him, he was a couple of years behind us. And these are my daughters," she added, as the photo faded and a new one with three pretty young ladies appeared. They all looked a lot like Diane. The photo morphed again, into a chubby, devilishly-grinning toddler. "And this is my grandson."

Holy, mental jolt. Surely we weren't old enough to be grandmothers. Were we? Math was never my strong point, but I could add well enough, and did a few quick calculations. Damn. We were. When did that happen?

"Holy crap," I muttered. "He's gorgeous! I'm feeling old now."

She laughed knowingly. "Do you and Simon have any?"

"Any what, kids? Just the four-legged kind. We took over my dad's farm. It's a hobby farm now."

"I thought you hated the farm."

"I do. Simon loves it, though." I grinned. "I let him do all the work." That had been the intention, anyway.

She smiled, and then said, "What brings you here today?"

"Police business, actually." I said, pulling out my shield. "Is the Principal in?"

Diane's eyes widened. "You're a cop? You? Are you kidding me?"

"Detective. You sound surprised." I chuckled, and, a bit embarrassed, she did, too.

"Well, yes and no," she said. "You always were the one to stick up for people in school. It's just that, well," she hesitated, with a reminiscent little smile, "You never did have much patience for rules..."

I couldn't help it. I laughed.

"Still don't," I said. "I'm always in trouble with my boss for something or other."

"I believe it. Hang on, I'll see if Principal Martin is available."

"Thanks."

She got up and hurried to an office behind the main reception area, and I passed the time reading the posters on the wall. Hockey tryouts, debating club, don't drink and drive...same old. I guess things hadn't changed all that much from back in my day. I know I bitch a lot about technology, but really, when you get down to it, people are still people, and still like to do the same things as we always have. We just have better toys now.

A minute later, Diane returned with a jaw-droppingly handsome man. Smooth coffee'n'cream skin, short dark hair flecked with grey. Light hazel eyes that contrasted dramatically with his skin tone, and a smile that could peel paint off the wall. His suit fit him awfully nice, too. Jeez. If my high school principal had looked like this, I'd have made sure that I spent a hell of a lot more time in detention than I had. Then again, at fifteen, I doubt I'd be checking out a guy this age. Well, wait...then again, at fifteen, I'd had a huge crush on Indiana Jones, and he was at least three times my age...

"Detective Nickerson?" He extended his hand. He had a voice to match his appearance, and a great handshake. "Jim Martin. How can I help you?"

"Hi, Mr. Martin." As a courtesy, I flashed my shield again. Well, it wasn't just a courtesy. I'll be honest. I've never really outgrown the basic coolness of flashing my shield. Yes, I know, I'm immature. I don't really care. I remember the first time Simon caught me practising flashing it in front of a mirror. I'd just gotten promoted to detective, and I was pretty damned impressed with myself. Simon laughed so hard that he'd had tears pouring down his face and he could barely catch his breath, and I don't know if I've ever been so embarrassed in my life.

Of course, that didn't stop me from doing it again, when he wasn't around.

"Thank you for seeing me, sir. May I have a few moments of your time?"

"That depends. Do I need a lawyer?" His tone was lighthearted, but his eyes were serious.

"No, sir, not at all, but feel free to call one, if you wish. I just have a few questions about a couple of students."

He studied me for a few seconds, then said, "I see. Follow me, please. Diane? Hold my calls, please."

"Sure thing."

I followed him to his office, giving Diane an "ohmigod" look as I went. She grinned and winked knowingly.

I liked Principal Martin's office. It suited him. Very "high school Principal-ish", with wood panelling, bookcases (full of books, even! The paper kind!), a sunny window, and a huge, antique-type of desk. Tropical plants. A state-of-the-art touchmonitor, next to a pile of unfashionable paper files. All in all, a very scholarly setting. I definitely liked it.

"So, Detective," Martin said, his voice like melted butter. "Please, sit down. What can I do for you?"

I brought my attention back to the here-and-now, and wrenched my thoughts away from melted butter. "Thank you, sir," I said, as I sat in a heavy, leather-upholstered chair. Comfy. "I'm doing some follow-up on a couple of case files. They involve Alex LaForge, and Donna Cogg, both of whom are seniors here. I was wondering if I'd be able to speak to them. They're both eighteen and legal adults, I know, but I would prefer it if you sat in on the questioning, and could you also obtain permission from their parents?" Cover my ass, that's me.

Surprised, he raised his eyebrows. "I see. What are the questions about?"

"Well...are you aware of...uh...recent events? Involving these students?"

Serious, he nodded. "Alex's little episode, this past weekend? And what happened with Donna's older sister? I've known Tina Cogg for a while. What happened seems very...I don't know...unbelievable. That's just not like her." He frowned. "But do you think they're connected?"

"I don't know."

He gazed at me for a moment, his striking face thoughtful. "I don't want you upsetting them, Detective. Neither student is at their best right now. Especially Donna. Understandably so, of course. We're keeping an eye on them."

"Good. I don't want to upset them, either. That's why I'd like you to sit in with me."

Martin stared at his desk for a moment, thinking. Then he said, "All right. Give me a moment." I waited while he made a couple of phone calls. He secured permission for me to speak to both students, and then he asked Diane to page Alex LaForge to his office. We waited for the boy in a surprisingly comfortable silence.

A few minutes later, a tall, thin boy with dark hair and dark eyes entered the office. He wore baggy jeans and a baggy red t-shirt. Fading bruises on his arms, and dark circles under his eyes. My heart melted. I was a sucker for a sad case every time, especially when it was a teenager. I had no idea why, I just had a real soft spot for teens. Maybe because I remembered how tough it could be at that age.

He didn't look like he'd been having an easy time of it, and I hated that. Some hard-boiled gumshoe I was, huh?

Principal Martin introduced us, and I offered my hand and a friendly smile. "Hi, Alex. I have a few questions for you, regarding your, uh, incident. Last Saturday."

Alex shook my hand and gave me a wary look. He sat in one of the other chairs and waited patiently.

Principal Martin spoke up. "I've just talked to your parents, Alex, and they've given their permission. And I'll be right here. You don't have to answer any questions that you don't want to. Isn't that right, Detective?" He shot me a hard glance. I liked his attitude.

"Absolutely," I agreed. Then I turned back to the boy. "Alex, I've been reviewing the case report from Saturday. My partner, Detective Friemann, was the officer who originally interviewed you."

"Yeah."

"I have a question. According to the report, you were relaxing in your room, using an Alltchip Memory Chip, just before the incident occurred. Is that correct?"

Something flickered in the boy's dark eyes, and he gave kind of a half-shrug, half-nod. I felt a sudden tension in him.

"Can you tell me anything about that Chip?"

He didn't answer. He looked down at the floor. Then, "No, not really," he mumbled.

I waited a few seconds, until he looked back up at me. I was pretty sure he had a lot more to say. "Please, Alex? It's important."

"Why?" Sullen. He fidgeted a little in his chair. Looked away.

"There may be a connection to two other incidents."

"Two?" This from Principal Martin. "You said Tina Cogg. You didn't mention another one." He gave me a sharp glance.

I hesitated. I didn't want to spread tales, but I needed Alex to talk, and half the school probably already knew, anyway. If not, they soon would. "Robyn Newmann."

Realization lit his handsome features, and he nodded. Alex glanced at me quickly. "Robyn? What happened?"

"Do you know Robyn?"

"Yeah, she's in a couple of my classes. Is she okay? I heard she had an accident?"

"She'll be fine, yes. She's under observation. Her sisters were injured, though." I said, "I took a Chip out of her Reader. It was something about a Pirate Adventure...?"

Alex flushed bright red, and he scowled. "It's stupid. You should just toss it," he said vehemently.

"You're familiar with it?"

"Yeah. It's a free demo." He looked uncomfortable; ready to bolt, almost. Principal Martin shuffled restlessly.

Bingo! "Do you still have it?"

"No! I smashed it. It was crap."

"Is it the Chip you were using before you...uh..."

"Yeah." He glared at me. "It's just crap. It's nothing."

Huh. Sure didn't sound like 'nothing'.

I pulled the small Chip out of my pocket, and held it up for Alex to see. He paled. "Was it similar to this one?"

"Yeah," he whispered.

I put the Chip back in my pocket. The boy was staring at me, in hard thought. I guess I'd pushed a button or two.

"What does it do, Alex?" My voice was soft, gentle, in the quiet office.

After a moment, Alex finally said, "It's an rpg. You know, role playing game," he clarified. "You choose a pirate character, and have adventures and battles."

I stared in disbelief. "That's it?"

"Yeah."

I frowned. Confused, disappointed. There had to be more. There had to be. Every famous little instinct I had was yelling at me, telling me to keep going. I decided to try the silent approach. Not my favourite tactic, but I didn't know what else to do here. I fixed him with a steady gaze.

It worked. After a few awkward seconds, Alex said, "It's really weird. It sucks. I really hated it."

I nodded, waited a moment. Then, softly, "Why?"

"I just hated it, okay?"

"Okay," I said, soothingly. Time for a new tack before he decided not to say anything else. I didn't want him to clam up. "Where did you get it?" Alex looked away from me. I stifled a sigh. Not good. Kids could be so hard to work with.

"Alex, I need to make sure that no one else has one of these. Please help me." I leaned forward, gave him my best "big brown eyes" look. That was the look that always got Simon. He said I was never more dangerous when I looked "appealingly doe-eyed". I hoped I still had the knack.

Alex glared at me for a few seconds, then sighed. "From some guy at a party."

I nodded, my eyes all imploring, and sympathetic-like.

Finally, he said, "Friday night. A bunch of us had a bonfire down at the beach. This guy showed up and had a bunch of free demo Chips he was giving away. It was part of an Alltchip marketing thing. He said he was a programmer there. All we had to do was tell him our names."

So he could check the news to see if any of these Chips were effective, I thought sourly. Asshole.

I took a deep breath. "How many did he give out?"

"Uh...I think, five..."

Demo 4/5...

I managed to keep my voice steady. "Who else got one?"

"Yeah, uh...let me see. Everyone was there. Robyn. And Donna Cogg. Her older sister's Tina Cogg, the one you were talking about earlier. And a couple of guys I know. Glenn from my biology class and Stu, from my art history class. I'm pretty sure that was it."

I nodded, and turned to the Principal. "Any chance I can talk to Glenn and Stu, too?" My gut was doing that happy dance thing again.

"I'll get on it."

Alex continued to watch me, ill at ease.

"Detective?"

"Yes?"

"What's...going on?"

I shrugged. "I'm not sure yet. But you're helping me find out, and I appreciate this. Can you tell me anything about the guy who gave out these Chips?"

"Uh...well, he said he was a programmer at Alltchip. I think he said his name was Kevin. A little bit taller than me, I think, and dark hair. He was wearing a ball cap, a sweatshirt, and jeans. You know, just regular clothes. It was dark, so I couldn't really see him. All we had for light was the bonfire, pretty much."

"I know what you mean. I've been to a few bonfires there myself." I smiled, and Alex gave me a small smile back. "Do you think you might be able to identify him from a picture?" I guessed that Alltchip had identification photos of all employees. If this guy was really an employee, that was.

"Maybe..."

Just then, Diane stuck her head inside the office. "Donna Cogg is here," she said.

I nodded, and turned back to the boy. "Alex, thank you very much for your help. I'd like to ask one more favor. Please, please spread the word to all your friends, and ask them to pass it on: Do not accept Memory Chips from anyone, for the time being. I'm going to give you my card. If you hear of any more of these Chips, or of this Kevin, please, please contact me right away. Day or night, I don't care. It's crucial." I gave him an imploring gaze. "It could help save lives, Alex."

He nodded slowly, and accepted the business card that I handed to him.

For a moment, he read it carefully, but I had the impression that he was thinking hard about something. Then he looked back at me. "Okay," he said. "I'll tell people." Then he stood up, leaned over to me, and whispered, "I know it was the Chip, Detective. I know it. I'll tell everyone." He straightened up and gave me a serious kind of look. I nodded.

"Thank you, Alex. I'm counting on you."

And I was blown away.

This was totally out there.

You know, some detectives can go their whole careers without weird shit like this. Simon, for instance. His career had been normal and straightforward, no weird shit, until we crossed paths. Our first case together had been weird, and pretty near every one after that, too. I was a weird magnet. I knew it. I accepted it. I didn't have to like it. Although sometimes I wondered what normal would be like.

I suspected that it would be boring as hell.

Alex left, and I was alone with the hunky Principal. We stared at each other for a beat. Then he said, "My God. Is this a joke?"

I shook my head. "If it is, it's not too funny."

"Alltchips!" He said, incredulously. "I hate those goddamned things."

"Me, too, I said. "Absolutely."

"This is bad. Very bad."

"I know."

Donna Cogg walked in. Tall, blonde, real pretty, she looked like a nice kid. Her eyes were red and swollen, though, and I hated to put her through any more anguish. I tried to be as kind as I could be.

Her story was similar to Alex's. She hadn't tried the Chip herself, but had given it to her older sister instead. She confirmed many of Alex's details, including the name of the programmer. If that's what he really was. I wondered.

When I gave her the same instructions and warning as I'd given Alex, she gave me a skeptical look. "Aren't Alltchips kind of designed not to do stuff like this?"

"Yes," I replied. "And that's the problem."

She looked sad. "Then this is my fault. What happened to Tina..."

"No," I said, insistently. "Not at all. Donna, look at me!" I leaned forward and took her hands.

Her face crumpling, she complied. For the second time today, my heart just broke. I'd really like to get my hands around the perp's throat right about now. I really fucking hated people who preyed on kids.

"Donna, it's not your fault. You didn't know! If you'd known, would you have given your sister that Chip?"

"Of course not!"

"That's right," I said. "It's absolutely not your fault. Besides, I'm not even sure that there's a connection yet. This is just one possible lead that I'm following up on. Which is why I need you to help me, to spread the word. Can you do that?"

"Yes," she said, in a small voice.

"Good stuff." I gave her hands a reassuring squeeze, then passed her my card. "Keep in touch."

"Okay." She stood to leave. She seemed a little shaky.

"Thank you, Donna. Take care. Call me if you need anything."

"Thanks. I will." She hesitated. "Do you think that...there's a chance that Tina isn't...responsible...for what she did?"

My face softened. "Yes," I said. I didn't want to give her false hope, but I didn't want to lie, either. "Yes. I think there's a chance."

She stifled a sob and ran from the room. Principal Martin jumped up and took off after her, but relaxed when he saw that Diane was talking to her. After a moment, he returned, sat down and gave me a hard look.

"You'd better not be blowing smoke about this."

I nodded slowly. "I don't think I am."

He stared me down a bit longer, then he sighed in resignation. After a moment, he brought in the next boy.

When we spoke to Glenn and Stu, they had good news for us. Their stories were the same; however, neither had wanted anything to do with those Chips (smart!) and had tossed them into the bonfire once the perp had left.

"It looked cheap, or phony," Stewart said. "I don't plug shit into my head without knowing what it is. That guy was way too random for me."

"Good thinking," I said, relieved. If we were lucky, then all five of the demo Chips were accounted for, and maybe there wouldn't be any more attacks for a bit. I hoped and prayed that there weren't any more of these Chips floating around. Give us a chance to make some headway. I thanked Martin, promised to keep him filled in, waved goodbye to Diane, and left.

It was nearly one, and my stomach was snarling, so I drove to a pub near the station to get some food. I really needed to get my head around this. I cranked up my 'Canon' playlist for an extra little boost of brainpower.

While I was waiting for my cheeseburger platter, I scribbled some notes on my notepad. Names, dates, patterns. If things were as they seemed, (cross fingers!) then maybe we'd have a bit of breathing room. Maybe these rogue Chips were a one-off.

But could we really be that lucky, though? I wasn't betting on it. It had to have taken a hell of a lot of work to produce those five chips. Why would anyone do that without a reason? I had to assume that this was just the first part of the plan, whatever it was.

My food arrived, and I picked up my burger and took a huge bite, moaning in satisfaction. My next step was to bring Claudia and Orr up to date. They probably weren't going to buy any of it, not yet, but it was all we had right now. I was going to have to track down this 'Kevin' and see what was up with that. The logical place to start was, of course, Alltchip.

I set my burger down and closed my eyes. My stomach was doing a nervous, queasy little dance now. Because since my first little inkling that Memory Chips might be involved in these attacks, I'd had the feeling that I was going to have to deal with Alltchip. Or should I say, more specifically, Alltchip's Director Of Internal Affairs And Security.

Or, in other words...my estranged/cheating/divorce-requesting husband: Simon Nickerson.

~ SEVEN ~

I managed to finish my lunch. Whether I'd be able to keep it down or not was quite a different matter. Instead of lingering over dessert (my favorite part of any meal), I sat in my car for a few minutes to regroup my wits, or something like that. The pub had become packed with a noisy group on women wearing flamboyant, colourful hats. It was a club of some sort, and they looked like they were having a lot of fun, but right now, I needed some quiet time to think.

Back to the case at hand. From the very instant I'd thought that Alltchip might be part of this case, I knew - just knew - that Simon would be back in the picture. The thought both thrilled me, and terrified me. Hell, I hadn't seen him at all in the four months since we'd split. And ever since his little bombshell last Friday, I knew I'd have to come face-to-face with him soon. I guess I just hadn't thought it would be this soon.

I glanced in the visor mirror and groaned. It would be nice to have time for a shower, makeup, haircut, maybe even a complete head-to-toe makeover. That would be good.

I'm sure Simon's seen me worse than this, though. We've woken up together almost every morning for the last fifteen years. I guess he'd just have to make do with me the way I was right now. I was too old to go changing for any man.

Sounded pretty good when I put it like that. Made me seem pretty tough.

Maybe I was stalling, but I figured it was a good time to check in with the team. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and set up a conference call with Claudia and Orr. Took a few seconds, but soon I had them all on the line.

"Hey, guys. Status update," I said, hoping they couldn't hear my nerves rattling.

Claudia said, "Hi, Lucie. I'm still at the hospital, researching. Dr. Boudreau's been very helpful." I could hear the smile in her voice, and I shook my head, amazed. I'd bet she had him eating out of her hand. How does she do that? I mostly just piss people off. Must be nice, I thought, a bit sourly, to be so effortlessly charming. She continued, "I've got a lot of information for us to review later. Brain stuff, as you would call it. I don't know if any of it will be useful, but it can't hurt."

"How's Tina Cogg?"

"Still sedated. No improvement."

"How about the Newmann girl? The one who was injured?"

"Already released.

"Excellent. Orr?"

Annoyance in his voice. "I'm working with Computer Crimes, looking into Alltchip. There's shit-all out there for specs on their technology. Lots of speculation, of course, and some of it is pretty far out there. Alltchip itself is unbelievably close-guarded. They're connected with the military in a big way, plus they hold the patent on everything they've made. Even with my law enforcement clearance, I can't get anything. And here's another thing. If we're going to get any information, we'll have to try to get it from the company itself. In that case, we're risking tipping people off. I'm assuming you want to keep this quiet. We may have to contact the government to get more information. It's not looking good."

"And how likely is the government to share information?" Claudia wondered.

Orr chuckled. "Not too likely, I don't imagine."

I murmured agreement. Then I filled them in on my interviews with the kids. They listened patiently. Orr said, "Okay. Maybe." He huffed thoughtfully. "Yeah, maybe, but Luce, it's a little...jeez, I don't know. Far-fetched?"

"Got any better ideas?" I didn't mean to get snippy, but we had nothing else, and he knew it.

"Nope." Tight-lipped.

"Claudia?"

A thoughtful pause. "Nooooooo...no, I don't, Lucie. I agree with Orr. This is very far-fetched. But...we've got some time to work on it, and the Lieutenant supports us for now. We may as well continue. Do you want me to stay with what I'm working on?"

"Please," I said, relieved. She had no idea how much her support meant to me right now.

"By the way," she continued, "As for the Newmann case, no charges are being pressed. Robyn is still in protective custody at the hospital, until we're sure that she's all right. I've informed the family that we're investigating further, and they're fine with that. I spoke to the girl for a bit, but she was uncomfortable."

"So was that Alex kid," I said. "Odd. I wonder what the hell those Chips actually do? Orr, isn't there any way at all to access their programming?" I had a hard time believing that any company could operate so secretly, especially in this day and age.

"No, I told you," he snapped. "They only work on Alltchip equipment, and Alltchip doesn't sell any kind of computer drives for them. Like I said, we're probably gonna have to talk to Alltchip, but who the hell can we talk to? Who could we trust?"

Claudia muttered, "Oh, dear," and I held back a nervous titter. Then Orr groaned. They'd finally realized who we would have to talk to.

Well, this was awkward.

Then, Claudia said, "Do you want me to go, Lucie?"

Orr added, "Or I could. If you want me to."

I smiled. "Thanks, guys, but no. I can handle this myself. If I need any help, I'll let you know, but for now, it's just a friendly little chat. More or less." I paused. "I think we can trust Simon. I honestly can't see him being involved with something like this. He's a good man. He wouldn't hurt anyone."

Silence. After a few seconds, I added, "You know, I'm thinking that this is just small potatoes right now. I think we've got a crazy employee or two who might be screwing around, just to see what they can do. I mean, a real research project wouldn't start so small, right? With such unpredictable, uncontrolled surroundings? That's unprofessional. That's my thinking, anyway."

"Possible," Claudia said. "It's possible."

"Maybe," Orr added. "But I don't know."

"No problem. Just...try keeping an open mind, will you, guys? I'm serious. There is something going on here, and I don't know if it's something we need to be involved with, but until we know for sure, I'm going to follow up. I'm heading over to Alltchip. Do you guys need anything from me right now?"

Orr said, "No, I'm fine. I guess I'll just keep at it." He sounded resigned, and something else. He wasn't happy, that much I could tell. I ignored it for now.

"Me, too," Claudia said. "We'll meet up at the station later?"

"Around three or four?"

"Four works for me," Claudia said.

"Me, too."

"I'm already here," said Orr. "Going crazy."

I chuckled. "Hang in there."

"You too. Gotta go." There was a pause, like he wanted to say something more, but he didn't.

We clicked off, and I sat in my car for a few moments longer, staring blankly out at the pub's parking lot, thinking things over. I do that a lot, especially when I'm nervous, or even just lazy. I wondered if I should call Simon to warn him that I was on my way, and decided not to. It would probably be better if I just showed up. Element of surprise, and all that.

The chances were pretty good that he wouldn't want to talk to me anyway, so if I just showed up and waved my shield around, looking real official, I'd probably get better results. Of course, I might just be too chickenshit to call and face rejection. That might be part of it, too.

I started the car and pulled out of the diner's parking lot. Traffic wasn't heavy, and it was only a ten- or fifteen-minute drive to Alltchip. Seemed shorter today. Probably just my nerves. Pathetic. I've faced down gun-waving crackheads without blinking an eye. Get a grip, I told myself. It's just Simon.

Pfft. Yeah. Okay.

I swung into Visitor Parking once I reached the Alltchip compound. Yeah, compound. If there was a better word than that to describe the place, I didn't know it. Alltchip was freaking huge.

They didn't just dominate the region financially. Physically, too. There were four buildings, imaginatively named One, Two, Three and Four. The buildings themselves, connected by showy glass walkways, were enormous. Multi-storied, each one was slightly larger than the size of a city block. This was why they'd located in the relatively-undeveloped north end of town, to have space to spread out. And boy, did they ever. Spread out, I mean.

The four buildings were set up in a cross-like pattern, and in between them was a city- block-sized parking lot for Alltchip's top brass and visitors. Each row of parking had an array of motorized scooters available for those who didn't feel like walking several miles a day. I'd always wanted to try one of those scooters. They looked like fun.

Each building had an adjacent parking complex to cater to the company's fifteen thousand-plus employees. The result was one huge square overall, in sort of a checkerboard pattern, if you were looking at it from overhead. Across the street from Building One was an Alltchip-owned nature park spread out over several acres. It was open to anyone, and was a particular favourite of their employees. Simon and I used to go for long walks there, back in our better days.

You had to give it to Alltchip, they were organized. Building One was administration and office stuff and all that. That's where Simon worked. Buildings Two and Three housed the programming and manufacturing. Building Four was for visitors, training, education, recreation, health and fitness, shopping, guest quarters, and was home to the most amazing food court I'd ever seen. You could get anything there, from grilled Maine lobster to the best cheeseburger platters that I'd ever had. There was a couple of five-star restaurants, a few family restaurants, cafes, and every kind of snack stand. 'Food Heaven', absolutely. I'd met Simon for lunch there a few times. Building Four was a lot of fun.

Right now, though, I stood in front of Building One, just shaking in my boots. I'd never been in Building One. I've never seen Simon's office.

I wondered if I'd get the bum's rush at the front door.

I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Didn't help. Well, when one is girding their loins, and all that, it helps to fake the confidence and attitude that one needs in order to accomplish their...their...oh, whatever. Just get on with it, already.

I walked past Simon's fancy-schmancy reserved parking spot and discreetly gave his car's power cord a good, quick tug, unplugging it from its charger. I even stuck my tongue out at it. There. I felt better already. Until I passed through the main doors.

As fantastic as I thought Building Four was, Building One stopped me in my tracks. Holy crap. Building One was luxe.

Modern glass and metal had been merged with a vaguely Italian-ish, antique-y sort of style. Were those real marble floors? Like a modern day fairy tale castle. Absolutely spectacular. I stood there and gaped like an idiot while scooters swerved around me, their little scooter engines buzzing like pissed-off bees.

The main lobby, which was the part I was standing in, was huge, bright, and extended some eight stories to the roof. I could see the cutaway floors on either side of the huge column of bright, open space, which was topped off with a skylight. The skylight was bordered by a glass walkway covered with gardens and little fountains. How beautiful. I wished I could go up and see it.

The walls and floor coverings were a tasteful mix of oak, oatmeal-coloured fabric, and pale blue and metal accents. Not that I know dick all about decorating, but one of Simon's sisters was a professional decorator, and I've politely listened to many a long discourse on seasonal colours and durable fabrics and blah blah blah... Some of it must have gotten through my thick skull after all. I knew enough to know that this decor was pretty damned amazing (expensive).

Clear glass elevators, looking more like art than function, lined the walls. Twelve of them. I hoped Simon was on the first floor. I wasn't crazy about heights, and zipping up eight stories in a glass box just didn't appeal.

Off to one side, the waiting area was decked out with more gadgets and toys than I could hope to afford on ten years' salary, and the plushy-looking furniture was just begging me to sink all the way down into it and doze off.

A large reception counter (which looked like real wood!), sort of like what you'd see in a hotel (but bigger), guarded access to the huge hall and elevators beyond. A wall-sized greenhouse-type thing formed half a partition between the counter and the hall, and it was breathtaking. I could have stood there and stared at it all day. I'd never seen such a display of plants...

"May I help you?"

I blinked, and somehow tore my gaze away from that green loveliness. A sweet young thing standing behind the counter gave me an understanding sort of smile, and I guessed that he liked to stare at the pretty flowers and foliage, too. Hell, I couldn't blame him. If I worked there, I'd never get any work done at all. I wouldn't be able to tear my eyes away long enough to do anything.

Feeling horribly out of place, I smiled back, and went for the casual, friendly approach first. Never hurts to be friendly, right? "Hi. I'm Lucie Nickerson. I'm here to see my husband, Simon Nickerson. It's of an urgent nature."

Now it was the sweet young thing's turn to gape. I wonder what he'd heard about me. Probably nothing good. He blushed, then hurriedly consulted his computer. He was probably wondering if there was going to be a catfight between the current Mrs. Nickerson and the wanna-be Mrs. Nickerson. Maybe there was a betting pool.

He looked up from his monitor. "Uh, ma'am...Mr. Nickerson is in a meeting..."

"No problem," I said, with another smile. "I'll wait in his office. Can you direct me, please?"

"Uh...suite eight-fourteen, ma'am, but...Mrs. Nickerson, you can't just..."

I took pity on the little sweetie. He was just doing his job. I displayed my shield. "Actually, it's Detective Nickerson, and I am here on police business. If you can't authorize it, that's fine and I understand, but you'll need to get someone who is able to authorize me. Unless I need a warrant?"

Hoping like hell I didn't need a warrant (because I had no idea if I could possibly get one), I waited patiently. He stared at my shield for a few seconds, then tapped his communication earpiece.

After a few seconds of rapidly-whispered conversation, the receptionist looked back up at me.

"Mrs. Nickerson?"

"Detective," I corrected him. He blushed again.

"Yes, ma'am. Detective. Mr. Nickerson has asked that we escort you directly to his suite, and he'll join you momentarily. We're to extend every courtesy to you."

Excellent. I smiled at the boy. "Thank you very much."

A short, dark-suited man appeared.

"Detective? Follow me, please?"

I nodded, and with a small sigh of resignation, followed him into one of those up-and-down pretty glass boxes of death. The guard pressed his finger against a small scanner on the control panel, and pressed the button for level eight. The elevator ascended, quick like a bunny. It was surprisingly smooth. No crash, no painful, glass-shard-riddled death. I was grateful for that.

I followed the guard down another overdone hallway, turned left, and found myself face-to-face with Simon's lovely assistant, Taylor.

It took all my force of will not to dropkick the bitch through the roof.

I stood impassively while she gushed. "Hi, Lucie! Simon will be here as soon as he can get out of his meeting. In the meantime, I've brought a snack cart, and there are magazines, Memory Chips, and a console with all the channels to keep you entertained." She gave me a cheery, plastic smile and chirped, "If there's anything I can get you, please let me know!"

My God. How does Simon put up with her? "Thank you," I replied politely (dismissively), and stepped through the door the security guard opened for me. He gave me an approving sort of smile, and I nodded back. "Thank you," I said again. He winked and left, closing the door behind him.

Simon's office.

It was nice, but...I don't know. It didn't seem very Simon-y.

The decor matched what I'd seen earlier, but it wasn't as showy or overdone. The walls were decorated with some inoffensive paintings, and the furniture was very manly-looking. More real wood, from the looks of it. It was quite the gorgeous setup, but what really impressed me was the large glass wall behind Simon's desk. From this high up (eighth floor! He really must be a bigwig), you could see most of Indigo and the woods beyond. What a beautiful view. Simon must love this. I hoped he got to enjoy it.

But...somehow, though, I couldn't see him sitting here in his tailored suits, doing... whatever it was that he did. A reminiscent smile tugged at the corners of my mouth as I pictured my husband. When I pictured him, it was "cop" Simon, with his shaggy blonde hair that always hung slightly over his collar, his blue-grey eyes squinted and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. I wondered if he still had that cruddy, smelly old trench coat. One of our worst arguments happened the time I tried to throw it away. He actually rummaged through the dumpster to find it. How gross is that? It was his lucky coat, he'd yelled at me, and no way could I throw it away. I pointed out that he could wash it once a decade, at least, but he'd just scowled at me and hid it in the back of his closet. Yuck. No one looking at him would have imagined they were looking at one of the best, sharpest homicide detectives that the NYPD had ever produced. Of course, that might have been his intention. Hard to tell with Simon sometimes.

Another mental image of my husband that I was fond of was his 'after hours' look. Curled up in his favourite reclining chair, wearing a soft, battered old sweatshirt and faded jeans, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of that port he liked in the other. Smiling lazily at me, squinting through the smoke...

My eyes stung. I turned away from the window.

God, how I missed that Simon.

When the lump in my throat finally receded, I looked down at the big leather chair and massive wooden desk. Massive as in massive. What was up with that? Did he really have so much paperwork? Or some sort of he/man/power/authority trip? As was his way, the desktop was mostly clear. Top-of-the-line access unit, desktop calendar, a carved stone box holding a few pens, scratch pads, a folder with a photocube sitting on top of it.

I was surprised. He still had that photocube? I'd given it to him when he'd started working here, with some of his favourite photos on it. Bemused, I watched the images morph in and out. Our wedding. The day I got promoted to Homicide. Our honeymoon, walking on the beach. A goofy baby picture of me that my mother, who'd adored Simon, had given him. An old shot of me dozing on our couch back in New York, with his old cat Harley protectively sprawled out on top of me.

I didn't understand. Why would he still have this on his desk, if he was so hell-bent on divorce?

Then I noticed the folder underneath the photo cube.

It was an ordinary type of paper folder, but what caught my eye was the Nickerson Investigations logo on the front of it. Was Simon active in his 'on the side' investigation business again? I thought that was why he'd hired another investigator: to handle the work while Simon owned the business and handled the administrative stuff and worked at his full-time job. Bit of a workaholic, Simon was.

Then I noticed my name written under the logo. Beside my name was a question mark. My stomach lurched.

I picked up the folder, my hands shaking, and opened it. I already knew what was in there. I just fucking knew.

Pictures of me. With Orr. Of course.

Oh my God, this was low.

I hissed, surprised at the absolute ice-cold fury that whooshed through me. Some of these shots had to have been taken with a zoom lens, because my hotel room was on the second floor. There were close-ups of us in bed. In pretty good detail.

I felt like I was going to throw up.

I managed - somehow - to make my way over to one of the plushy chairs, and I dropped my ass into it, still holding that folder. I couldn't believe how furious I was at the invasion of my privacy, at...oh God, all of it. This was unbelievable. And unnecessary. If he wanted a divorce, he didn't need these pictures.

The pre-nup that I'd insisted upon kept his family fortune safe from me in the event of a divorce. He'd been angry about it, but I refused to marry him otherwise. I wouldn't accept a penny from him...so why this? Why these pictures? My God. This was crossing a line in a big way.

Furious or not, though, I was on the job, and I still had a job to do, even if I wanted to shove this folder so far up his tight little...

"Hello, Lucie."

I jumped a little at the sound of his voice. My head swung around, but I didn't answer. I was trying to keep myself from wringing his prying little neck. Deep breathing time. Count to ten. Twenty. Thirty...

Simon looked good. Really, really good. He plucked a bottle of water from the ridiculously-overladen snack cart that Taylor had brought, and moved to sit behind his "I Am SO The Man" desk. He didn't seem to notice that I was holding his little porn collection.

He studied me for a few moments, puzzled. Probably wondering why my eyes were shooting daggers at him.

Yeah, he looked damned good. Maybe a few more lines on his face, maybe a bit more grey at the temples. No matter. At forty-eight, he could still turn heads. Obviously. His hair and sideburns had been trimmed, and his dark blue suit looked expensive.

He didn't like being surprised like this, which is what I had expected. I told myself to keep cool. Too bad my stomach wasn't listening to my brain. It was doing flip-flops like no one's business.

Simon and I, we had two very different fighting styles. When he was pissed, he was "coolly pissed". He'd make critical, cutting remarks. I could stay calm until he started with that crap. I was a bit more explosive, and the way I was feeling right now, he'd best watch out. Just sayin'.

I tried to stay reasonable. I really, really did. In fact, I was going to suck it up, and cut straight to the reason I was here, but he started before I could even get my mouth open. With a sneer, he said, "Lucie, you look like hell. Have you showered this month? Your hair...makeup... You've lost weight, too. It makes you look older." He smirked. "Oh, and by the way, love, are you still a pathetic, slobbering drunk?"

Oh. Nice. Real nice, Simon.

Unbelievably smug, he leaned forward, hands clasped on top of his desk, and cocked a taunting, challenging eyebrow at me.

You know, a jury full of women would never convict me.

Actually, I was kind of proud of myself for how I handled him. I stood up - still furious, mind you - walked over to his desk, and carelessly tossed the folder down in front of him. I didn't roll it up and beat him upside the head with it, or shove it down his throat sideways. I really wanted to, but I didn't. And my voice was actually steady. "Some investigator you are," I said, sneering right back at him. I picked up a pen from the carved stone box. The pen looked like gold. Real gold? Who the hell was he trying to impress?

I crossed out the question mark and wrote "Officer Orr Harrison, ICPD." I dropped the heavy pen on top of the folder, then sat down again.

Simon sat there, his face dead white, and stared at the folder. Not a scrap of smugness now. He didn't meet my eyes.

Quietly, I said, "I didn't start seeing Orr until a couple of weeks after you and I split up, Simon. During fourteen years of marriage, and before that, I was never unfaithful to you. Not once."

The moment stretched out, and it sucked. It really hurt. Slowly, Simon raised his eyes to meet mine, and pain shot through me at the look on his face. This was all so wrong, and so awful. Still quietly, I asked, "Is this why you asked for a divorce?"

"...yes..."

It was hard to keep my expression steady. "The answer is no. We really need to talk about things, to try to work through them."

"I...don't think it's possible..."

I hated the way his voice sounded. He sounded so...small. Wounded. I hated that I just wanted to run over to him and wrap my arms around him and make the big, bad, ugly world go away, just as I always had. I could never stay mad at him. I hated that I still loved him so much.

"Why, Simon? Why is it not possible? Tell me that."

With a sudden burst of rage, he flung the folder open and grabbed one particularly explicit photo. He held it up. I tried not to wince. "How the hell can you ask such a stupid question?" He snarled. His blue eyes were fiery.

"Shut up," I hissed right back at him. "Are your own hands so clean?" I pointed toward the door. "How long have you been fucking your secretary, Mr. Cliche? Don't give me your bullshit."

Disgusted, he dropped the photo. "It's over, Lucie."

"I don't think so."

"I'm filing for divorce."

"I'm not signing."

He swung his chair around to look out the window, and folded his arms across his chest protectively. "What the hell do you want from me?"

Boy, I was mad. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. I jumped out of my chair again, stormed over to him, and swung his chair around to face me. His pale complexion was flushed, and for a second, I thought he was going to hit me. He'd never done so before, but I'd never seen him this angry.

"I won't sign a goddamned thing until you give things a chance," I said quickly. "That's all I'm asking. A chance to work things out."

"Oh, really." His voice laced with scorn, Simon pointed at the pictures. "How would your boyfriend feel about that?"

"Probably the same as your girlfriend."

Simon sighed and looked away, his movements stiff. "Give it up, Lucie. It's over."

"I will. I promise, I will. If you give us a chance first." I sat on the edge of his desk, earning a dirty look.

Simon shook his head. "Why bother?"

"Because I still love you. More than anything. Seriously."

Oh jeez, did I really just say that? Way to hang myself out to dry. Just hand over all the emotional weapons he needs, why don't I? I forced myself not to pull my hoodie up over my face in embarrassment.

Simon slowly turned to look at me, shock and disbelief and...what? Hope?...on his handsome face. I probably imagined that last bit. "Are you kidding me?"

Ah, hell.

I wasn't going to save this marriage with pride. May as well grovel a bit. "No," I said, softly. Pleading. "I would never joke about that. You're...you're all I want. All I think about."

One thick eyebrow arched upwards. "Obviously," he said dryly, pointing at the pictures again.

I held his gaze. "We're both guilty of adultery. I wonder who was first."

I hadn't forgotten the night we split up. The perfume I'd smelled on him that night was the same one that Taylor was wearing today. I was sure of it. And that hurt like hell.

We sat there for a moment, and stared each other down. Awkward.

Simon looked away, and rubbed his face tiredly with his hands. "No, Lucie," he said. "There's no point in wasting any more time. If you're not here to agree to a divorce, then you may as well leave. I've got work to do." He picked up his pen and pulled some paper out of a drawer.

I bit my lip to keep from breaking down. I was furious with myself. Honestly, I was so stupid sometimes. So stupid. Enough with the personal bullshit, I told myself sternly. Mental reset time.

Then I said, "Simon, I need to talk to you. It's confidential."

"What now?" Simon looked up at me, exasperated.

"I'm here on police business." I pulled Robyn Newmann's Chip out of my jeans pocket, and tossed it on the desk. Right on top of that damned folder. "Tell me about this."

He frowned. "Do I need a lawyer?"

I shrugged. "Dunno. Listen. Let's keep this off the record, for the moment. You can decide after you've had a look, okay?"

I leaned back in my comfortable chair. As good as Simon looked (and make no mistake, he looked great), there was just something here that didn't fit in, didn't look right. As though this job, this office, were all part of a pose.

Well...wait. Maybe it was. The thought startled me. Maybe this job was part of that midlife thingy that I suspected was going on with him. Maybe he was like me, in a way. Maybe he had no more idea who he was anymore than I did.

Wow. What a thought.

Poor guy. I thought of going over to give him a hug, then I slumped. Maybe not right now. And yeah, my emotions were all over the place. As usual.

He gave me a weird look, then glanced down at the Chip, and frowned again. He tilted his head to the side, a sure sign that he was intrigued. After a second, he slipped on the reading glasses that I found so devastatingly sexy on him.

He examined the small Chip closely, his frown deepening.

"Where did you get this?"

"From the Reader of a young woman who went crazy and attacked her family. Two other attacks are directly linked, including a double homicide that took place yesterday morning."

Simon's face went slack with shock. "I heard about that. Two little boys?"

"Yes." I nodded, grim. "The teacher went nuts. She beat them to death with her bare hands. She had a Chip similar to this one in her Reader at the time. And on the weekend, a young man was using one of these same Chips. He attacked his family. He destroyed the Chip afterwards. There were two others - you'll notice that this Chip is designated as number four of five - but the other two have been destroyed and were not used. I'm hoping and praying that there aren't others out there."

As usual, focusing on my job had the handy side effect of calming me down, forcing me to concentrate and forget my personal issues. Maybe I should just work twenty-four hours a day.

Oh, wait. I already did. And it didn't help. Maybe I should work harder. Sleep was overrated, anyway. So was having a life. I'd had one, and I hadn't really done anything worthwhile with it, anyway.

Simon stared at me for a long moment, then down at the Chip, then back at me. Indecision was plastered all over his face. That, and concern. Then he said, "I'd better get our legal team in here."

"Hold on," I said, holding up a hand. "Simon, wait. Still off the record here. I'm not on a witch hunt. Is this an Alltchip product?"

"I...don't know."

"Hear me out. I want to keep this as quiet as possible for now. I promise you, this is private."

A familiar look of exasperation crossed his handsome features. "Lucie, we've talked about this hundreds of times. 'By the book', not 'off the record'. That's the surest way to get a conviction. When are you going to learn?"

I swear I almost laughed. He was lecturing me, like I was a rookie again.

What a team we'd made back in NYC. It was ironic that people thought he resembled the Dirty Harry character, when, in fact, if anyone was more like Dirty Harry, it was me. Except I wasn't as good a shot. Simon was pretty good with a gun. I preferred to kick the shit out of people.

But it was surreal, sitting in these luxurious surroundings, listening to Simon nag me as he had, time and time again, about detecting methods. Simon was tried-and-true, by-the-book, sure-and-steady. I was the one to say, "Hey! One plus one plus one equals three, now let's go arrest the perp!" and tear off, badge in one hand, handcuffs in the other. I think I would have seriously driven Simon nuts if I hadn't had such fabulous instincts and been right ninety-eight percent of the time. Poor man. How the hell had he put up with me for such a long time?

"Listen," I said, "Here's what I've got. I trust you. I don't think you're in on this. If you are, then I'm screwed, but you're the only one I can talk to, so I guess I'm screwed either way." I shrugged. "So here's how it is. According to the five kids who received these Chips, they were at a beach party on Friday night, when someone named Kevin approached them. He said he was a programmer here at Alltchip, and that they were testing these new demo Chips, and he distributed them for free."

Simon was shaking his head before I even finished speaking. "Impossible. We don't have demo Chips, and we would never test them like that."

"I know that." I leaned forward in my chair. "Do you have any programmers named Kevin?"

Simon shrugged. "Probably. But I doubt anyone would be stupid enough to use their real name."

"No, because that would be ridiculous. I've never met a stupid criminal in my entire career."

My flat sarcasm startled Simon, and he actually laughed. "Lucie... All right. I'll check. But you need to realize, one person alone could not create a Chip. The entire system is designed that way. It takes several people to do it."

"The Chip works in Alltchip Readers," I reminded him.

Simon turned grim. "Damn." He propped an elbow on his desk, and leaned his chin onto his fist. He looked depressed, but I could tell he was trying to come up with alternatives. Anything had to be better for him than to have Alltchip involved in a mess like this. I pressed on.

"Does that mean it could only be an Alltchip product? Or could someone else...? A competitor, maybe? Disgruntled former employee?"

"Impossible. We've got our own programming language and our own hardware, built on-site to our own specifications, for just that reason. The patents, the technology, the safeguards..."

Spare me, please. He kept talking, but I tuned out the tech-babble. "So is there a way if you can tell if that came from here?"

"Yes," He snapped, irritated. He hated being interrupted. "And if it does, in fact, work in our Readers, then it could only have come from here."

"As far as you know. Can you check?"

"Oh, come on now, Lucie!"

I waited him out. Finally, he glowered and said, "Yes, fine, I'll check, if it'll make you happy."

"Without alerting anyone to what you're doing?"

He finally clued in. His gaze sharpened. "As in, without tipping anyone off?"

"Exactly. Took you long enough to figure that out, Mr. Overpaid Security Guard," I sneered.

Simon shot me a sour look, but ignored my jab. "My system is impenetrably firewalled from the rest of the company, for security reasons. There's a simple test. Shut up and watch. Maybe you'll learn something."

"Maybe I'll even care," I quipped. His lips tightened. We were gonna start brawling, if this kept up. Maybe I'd better pipe down, as my Gran used to say.

He tapped the top of his desk, and a panel slid open to reveal some hardware-type stuff. It looked different from what I was used to. He slid the small Chip into a slot, and within the second, streams of data began streaming across his monitor. He paled.

"It's one of ours," he said, stunned. "My God..."

"Okay, then," I said, softly. "What does it do?"

Miserably, he shook his head. "I can't tell you. I'm only at the second level of training." He fixed me with worried eyes. "I have nowhere near the training necessary to understand this. I've just finished my first level of training. I do it at night, you see, and do the rest of my job during the day."

I frowned. "Is there anyone you can trust enough to ask?"

He sat there for a moment, lost in thought. Then he shook his head. "No. God, no. Not with absolute certainty."

Shit. "We need to know if there are more of these in the works, Simon. I'm serious."

Simon gave me a long, level look. "Lucie, honestly now. What makes you so sure they're connected to the assaults?"

"Statements from two of the vics. And," I smiled wryly, "My famous intuition, of course."

Tiredly, Simon rubbed the bridge of his nose, then lowered his forehead into his hands. "Great. Just great," he groaned. I think he was starting to realize just what he was in for, here.

"Let me get the kids in here to look at personnel photos. Maybe they can identify this guy. I ask again: Do you have anyone named Kevin in programming?"

Simon stared at me balefully, as though this were all my fault, sighed hugely, then tapped on his PC. A few more taps, and he read from a list on the monitor. "In the programming ranks, there are four Kevins. Throughout the company, seventeen."

"Can I bring the kids in?"

He sighed again. "Yes."

"Do you want to call your legal team in now?"

Simon closed his eyes as though he was in pain (but it was probably just a me-inspired headache) and said, "No. You're right. I think we had better keep this quiet right now." He tossed the Chip back to me. "You'd better hang on to this."

"Yes."

Simon's office door was flung open, and Taylor flounced in, her cheery voice brittle and her gorgeous eyes narrowed. Boy, she looked pissed. Or jealous. "Excuse me! Simon, your three o'clock is here. Shall I tell him to wait?"

Simon stiffened. "Cancel it," he snapped.

"But...but Simon, we really need to start the proceedings..."

Ha. I hid a smirk. If there was one thing that Simon particularly hated, it was whining, and Taylor was working up to a good one.

The temperature in the room dropped a good twenty degrees, or so it seemed. Simon did that ice cube thing with his eyes, the thing he does when he's beyond pissed. He used to be able to wring a lot of confessions out of suspects with that glare alone.

In that frigid, flat voice that I hated when it was directed at me, he said, "I told you yesterday to cancel it. Now do your job and get out of my office."

My mean inner self began to do an astonished happy dance. I could guess what proceedings Ms. Homewrecker was so anxious to get started, and I knew what that sudden deep freeze from Simon meant. Oh, I knew my Simon.

I remembered what Claudia had said, how he hadn't looked happy at dinner. It looked like she was right. In fact, I was betting that he and Taylor were kaput. She might not know it yet, but I guessed that by the end of the day, she would. I could almost feel sorry for her...but, um, no, I couldn't. She was a trashbag. Simon deserved better.

Whether "better" meant "me", I didn't know, but it sure as hell didn't mean her. I wondered what brought this on, though?

Her face was tomato-red and her expensively-made-up eyes were glittering. She mumbled, "Yes, sir," and slunk out the door. If she'd had a tail, it would have been between her legs. An awkward silence settled after she left.

I hadn't planned to go back into the personal stuff, but now there was no way in hell that I could resist. Not after that charming little scene. Besides, willpower isn't always my strong point. In fact, I think it's far too overrated. And every tub of ice cream I've ever met agreed with me. Life's too short, and all that.

"So. Um. About...you and Taylor..." Simon shot me a dark glance, and a thought struck me. "Is she knocked up? Is that why you were so gung-ho for a divorce?"

His lips tightened. "No, Lucie, she's not pregnant." He shoved the folder of me-porn across the desk. "Are you?"

And, oh look, there went the last of my self-control, flying out the window on tiny, bitter little wings.

I think my eyes started shooting sparks. I jumped up, and I grabbed that goddamned folder and whipped it at him. Simon leapt out of his chair. Pictures flew everywhere.

One thing we'd both agreed on was not having children. Was I happy about it? Yes...and no. Had I ever regretted it? No...and yes.

Sometimes I did. Especially lately. I wondered if I hadn't given up something wonderful, in return for something that hadn't turned out so wonderful after all. Especially when I saw the way Orr was around kids. Maybe if I'd met someone like Orr first, my life would have been a hundred percent different.

Maybe I wouldn't be such a complete fuck-up.

I looked away, hoping Simon hadn't seen the pain that I knew was plain on my face. All my emotions tended to broadcast on my face. I hated that.

But of course, no such luck. Damn him for being so observant, and for knowing me so well. He opened his mouth to say something, but I cut him off.

"Asshole," I snapped, and turned to leave. Simon caught me before I reached the office door.

"Lucie?" He stood in between me and the door. I could smell that unique, outdoorsy scent that was his, his alone, and suddenly I just wanted to sit down and have a good cry and stop lying to myself. Fuck it. I'd lost everything that mattered. All I had left was my job, and I wasn't sure it was worth anything anymore. Jesus. What a mess. What a big, fucking mess.

"I've got to get back to the station," I said, not meeting his eyes. "Can I bring the students by later." My voice was dull. I needed to get out of there. He needed to move, now.

"Yes," he said, softly. "Make the arrangements, and call me. Are you all right?"

I closed my eyes. "Get out of my way."

Simon held me, his hands on my shoulders. "Lucie, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to..."

"Let go of me. Get out of my way."

I sensed the sudden, familiar, wonderful electricity spark between us.

I'd missed that so much. And with a little jolt, I realized that I'd never, ever felt anything similar with anyone else. Including Orr.

"No," he said, even more softly. His grip loosened, and he wrapped his arms around me protectively. "I'm not letting you go, and I'm not getting out of your way..."

I brought my hands up between us. "Simon, please." I looked up, into the familiar face that I loved so much. "I have a job to do."

He sighed, and released me. "Fine." He turned away, tight-lipped. "We'll talk about it later."

"That's all I'm asking for. A chance to talk things over. But not right now. Please don't confuse the issue."

Amazed, Simon shook his head. "You're a piece of work, you know that? So say we get back together. What then? Are you still going to be out partying and fucking around every night..."

Ohmigod, would this nightmare of a conversation never end?

How much more could I handle? I leaned against the wall, and hung my head. Why did this have to be so hard? I was so tired.

"I never fucked around, and I quit drinking. What about you, Simon? Can you honestly say your hands are clean?"

Simon's normally pale complexion turned a bright red. After a long, spiky-painful moment, he said in a low voice, "No."

My face crumpled for a split-second, and I turned away. I just didn't have the time to waste on this bullshit. Then something struck me. "Wait. Back to this Chip. You really don't think it's just one perp? Why?"

Simon stared at me in astonishment. "You just...how do you do that? How do you just shift gears like that?" He groaned. "You're driving me mad. You know that? You drive me right up the fucking wall sometimes."

"Answer my question."

"Christ. No, it can't possibly be just one perp." He was pissed, his eyes bright and his hands on his hips.

"Why would someone do this?"

"That's what concerns me."

"I wonder..." I mused. "Secretly working for the military? Some kind of project, designed to control people? Maybe?"

"You're not trying to foist a conspiracy theory off on me, are you?" Simon asked, incredulous. "What's next? UFO's?"

"Have you got a better idea?"

He shook his head. "Not yet, but I'll think about it. Oh, and Lucie?"

"What?"

"Not a word to anyone."

"Exactly my point. Thank you."

"I need to think about all this."

"Yeah, me too. I'm gonna go, now."

"Okay. Call me."

"I will."

I turned to go, but then Simon shocked the hell out of me. "Wait," he said. He sounded resigned, and even a bit amused. Reaching out to me quickly, he caught my face between his large, slightly-rough hands - I'd always loved his hands - he held me tight and crushed his mouth against mine.

I was surprised, shocked, still more than a little furious, and I almost pulled away. But then I tasted his familiar taste, inhaled his familiar scent, and it did me in. I wrapped my arms around his neck. He deepened the kiss, and I think my knees went a little goofy. This. This is what I'd been needing, more than anything.

God, I'd missed this. Missed him so much, missed his touch. It felt...perfect. Felt right.

It felt like home.

~ EIGHT ~

I don't remember much about the drive back to the station. My thoughts and emotions were all over the place. Thankfully, traffic wasn't heavy, and I didn't get any calls.

I got a drive-through coffee and parked at the same park that Claudia and I visited yesterday. It was still early, and I really needed a few minutes to process what had just happened. I stayed in the car and turned the music up. Mellow tunes today. I just needed to calm down. Stare at the pretty trees and pretty pond and zone out. I was glad to see that there was no one else around this time. No distractions.

Jeez. My lips were still tingling from that kiss. How long had it been? Almost a year, I'd say. We'd grown so far apart. Even though we'd only actually split four months ago, things had really sucked for a while before that.

I slouched in the car seat. The coffee was still too hot to drink, but the hot steam coming off it smelled incredibly good. My head was swirling as much as the steam was. How weird was it to feel guilty for cheating on my boyfriend with my husband? This was how screwed up my life had become.

See, the thing was, Simon and I, we'd been doing just fine, back in New York. Husband-and-wife teams, while not unheard of, weren't usually the best idea. But for some reason it had worked for us. Maybe because that's how we got together in the first place? Probably. And we had no issues with rank. Simon had seniority on me, but that was it.

Then my Dad passed. Mom had passed a few months before, and Dad left me the farm here in Indigo. Ugh. I'd moved to get away from boring small city life, especially from farm life. I sure as hell didn't want to come back to it.

Not that the farm was so hard to run, really. We didn't have crops, just a small vegetable garden. My parents' farm produced horses. Miniature horses.

Miniature horses were just like regular horses, but about the size of a large dog. Indeed, a lot of them were sold as pets, but the real business came from selling them to be trained as companion animals. Seeing-eye horses, I guess. Stuff like that.

I didn't really mind them. They were okay. I wasn't a horse person, and I didn't like the work involved with caring for them, but I had to admit that they were sort of cute. My folks had kept a few over the years as pets. But I didn't want to run the damned place. In my parents' lawyer's office, I was all like, "Nuh-uh! No way!" Wasn't I shocked when my silver-spoon-raised hubby was all like, "Yeehaa, we're moving to Maine!" I'd thought he was joking. Well, the joke was on me, wasn't it?

Simon had always loved visiting Maine with me. He loved helping my folks on the farm whenever we were here. We'd spent our honeymoon here, and I swear he'd spent half of it shovelling shit. I thought it was just something different for him, you know, where he'd grown up rich. But to take over the farm? Was he kidding me?

I'd said no. Absolutely not. And I think I even held my ground for a good three or four days. But it's so hard to say no to Simon when he really wants something, and was this so bad, really? (Yes, but he's very persuasive.)

In the end, I said oh, what the hell. (I always give in to him too easily.) Simon took a full retirement from the NYPD, to run the farm full-time. I managed to secure a transfer to ICPD.

At first, it wasn't too awful. Simon was having fun, and although I was a bit bored, I really liked the gang at ICPD. I'd hooked up with my old band from high school - except for the bass player, they all still lived nearby - and we jammed a couple of times a week (once we'd found a new bass player, of course). I was the drummer, and although it took me a while, I eventually got back into practise. And in our spare time together, Simon and I spent a lot of time hiking in the woods and bumming around on the beach. We'd go for drives all over the place so he could collect antiques for the farmhouse, and he'd even taken up photography. He was pretty good at it.

The problem is, we both started to get bored. He missed working - really working, that is - and I missed my old life. We handle boredom differently, Simon and I. Simon goes all workaholic. I go all self-destructive. Not at all a good mix, that.

So, while I was out with the ICPD's party crowd a couple of nights a week, and out with my band another couple of nights, Simon started up a part-time investigation business, 'Nickerson Investigations'. It was fun for him at first, but then the business grew like crazy. Who knew there was so much investigating to do in a craphole like Indigo? Cheating spouses, insurance scams...seriously now, who would have guessed? Surprised the hell outta me.

The business grew so much that Simon offered me full partnership. Partly to keep me out of the trouble that he wisely foresaw me heading for, and partly because he couldn't handle everything by himself. I was so much into the "poor me" thing by this time, though, that I refused, and he eventually had to hire Dane Shand.

Dane was a real sweetie. Late forties, widower, loaded with money, built like the football player he had been back in his school days. He had shoulder-length, shaggy blonde hair, a nicely-trimmed beard, and the most beautiful aqua blue eyes. He was a pretty good-looking guy. I think he was still single because he was so damned shy around women. Stupid women. He was a catch, and they didn't seem to see it. I'd been one of the younger schoolgirls with a bit of a crush on him, back in the day. A bunch of us used to go to the high school football games, pretending we were football fans when we really just wanted to watch the big blonde hunk in his tight little football pants. Unfortunately, a knee injury put an end to his football career. Too bad. My Dad always said he could have made it big.

Anyway, he now owned that huge bookstore near the precinct, and fancied himself a private investigator. He even had a correspondence school diploma. I don't think he was very good at the job, but he made up for lack of skill with an abundance of enthusiasm. Simon liked him a lot. Anyway, the business got so busy that soon, the two of them were pretty much working full-time hours, and Simon even had to hire a couple of part-time farmhands to keep up.

See, I think maybe this was the point where I should have sat Simon down and had a talk with him. He was in full-blown work junkie mode, and never had any time for me. I was in full-blown party mode, and never made any time for him. That wasn't good. How could we have been so stupid? We both knew better, of course, but I guess sometimes a person just gets on a streak, and doesn't know enough to quit it. That was us, I guess.

We eventually did have a few showdowns, when we actually saw each other. The result was always something along the lines of me promising to cut back on my late nights, and him always promising to cut back on the workaholic thing.

And it always worked. For a couple of weeks each time, anyway, things were pretty good. Then, there was this one time when he really pissed me off. I realize now that he had only good intentions. If only he'd discussed it with me first. Like they say, communication is the key. I guess the trick is to remember that.

See, he'd been offered a job by Alltchip a couple of times, as Director Of Internal Affairs. Each time, he had turned it down. This time, thinking a more structured day job might help us sort things out, he jumped at the offer, and he turned into a 'suit'.

I hated it. It ended up tearing us apart.

Monday to Friday, eight to five. It should have worked, but it didn't. That was partly my fault. I was such a bitch about it. I hated the 'suit'.

I think that maybe I just didn't want to grow up, to accept that we were both getting older, changing. Maybe I felt that Simon was outgrowing me. So what did I do? I overcompensated. I left him at home night after night, while I went out and partied it up even more often with the gang. I don't know why. I guess I just wasn't as ready to grow up as he was. Maturity has never been my strong point. Neither is self-control.

The night that we actually split was one hell of a doozy.

Ironically, I'd had enough of my own stupidity, and I wanted to fix things. Maybe I should have talked to him, too, rather than just react. I mean, really, we hadn't been talking anymore. All we ever did anymore was fight or ignore each other, and that wasn't the life that I had wanted. I came to the conclusion that if we were going to make it, then I had to try to change. He'd already tried, and I'd rejected it. I figured it was my turn to give a little.

So what did I do? I came home one night, straight after work. I prettied myself up real nice, cooked his favourite dinner, planned a nice romantic evening, the whole works. It was gonna be awesome. Everything was going to be absolutely great.

By nine that night, dinner was wrapped up in the fridge, and I was three-quarters of the way through a bottle of therapy.

Just after ten, he strolled in, rumpled clothes and smelling like an expensive whore. I can't forget how shocked he looked to see me home before midnight. How naive I was, to think he'd been spending his nights home alone, waiting for me. How goddamned stupid.

I can't remember everything we screamed at each other that night, but man, was it nasty. I do remember throwing a punch at him (to my eternal shame), and grabbing my bags (which I had packed right after I'd packed up dinner) and hightailing it into town. It's a wonder I didn't wreck the car. I was such an idiot.

I checked into Indigo Plaza Hotel, and that's been my home for the last four months. And today was the first time I'd seen Simon since that night.

What a God-awful mess.

I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. I was so tired. I was so sick of all this.

Every marriage has its ups and downs, of course. But this had been one huge hell of a down. I just hoped the damage wasn't permanent. And what, exactly, was I going to do about Orr?

I chugged the last of my coffee, and watched bird crap drip down the front of my windshield. I was just so sick and tired of thinking and worrying all the time. I really needed a vacation. A vacation from my life, a vacation from myself, even. With a sad sigh, I started the car and drove to the station.

Orr met me in the parking lot. Damn.

Had he been waiting for me? How long? He didn't look too happy. He leaned against the back wall of the station, arms folded across his chest and a cold, even remote, expression on his face.

"Lucie."

"Hey, Orr." I had a hard time making eye contact. "What's up?"

"Briefing in the Loo's office."

We jogged up the stairs together, in an uncomfortable silence. I tossed my jacket on top of my desk, and re-tied my ponytail on the way to Margherita's office. It had come undone when Simon kissed me. Claudia was sitting there, waiting for us and looking over some paperwork with Margherita. They looked up at us when we entered the office. With four of us in there, it was a bit crowded.

"Hi, Lucie," Margherita said. "We're just going to do a quick recap of what you've all gotten done today. Who wants to go first?"

Claudia and Orr gave the same information that I'd gotten on the phone with them earlier, albeit in considerably more detail, though. Orr spouted a lot of technical stuff that didn't make much sense to me, and Claudia went all medical. I tuned it out. The gist was the same. We needed Alltchip's help on the technical stuff, and it looked like these Chips really did mess with people's heads. Jesus. Sounded like a bad movie.

I then spent a fair bit briefing everyone on my afternoon's events, with careful enough wording that I didn't reveal anything about the Chip I was carrying. I still didn't have that part figured out yet. Oh, and I left out the personal stuff, of course. I could tell that Claudia was dying to ask, though. Orr looked grim and suspicious. Poor guy had no idea.

"Interesting," Margherita finally said, looking at me with something like surprised respect. "It looks like you really are on to something, Lucie. It's unbelievably far-fetched, and unfortunately, very circumstantial, but there just might be something there. Well, move ahead with your plan to have the kids identify photos, then. Any chance we could get Orr working with Simon on the technology angle? Orr's got an extensive computer background, as you know. Claudia's good on the hospital situation. Plus I need a report put together. Claudia can handle that."

I almost choked. Was she joking?

There was a beyond-awkward silence for a few long seconds. Then Orr said, faintly, "Sure, Loo. No problem." Except the look that he shot me said that there most definitely was.

This was turning out to be the day from hell.

What was she thinking? I met Claudia's wide-eyed look with one of my own.

"Good. Get on it. Oh, and another thing." Margherita looked grave. "This could be huge. You've got to realize that this is more than likely to become a Federal investigation, given Alltchip's ties to the military."

We all nodded in agreement. I hadn't really thought about that part, but now that I did, I wasn't just curious. Now I was worried.

Like, really, how huge was this? Could the military be connected? God, I hoped not. I already had a real bad feeling that we were in way over our heads. Bring Big Brother in, and we were completely sunk. Or this would all mysteriously go away. I wasn't sure which option bothered me more.

"Good. Make sure we've got all our ducks in a row, everyone, and proceed strictly by the book now, in case we have to hand everything over to the Feds. Good work, you lot."

I headed back to my desk. I could feel Orr's eyes on me, and I could feel that damned Alltchip burning a hole in my pocket. Shit and double shit.

I was going to have to handle that somehow. I'd managed to keep that little bit of information to myself so far, but I was gonna have to come clean, if I didn't want to compromise the case. Maybe I'd talk to Simon about it.

My nerves were just humming, and I turned back to look at Orr. I'd never had a great poker face, and I'd bet dollars to doughnuts (another gem from my Gramps) that I didn't fool him right now, either.

"Orr? We need to talk."

Lame. Lamest line in the history of lame lines.

He stared hard at me for a moment, then scowled. "I'll bet."

"Let's go to the briefing room."

We shut the door behind us, and the late afternoon sun shining through the tall windows spotlighted the patch of wall behind the door, brightly illuminating those creepy pictures that I'd been receiving in the mail. I should ask Simon about them. Maybe later. If I was lucky enough to see him again.

And boom. There it was. That joyful little tingle that flashed through me at the thought of seeing Simon again was all that I needed.

Orr had been a distraction. A wonderful distraction, and I'll be honest, I loved him. But I loved Simon more.

Still, that didn't make this any easier. Orr was a great guy, and he deserved so much better than to get the shitty end of the stick. He deserved to be someone's number one, not someone's distraction.

This was gonna hurt.

"Go ahead, Luce," Orr said, his voice cold. He folded his arms and leaned one butt cheek on the table. I stood in front of him, hunched into my hoodie, hands shoved into my pockets. "Let's have the bad news," he snapped.

I just stared at him. I'd never seen him like this.

He gave a bitter little laugh, and shook his head, disgusted. Then he said, "I can see it in your face. The same look you had when we first got together. The 'I don't know if I can do this' look." He scowled. "Go ahead. Say it."

This was a lot harder than I had expected. "I'm sorry. Orr, I'm so sorry..."

"Sorry!..." Orr's face twisted. "And now I've gotta fucking work with him?"

"I...no, you don't. You can request off this case..."

"And blow the best chance I've had to get out of uniform? I don't think so, Lucie." He pushed past me, restless and angry. At the door, he turned back and said, "I'm sorry, too. I guess I just spent the last few months fooling myself. And now I feel like a complete idiot. But don't you worry. I'll keep doing my job, and I won't even rat you out about that Alltchip you're carrying around. I'll let you slit your own throat with that. You fucked up, and you're gonna have to fix it. I'm not helping you out on that one."

"Orr..." I started, uselessly. But he was gone.

I didn't cry, but I stayed in the darkening room alone for quite a while, staring blankly out the window, before I managed to rouse myself enough to return to my desk.

I had a job to do.

~ NINE ~

Well, I managed, somehow, to snap out of my guilty little funk, and make a few phone calls. When I was done, only one student was willing to come to Alltchip with me, and that was Alex LaForge. The other students claimed that they hadn't seen enough of the perp to make any kind of identification. At least Alex was willing to try.

I dialled Simon's number. It was just after five, and I hoped he was still there.

He answered on the second ring. I filled him in, and he suggested I bring Alex by around seven - he was staying late, doing a bit of research into Memory Chips that might help with this investigation. First Claudia and Orr, and now Simon. It seemed that I was turning everyone around me into researchers. I'm such a bad influence on people.

I called Alex back to let him know what time I'd be by, and then I went back into the briefing room, just to be alone for a little while. I rested my head on my folded hands. To anyone passing by, it would look as though I was taking a nap. Hopefully they'd leave me be, because I wasn't fit to deal with man or beast right now. My emotions were just shot.

How did some people do it, I wondered? Flit in and out of others' beds like it was nothing? My first and only affair (if it could even be called that, considering the circumstances) and it was tearing me into pieces.

I'd warned Orr right at the start that I was going to do my best to repair my marriage, that this fling stuff just wasn't my thing. Don't worry about it, he'd said. Friends with benefits. No strings attached. He'd just gone through his own divorce, and he said he hadn't been ready for a real relationship, either. We'd gone though enough crap, he'd said. We each deserved to do something for ourselves.

Friends with benefits. Yeah, right. I must have been crazy. When have I ever been able to do anything halfway? It wasn't his fault that I should have known better.

We'd cried on each other's shoulders enough already by that point. I guess hooking up was the natural next step. But to be honest, I'd never felt right about it. I knew that someday, I was going to pay for it.

Expecting payback and experiencing it were two wholly different things, though. Time to pay up. And it sucked.

Well, I'd run away from enough things in life. I guess it was time to grow up. Take responsibility for my shit. That meant fixing things with Simon, if possible. Trying to fix things up with Orr, if I could. No matter how much it hurt. I owed them both that much, at least.

A little alarm went off on my watch, and I lifted my head, bleary-eyed. It was dark in the briefing room now, and the station was pleasantly quiet. Only Margherita was still in her office, working late again. I thought I'd heard Claudia say goodbye earlier, very softly.

Well. Time to stop wallowing and go pick up Alex.

It was a few minutes' drive to his house. Pleasant little street, typical west side. Quiet, with serious landscaping and nice houses. This was the kind of neighborhood where people competed with their neighbors for the nicest lawn, biggest Christmas displays, most expensive cars, that sort of thing. Not my thing, but whatever turns peoples' cranks.

There wasn't much traffic, and it was a real nice night out. Cool, clear, with the ripe, old-fashioned scent of autumn on the breeze. The perfect kind of night for a walk on the beach. I debated grabbing some drive-through food on the way, and decided against it. I was hungry, but I could probably find that food cart at Alltchip and scrounge up a snack. Assuming Taylor hadn't spit on everything. She was probably venomous.

When I pulled up to Alex's place, his parents were waiting out front with him.

"Hi," I smiled, as I got out of the car and walked across the leaf-strewn lawn. I flashed my shield, and shook hands with Alex's father. Handsome fella, with dark hair and beautiful, clear blue eyes. "I'm Detective Lucie Nickerson. We spoke on the phone earlier. Thank you so much for letting Alex help me out."

"Well, it's his choice, and we can't stop him," his father said. I could see a strong resemblance between him and Alex. "But is there any danger?"

I never lied, if I absolutely didn't have to, so I answered truthfully, "I don't think so. I'm not sure, but I don't think so."

Mr. LaForge and his wife eyed me suspiciously, but said nothing. Alex said, "Come on, let's go," and grabbed my sleeve to drag me away. I smiled. He obviously didn't want his parents to change their minds. I probably would have been the same way, at his age.

"Thanks again," I called over my shoulder.

"Alex, you call us if you need anything," his mother called out.

"I will! Bye!" He slid into the passenger side of my car quickly, and slammed the door shut.

"Nice folks," I said, while Alex fiddled with the media console.

"Yeah, they're all right," he muttered. "Where's the...oh, here." The car filled with a pulsing metal blast, and I turned the sound down. This neighborhood was resolutely residential. I didn't need concerned citizens calling the cops on me for noise.

"Where's everyone else?"

"You're the only volunteer," I said, turning down the main intersection that would take us to Alltchip. "Thanks, Alex. I appreciate the help." I studied him out of the corner of my eye. He seemed a lot perkier and less stressed than he had earlier. That's good. I was glad to see him recover so quickly. I guessed the chance to help out was good for him. He seemed like a real nice kid. I hoped he'd get over this, in time.

"That's fine," he said, "But honestly, I didn't see him all that well."

"All you can do is try."

He gave me a polite smile, the kind of smile that teens humour adults with, and we made small talk until we reached Alltchip. His head swivelled around as we pulled into the main visitor parking lot. It was nearly empty, although Simon's car was still there. It had been plugged back in. I hid a guilty grin.

"Cool," Alex said, taking everything in.

"Have you ever been here before?"

"School trips, yeah, but we didn't get to see much. Just Building Four."

"Oh, I love Building Four," I said, "But we're going into Building One tonight. They're pretty tough about security here, but we'll be escorted by the Director Of Internal Affairs. Simon Nickerson."

Alex glanced at me. "Are you related?"

"Husband." Sort of.

"Cool. Is he a cop, too?"

"Used to be. We met on the job."

"That's cool."

"Yup." I smiled, and parked near Simon. Alex jumped out and plugged in the car. "Thanks," I said, exiting the vehicle. Then my heart skipped a beat.

Simon was standing outside, waiting for us.

"Hey," I said, with a nervous smile. I wasn't sure what to expect, after today.

"Lucie," he said, with a warm, intimate look. My heart kind of went thumpa-thumpa. "And this would be...?" He held a hand out to Alex.

"Simon, this is Alex LaForge. Alex, Simon Nickerson. Alex is a grade twelve student at Indigo West, and he's one of the cases we discussed today. He's volunteered to help us identify this Kevin person."

Simon nodded gravely. "Thank you, Alex. Follow me, you two."

I walked behind the two of them, smiling as I listened to Alex pepper Simon with questions. Simon, good-naturedly, answered all of them. One of Simon's best qualities as a detective was his knack for talking to people. He just had a way of putting people at ease, and getting them to open up. Thank God, because I had a knack of pissing people off. He was the talker, I was the thinker.

We reached his office, and I was relieved to see that there was a new food cart there, even bigger and more loaded than the first one. I guess he'd been expecting more students. We each grabbed a plateful of goodies. Simon and Alex settled in behind the desk, so they could use the touchmonitor, and I curled up in one of those super-comfortable chairs with my food and my PC. I plugged in my headphones to listen to music without annoying Simon and Alex, and started making notes in my little all-purpose note book. I don't know why it is, but I just seem to think better - clearer - on paper. I could see patterns better that way.

It took almost two hours, and I had long since abandoned my notes to catch up on my email and watch music videos. We made a huge dent in that food cart, too. The field was narrowed down to three possible suspects. All three were in the programming departments, and only one of them was actually named Kevin. Ironically, he was the one that Alex was the least sure of.

"I thought he had a beard," Alex said, apologetically, as we packed up and got ready to leave.

"No matter. Beards are easy enough to grow and shave off," Simon had reassured him.

"Yeah, great stuff, Alex. You've been a huge help." And I meant it. "Now I've got to get you home. You've got school tomorrow."

Alex rolled his eyes. Simon and I shared an amused look. I guessed Alltchip was more to Alex's liking.

We took the elevator downstairs, and I couldn't help myself. I had to stop and gaze at the miniature jungle again. Alex hadn't really noticed it before, but he did now. He stopped and stared, his mouth hanging open. "Wow," he finally said.

Simon smiled. "You get used to it."

"That's too bad," I replied, irritated. "I hope I never get so jaded."

Simon flushed and shot me a dirty look. I gave it right back, and finally he sighed and turned to look at the indoor garden. After a moment, his face softened into a smile, and his eyes looked a bit unfocused. He chuckled. "I've passed by this thing every day for over a year now, and I think this may have been the first time that I've actually really looked at it." He smiled at me. "That's one of the things I love about you, Luce. Sometimes, I feel like I'm seeing the world for the first time, when I see it from your point of view. You've always been able to open my eyes in a different way."

My eyes stung, and I bit my lip, not sure what to say. I'm not sure if that was a compliment, but I really liked what he said. It may have been one of the sweetest things he'd ever said to me. Alex ignored us, looking a bit embarrassed.

Simon checked us out at Security, and we went out to the parking lot. There were even fewer cars than earlier, although the night shifts were in full swing in Buildings Two and Three. We could see that the windows were all lit up.

Deadpan, Simon asked, "Can I get a lift, Lucie? Somehow my car became unplugged today, and needs to recharge." He didn't quite smile, but there was a knowing twinkle in his eyes. I blushed. Unplugging his car had been satisfying at the time, when I'd passed by it in the parking lot today. Now it seemed juvenile, but Simon didn't seem to mind too much. I'm sure he knew it was me. He probably checked the security cameras.

Simon and Alex talked non-stop all the way back to the west side. It was cute. I think a full-fledged friendship was in the making. Funny how some people can remain just acquaintances all their lives, and some people become friends in the blink of an eye. That reminded me of the Anne Shirley books, which I'd devoured as a kid. Miss Cornelia and her "race that knows Joseph", or what Anne referred to as "kindred spirits". My parents had taken me to Canada to visit the real Green Gables when I was a kid, and I'd loved every minute of it. Maybe sometime I'd go there again, with Simon. He'd love it, I bet.

I dropped Alex off at his place a few minutes later, along with a box bursting full of food leftovers, and a snazzy promotional gift pack of Alltchip products from Simon. I thought that was awfully nice of him. Alex had managed to finagle a promise of career advice, too. I got the impression that Alex just might possibly be interested in a career at Alltchip. We said goodnight (which took another fifteen minutes of non-stop gabbing), and I waited to make sure he got inside safely. Once his door was shut and locked, I drove away.

"Thanks," I said to Simon as I turned down the familiar road that lead to the farmhouse. "I really needed your help. And I think you've made a friend."

"He's a terrific kid. We stand to benefit from this, too, Lucie. I still haven't reported any of this to my superiors." He looked grim. "I'm not sure who I can trust. That's why you and I need to talk about this. I need to figure out how best to proceed, both for Alltchip, and for your investigation."

"Margherita has an idea." My shoulders slumped. I could only guess how much Simon was going to like it. We drove in silence for a bit. Surprisingly comfortable. I left the music turned off. I liked the relative quiet of the boonies. Occasionally. Then a thought occurred to me. "How did it go with Taylor today?"

Simon slid his eyes to me, and he got that familiar, closed expression on his face that I disliked. "That's over with."

"I got that impression, yes. How did she take it?"

"She quit."

"You, or the job?"

He shot me a look. "Both."

I grinned. "Ha. Good. How were things with her before that? You seemed to turn off pretty quickly."

"I don't want to talk about it." He shifted uncomfortably, and turned to gaze out the passenger side window.

"Too bad," I said, with cheerful scorn. "I have a right to know." This was the great thing about having been together forever, give or take. At some point, the friendship becomes the strong point of the relationship, and although the relationship may run hot or cold at times, if the friendship was sound, then there was always a way to make things work. And we could always say things to each other that we might not say to someone else.

Simon made an irritated sound. "There were other factors."

"Such as?"

"Not right now, Lucie. Please."

I let it go, for now. But I'm not going to lie, I was thrilled. At least now, I wouldn't have to shoot her. Not that I would have. Not on purpose. Not fatally, anyway.

Dirt crunched under my tires as I swung into the driveway. "I thought you were going to pave this."

"I was. But I've been waiting to see how things turned out with us. If I was going to stay here or not."

"Oh."

I turned off the ignition, and sat behind the wheel for a moment, staring at the picturesque old farmhouse I'd grown up in and moved back to. There were memories, sure. All kinds of memories. But I was surprised to realize that I felt no real emotional attachment. Kind of sad, really, that I'd never felt much of an attachment to the place where I'd spent most of my childhood.

It was your basic two story wooden house. Although restored, Simon had preserved the weathered exterior. I liked that it looked like a cozy, ramshackle sort of place with unfussy, natural landscaping. It had cost Simon a good chunk of coin to make it all look like that. Sort of like something you'd see in a book about rustic stuff. Tourists took pictures of the place all the time.

You know, I'd gotten along great with my parents, and I hadn't had an unhappy childhood. But we'd only moved to Indigo from Bangor when I was twelve or thirteen. We'd moved in to help Gran and Gramps as they'd gotten older. I'd never really felt at home here, or anywhere. I guess that even then, I liked to keep moving around. In New York, I'd moved to a new apartment every couple of years. Simon had been good enough to indulge me in that way. Maybe I was just a restless soul.

Simon looked over at me and saw that I was in a zone, so he got out and plugged in my car without even asking me. He stood next to the fence, silent, hands in his pockets. Watching me. Waiting. I stared at him, thoughtfully. The bright moonlight cast part of his face in stark shadows, giving him a neutral, almost mysterious look. I kind of liked it. Simon, but not. Interesting.

"Lucie?" His voice was quiet, but clear against a musical background of night noises. Crickets, owls, a soft whinny, a solitary bark. Country noises.

"Yeah?"

"Do you want to come in?" He looked anxious.

"Well, since you've already plugged the car in, sure. Why not?" I teased. He gave me a tentative grin.

I slid out from behind the wheel and tried vainly to smooth my hair back. I was sure that I looked a fright. "We need to talk about the case anyway, and now's as good a time as any."

"Agreed." He reached into the back seat and retrieved the box of food cart leftovers that he had packed for me. Overprotective, just like the old days. It used to annoy me, but right now, I guess I kind of liked it.

Once I closed and locked the car door, I took a deep breath, hands on my hips, and let my head fall back, just as I always had when out here in the country. The air was cleaner out here. More alive. And one of the great things about the boonies was that you could see the stars here, better than anywhere else. The sky was clearer and bigger and better and - oh, I don't know - closer than in town. Like you could just reach up and pluck one out of the sky with your fingertips, and make a wish.

When I was a kid, I used to slather sticky, smelly bug repellent all over myself and grab a sleeping bag and go lie out in the backyard to watch the stars. My parents had bought me a powerful pair of binoculars for my birthday, and I could pick out planets and constellations and clusters, and every now and then I'd see a tiny, winking satellite go by. My all-time favourites were shooting stars. I'd count them, make crazy wishes on them.

My childish dreams came back to me in a rush, and suddenly I was a fanciful adolescent again, wishing to become a big, famous rock star. Travel the world. Become a jet fighter pilot. Or an astronaut. And I'd wish that a special guy would come along and sweep me off my feet. A reminiscent smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. Well, I'd gotten the special guy, anyway.

"What are you looking for?"

Simon's voice was closer than I expected. Right behind me, right in my ear, and I shivered. Gently, he wrapped his arms around my waist and rested his chin on my shoulder. "Cold?"

"A little," I lied. Actually, I was feeling awfully warm. A little tingly, too. I leaned my head back against him. "I'm just looking for shooting stars."

He chuckled. "Ever make a wish?"

"Yeah."

"Did it come true?"

Just then, a streak of light shot across the sky. "Look!" I pointed at it. "Did you see that?"

"Just out of the corner of my eye."

"Go ahead," I teased. "Make a wish."

Simon loosened his grip, and turned me to face him. "You didn't answer my question."

"Which one?"

"Did your wish ever come true?"

So how romantic was this?

Common sense told me not to go too fast, but the thing about common sense is, sometimes it's complete bullshit. Sometimes it's only a way to justify your fears to yourself, without making you feel like the coward you can't admit you are. Once in a while, you just have to jump off the bridge and hope there are no big jagged boulders under the surface of the water. I wrapped my arms around his waist and smiled up at him. "One of them did."

And just like this afternoon, he caught me up in another one of those melt-a-hole-in-the-floor kisses. "Simon?" I murmured, in between kisses.

"What?" He started kissing along my jawline, and I think my spine was starting to go all gooey.

"Did you make a wish?"

"I'm making one right now."

Even though this was going way too fast, I couldn't help it. I laughed. He stopped kissing me and gave me a wounded look.

"What?"

"I love you," I said, smiling at him and stroking his cheek, tucking his longish hair back behind one ear. His complexion was pale in the moonlight. "But now's not the time. We've got stuff to talk about, stuff to work out. And a case to figure out."

He sighed theatrically, then took my hand and led me along the bordered stone path that led to the house. "Yes, ma'am."

Simon unlocked the front door and pushed it open. "Come on in. Get comfortable. It's your house, too," he said, his face unreadable. Tense, now. He dropped his coat onto a chair, moved toward the electric fireplace, and fiddled with the controls for a bit. A nice, crackly, fake fire appeared. Then he disappeared into the kitchen for a moment, leaving me to wonder just how he meant that last remark. Shortly, he returned with a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses. The smile he gave me was almost shy.

A wave of unreality swept over me. I was still standing by the door, feeling kind of strange about all this. I guess I wasn't quite ready to open up. Odd to feel that way about someone I've been with almost forever. It was all so odd right now.

I kicked off my shoes and dropped my jacket over his, then said, "I'll be right back," and headed for the bathroom.

"Ohmigod," I said, when I saw myself in the mirror. Worse than I'd imagined. I took a few minutes and washed up. A quick rummage in my makeup drawer showed that he hadn't thrown out my stuff, fortunately for me. A dab of moisturizer, some fresh mascara and lipgloss, and I sort of looked like myself again. I brushed my hair out really good, then left it down, rather than putting it back into a ponytail. I liked my hair like that. Dark, with purple streaks in it, and past my shoulders. It was thick, full and straight as an arrow, and I'd never been able to get it to hold a wave or curl. I've worn it the same old way for years: one length and side-part. I wondered if maybe I shouldn't get bangs or something. Maybe layers. Just something different.

After another minute of primping (stalling), I brushed my teeth and washed my hands, and went to the kitchen, where I found some diet soda in the fridge. Even if I hadn't quit drinking, I think I'd rather chug swamp water than drink that port crap that Simon liked.

I joined him on the sofa. The room was cozy and warm, with just the light from the fire. Soft music playing. Nice and relaxing and romantic. Simon looked at me and gave me that slow, appraising smile that always made me feel like an absolute goddess. "Hey," he said.

"Hey." I smiled back, curling my legs up under me.

Simon took the soda from me with an amused look, and poured it into my wineglass. He handed the glass to me, making sure to brush my fingers teasingly. I sighed. This side of him was nearly impossible to resist.

"So," he said, leaning back and stretching an arm along the sofa behind me. His long fingers started playing with the hair at the nape of my neck. I think I started to purr. "I suppose we should talk about those Memory Chips."

"Yeah, I guess," I murmured, lazily.

"I know you, Lucie. You're spinning your wheels. Too many thoughts rolling around in your tiny little brain," he teased. "Ow," he gasped, as I smacked his arm. He chuckled, then said, "Go ahead, love. Tell me everything. I promise to listen."

I was surprised at how much that felt like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. He had no idea just how much I needed to hear that. In fact, it was absolutely the best offer I'd heard in days. I told him everything that happened - it all poured out - and as promised, he listened. He really listened. I felt like a rookie again, except this time around, I didn't have a desperate crush on my mentor. Well, actually, I did. I just happened to be married to him, too.

When I finally wound down, Simon grunted and laid his head back against the sofa. He stared blankly at the ceiling. I sipped my soda and didn't question him, because I knew the look on his face. It was his "shut-up-I'm-trying-to-think" look. I stared into the flames.

No idea how long we sat like that. So peaceful. When he finally spoke, his voice startled me out of my daze. "So Lieutenant Cameron is making her report to Captain Hollinson in the morning."

"Yeah. It's a full meeting, actually. We'll all be there."

Simon twisted to face me. "You realize that you don't really have a case. Everything is circumstantial. The one piece of evidence you have, you can't prove anything about it. Not without risking tipping someone off."

"Exactly." I frowned.

"I don't know that this is the ICPD's concern, really. We may be wiser to go higher up with this." He grimaced.

"Except for the Tina Cogg case. She could face the rap for those two little boys. I doubt the Feds would consider her a priority." I frowned. "She could fall through the cracks."

Simon played Devil's Advocate, as he had so many times before. "As far as Hollinson would be concerned, that case is already solved. After all, she did physically commit the crime."

"But I don't think she's responsible for her actions," I persisted.

"Captain Hollinson would require proof, Lucie."

"Hollinson's a complete arsehole."

Simon rolled his eyes. "And there she goes with the attitude again..." He shook his head.

"No, he really is," I insisted. "He's always right, everyone else is always wrong. He ignores facts and he's an ass-kisser. How the hell he ever got his job..."

Simon grinned suddenly. "Did you know that he and Dane Shand used to be best friends?"

"Used to be? They're not, anymore?"

"No. They clashed a few times too many. Hollinson hates Dane doing investigative work. Apparently Dane's gotten himself in quite a bit of trouble here and there."

"Oh, gee, that's too bad," I said, with some acidity.

I'd done some thinking about Dane today, and I was feeling a lot less kindly toward him. If Simon hadn't been the one to take those photos (and he wouldn't have been, I was sure of that), then it had to have been Dane. I used to really like him, but after today, I don't know that I ever wanted to see him again.

Simon must have guessed what I was thinking, because he changed the subject back to the investigation. "So," he said, "How are you going to convince Hollinson not to close the case?"

I yawned. "Well," I said, "We talked about this today at the station. We've got a few days before Tina Cogg is in any kind of shape for anything. So Margherita's giving me a bit of room to investigate."

I yawned again - long day - and continued. "My personal guess is that someone - or, possibly, a few someones - at Alltchip is playing a nasty little game. I don't know the motive. My guess is that they're just stretching their wings right now, to see what they can accomplish. Maybe we've seen all of it? But I don't think we can assume that. The point is, those Chips do something. And I want to make sure that nothing else happens."

"I realize this, Lucie."

"Those three possible guys that Alex picked out all happen to work in the sub programming levels. Two are in level one, and one is in level two."

"Again, tell me something that I don't know."

I shot him a dirty look. "Quit being so snippy. I think you should do whatever snooping you're able to do. But, you said you don't have the necessary training?"

"No," he said unhappily. "I've been lightly trained in every system we have, except for programming, because it's the most intense of all. The company put me through special training in basic computer sciences, before I even began training in programming."

"I thought Alltchip had its own specifications and programming languages. Why do you need to learn the regular stuff?"

"But a standard computer background is necessary to learn their system."

"Wow. Heavy."

"You can't imagine." Simon frowned. "It gives me a headache."

"I bet," I said, sympathetically. Then I girded my whatever and took the plunge. "So, then. Um. Margherita suggested lending you one of our own. Someone with a computer background, who's also fully briefed, has experience in computer crimes, and whom you know you can trust. Maybe to work as a mole?"

"That would be logical."

Now for the crappy part. I braced myself. "She's...uh...assigning you Orr Harrison. He's been on this case since the start. He used to work Computer Crimes."

Well, that sure as hell wiped the smile right off Simon's face. He went rock-still.

"Is this a joke?"

"No. Sorry." And my God, was I ever.

"No. Absolutely not. We'll call the Feds..."

"I understand." I didn't say anything more. Simon would realize that this, unfortunately for both of them, was the best way for now. Just give him a minute.

After a long silence punctuated by the occasional crackle of the fireplace, Simon sighed. "Okay. Goddammit. Fine. Bring that..." He paused. "Bring him in."

I gave him a sympathetic look. "You don't have to."

He sighed again. "Oh, I definitely don't want to, believe me. But, he's trained, on the spot, briefed, and - as far as I know - doesn't have an agenda." He shook his head. "I certainly don't have to like it, though."

I finished my soda and set my empty glass on the coffee table. "What do you mean, 'agenda'?"

"One never knows what we're dealing with, when we go Federal."

"Oh. Yeah, that's true." Simon always did hate dealing with the Feds.

We sat in silence for a few more moments. I slipped the Memory Chip out of my jeans pocket, and turned it over.

"So small, but it may have caused so much damage," I mused.

"You still have that?" Simon finished his wine. "Haven't you returned it to Evidence?"

"It hasn't been entered into Evidence yet," I mumbled, holding it close, trying to make out all the tiny parts.

Simon went very still. "Lucie... You've broken the chain-of-evidence?"

I grimaced. "Sort of, yeah. The perp at the third crime scene was cuffed. She asked me to get it out of her Reader for her. I was trying to calm her down, trying to get some answers from her...and I forgot all about it," I confessed, feeling stupid.

"Damn it!" Simon gasped. "Did I teach you nothing? This could blow up your entire case! You know better than this!" He closed his eyes and shook his head, disgusted.

"I know, I know," I said, trying to calm him down, to stave off a temper tantrum. "What's done is done. I'm just not sure what to do next."

"That's obvious," Simon snapped. "Come clean. Don't make a bad mistake even worse." He thudded his head against the back of the sofa. "Stupid..."

"Yeah," I whispered, miserably. "Well, if I get fired, maybe you could hire me on at Alltchip. I'm sure I could scrub toilets."

Simon shot a sour glance at me. "Maybe you could be my new assistant."

"Oh yeah. Taylor. We should talk about that."

"I'm not in the mood..."

I shrugged. Unsympathetic. "Too bad. I am. You said things were pretty much over, even before today?"

He looked away, frowning.

"Yes."

"Why?" The moment stretched out. Simon stared into the fire, his eyes sad. I squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back, tightly. Desperately, almost.

I thought he wasn't going to answer, but finally he said, softly, "That folder of pictures is why."

I was puzzled. "Lost me."

Simon turned to face me, pain clear on his face. I just wanted to kiss it away. "Luce, she's been pushing me to get a divorce, to marry her. I was balking. To be honest, I had no intention of either. I didn't love her. She was a mistake. A very big mistake." His lips tightened. "She was persistent." He shook his head, and sighed. "She hired Dane Shand, Lucie. Not me. She hired him to get those pictures, to push me towards a divorce." Simon looked faintly ill. "When she tossed those on my desk last week, I knew it was over with her."

"Why?"

"She was cruel." Simon pulled me close, and I snuggled in. "She was so cruel. She would humiliate you, and tear me apart, just to get what she wanted. What kind of person would do something like that?" He leaned back, and gazed at me. His eyes were bleak. "Not the kind of person I wanted to be around. It was a slap in the face. I knew than that you were the only thing that meant anything at all to me. I just didn't realize how much, until I thought I'd lost you for good." He gave a bitter little laugh. "I was an idiot."

"I'm sorry," I whispered, and leaned my forehead against his. "I'm so sorry."

"Me too, love. Me too."

We sat like that for a long time, just holding each other, not saying another word. And it was all right.

Nothing more needed to be said.

~ TEN ~

I woke up the next morning, with no idea where I was.

It took me a few minutes, to place the blue-painted wooden panelled walls and the heavy antique furniture that was at odds with the un-hotel-like mix of flea market decor and family keepsakes.

The broken-in comfort of the large bed and the absolutely wonderful smells of freshly-brewed coffee and scrambled eggs clued me in. Home. With Simon! Groggy as I was, the thought still filled me with a little bubble of joy.

I rolled over quickly and checked his alarm clock: five-forty-five. Lots of time. I'd grab a quick bite, then head back to my hotel room to shower and change.

I yawned and stretched, and shuffled around in the thick, puffy blankets. I wished I didn't have to work today. It was nice and cozy right here. I glanced over at the side table, and was surprised to see the book I'd been reading before I left, still marked at the same page. In fact, pretty much everything was the same as before I'd left. My toiletries, my diet soda in the fridge, the clothes I'd left behind in the closet - everything was the same. Hadn't Simon been doing any living here at all? He said he'd never brought Taylor here, that a farmhouse wasn't her style. I'd pointed out that the old kennel in the backyard might have suited her perfectly. Simon tried not to laugh when I'd said that, he really did. But he ended up spraying wine out his nose anyway. Gross, but really funny.

Regret hit me again, like a tidal wave. I'd handled it all wrong. I shouldn't have left. Four months of near-silence...God, I'd been so wrong. I should have tried harder to work it out, or at least not taken such a long time to talk to him. I hoped the damage wasn't permanent.

Last night was one of the best nights' sleep that I'd ever had. We'd sat up way too late, just talking. It had been terrific. Communication is the key, right? I've heard that somewhere.

We'd decided to give things another shot, but we were going to take our time about it. Right in the middle of a potentially huge case wasn't the time to start getting all heavy with the personal stuff. Now, that being said, I think the reason that I slept so well was because I felt so warm and safe here.

The image of Orr's face intruded in my happy bubble, smashing it apart. Dammit. When would I stop feeling like a guilty piece of shit? I wish I'd never met him. Even worse, I knew that I didn't really mean that. Lie to myself much? And how could I completely forgive Simon, if I couldn't forgive myself? Why did this love-and-relationship-crap have to be so complicated?

I tossed on my clothes and did a quick cleanup in the bathroom. A quick pause to examine my face in the mirror. I squinted at my reflection. Well...I guess I didn't look like a monster. I just felt like one.

Sick of wallowing, I headed downstairs, and stopped in the doorway of the kitchen, struck by Simon's appearance. Barefoot, wearing a pair of sweatpants and a ratty old t-shirt, he was making his signature scrambled eggs. I could smell the salsa and cheese and fresh dill, and it made my toes curl. I hope he remembered the green chilies.

And I loved that he looked so happy. Busily, fussily happy. I noticed that he was thinner, and hoped he'd been eating well. He never would go out of his way to cook just for himself. Alone, he'd subsist on coffee, a few cigarettes, and the occasional takeout from the Chinese Diamond restaurant on Water Street. Simon only cooked when it was for the both of us. Actually, he loved taking care of me. I guess...still feeling guilty here...that he hadn't had anyone to really take care of for the last few months. Taylor probably needed nothing more than a few live mice thrown into her cage every few days.

Except for a bit more grey and a few more lines on his face, Simon really hadn't changed all that much from the hot detective I'd had such a hero worship thing for back in New York. Hard to believe it was sixteen years ago. He was thirty-two and I was twenty-eight. As a patrolwoman, I'd ended up assisting on a couple of his cases, and when a posting went up for Homicide, I'd worked up the nerve to apply. Took me three tries. I didn't think he'd remember my name, since I'd always been so shy and tongue-tied around him, but I took a crazy chance and used him as a reference. So it was quite the shock when I not only got the promotion, but I was also assigned to replace Simon's just-retired partner. When the Lieutenant said that Simon had recommended me, I'd nearly fainted.

He looked really good when he was all domestic like this. A steaming mug of coffee sat on the counter, next to an ashtray.

"You started smoking again?"

He glanced at me and gave me that smile, the one that made my belly feel all funny. He was knockout handsome with his mussed-up hair and stubble.

"On and off. Couple of months, maybe." He paused to take a last puff. Then he stubbed the cigarette out. Quickly, he scooped eggs onto two plates. "Bacon's in the nuke, could you get it?"

I'd missed this, so much. I grabbed the covered plate out of the microwave, passed it to him, and sat at the small breakfast nook. Simon brought over the plates and a mug of coffee for me, triple-triple, just the way I liked it. I loved his cooking. I'm a pretty good cook myself, but I always like it better when someone else feeds me.

The first year we'd moved here, Simon had spent a fair amount of time and money renovating and restoring the farmhouse. I don't think any real work had been done on it since it had been built in the late eighteen hundreds by my great-grandparents, other than wiring and plumbing and roofing as needed. You know, basic necessary stuff like that.

It looked pretty good now. He'd gotten his (boring) decorator sister to come down and work her magic. It was still the same house, but better. Pretty and rustic now. The kitchen had been redone with a nice log cabin sort of look, complete with unobtrusive state-of-the-art appliances. I wish my parents had seen it this way. I bet they'd have loved it.

I think my favourite part was the breakfast nook. They'd installed a huge bay window. It overlooked an overgrown field leading into the woods. During the summer, the field was carpeted with wildflowers and the breezes blowing through the house were absolutely intoxicating. There were scads of wild strawberries and blueberries. We'd pick a few for ourselves, but we'd leave most of them for the animals.

Thankfully, my great-grandparents had bought up most of the land around the house, so that our acres and acres of fields and woodlands were left to their own devices. Developers had offered us a fortune for the land, but we didn't need the money, and the deer and moose and rabbits and what-have-you still had their space to live in. I didn't really have an issue with the new subdivisions on the west side, and further east, and even up by Alltchip. But I was glad that the fields and forests that I'd played in as a child still existed. I hope they stayed that way as long as I lived in Indigo.

My grandparents had planted a bunch of raspberry bushes alongside the house (Gran having an insatiable taste for the tart treat). I loved to wait until they were almost too ripe, then slide them off their little stems, and pop them, all sun-warm, into my mouth. I'd mash them with my tongue and let the rich flavour melt over my taste buds. Unbelievably good. Simon liked to arrange them in a saucer, and drizzle melted dark chocolate across them. You just can't imagine.

This time of year, the view was stunning, what with the blazing fall colours and all. The sun hadn't come up yet. It was that strange "false dawn" light, and the chilly dew - almost frost now - sparkled like the finest jewels scattered on a carpet of thick, silky green grass that was just barely sprinkled with fallen golden orange leaves. So pretty.

We ate in companionable silence, with music playing on the console in the living room, and birds chirping outside. When we'd scraped our plates clean, Simon cracked open the small side window beside him and lit up another cigarette. I sipped my coffee and waved away a top-up.

"Thanks. That was heavenly. I've missed your cooking. Especially breakfast," I added with an impish little grin.

He smiled at me through the smoke, his eyes crinkling in that way I loved. "Sleep well?"

"Yeah. Better than I have in a long time. I've got to head back, though, get ready for work. Do you need a lift?"

"I'll get a cab. Do you have a few minutes?"

"Sure."

"Are you moving back in tonight?"

"Oh." I took another sip. "Can it wait a few days?"

He frowned. "Why?"

"Well, for one thing, this is going way too fast. And for another, work." I gave him an irritated look. "We discussed this last night, Simon."

He didn't say anything, just watched me while he took another drag off his cigarette. I stared out the window. A nearly-adult deer was nosing around in the field, looking for leftover berries. There wouldn't be any, not this time of year. He (or she - I never could tell which) wandered back toward the trees, to the old apple trees that I used to fall out of as a kid.

I remember eating those sweet pale yellow-green apples by the handful, then having what my dad called the "Screaming Splatters" all night. Then I'd do it all over again the next day. Drove my folks nuts.

I think part of why my folks loved Simon so much was that they hoped he'd keep me out of trouble. Ha. Fat chance. Not only was I a weird magnet, but I was also a trouble magnet. Great combination. Poor Simon. Oh well. At least I wasn't boring.

Finally, Simon asked, "Is this about your boyfriend?"

I winced. "I ended that."

Surprised. "When?"

"Yesterday. When I got back to the station." I sighed. "I hated to hurt him. It was awful."

Simon's gaze was sharp. "Do you have feelings for him still?"

"Well, of course I do," I snapped. "We were just going to be 'friends with benefits'. Nothing more." This was hard, being completely honest like this. But I was determined to try harder this time around. Communication was the key. That's what they say, anyway. Sometimes I wondered if 'they' knew what the hell they were talking about.

"I see." Simon's lips tightened.

"Don't be unfair. He's a good guy. We were friends, and it became more after you and I split up." A thought struck me. "Besides, how long were you seeing your assistant?"

A red flush began to creep up Simon's neck, and a prickly feeling along the back of my neck told me I wasn't going to like his answer. I remembered the perfume on his coat the night that we split up. My heart sank.

"Tell me, Simon. Don't lie to me. Just tell me. Let's get everything out on the table here and now," I pleaded. "We promised each other last night that we would be open and honest with each other from now on. It's important." I took his hands in my own. "We have to try, babe."

"Almost a year," he said after a long pause, staring at our clasped hands.

A year?

I suddenly wasn't feeling quite so bad about all the nights I'd spent out with the gang. I guess I would have been coming home to an empty house, after all.

"Are you...joking?" I gasped, pulling away. "Like, seriously, are you kidding me?"

"No." Regretful. He still didn't look at me.

"Simon. All the grief you threw at me, about every little thing that I did or didn't do, and you were seeing Taylor the whole time? Are you kidding me?" I couldn't believe this. I folded my arms tight, and gritted my teeth in an effort to keep my temper under control. Losing battle.

"Lucie..."

"And here you are, you split up with her yesterday and you're already sniffing around me? I can't believe what I'm hearing! Who the hell are you? Are you the same guy I married? Are you crazy? Jesus!" I pushed my chair back. "I've been feeling so bad about it all, about the way I handled things. I was a complete idiot!" I stood up, ready to either run out the front door or smash his kneecaps. Probably better to just leave.

"Lucie!" Simon grabbed my wrist. I looked pointedly at his hand, then at his face, and he quickly let go. He knew I could kick his ass.

"Lucie, please...love, you don't understand..."

"No, you're right. I don't." My voice was cold.

"Please..."

I glared at him for a second, but then felt my anger give way to complete exhaustion. I was so tired of this bullshit. Tired of my pathetic lack of spine, where he was concerned. Disgusting. I shook my head in weary disbelief, and sank back down onto my chair. Folded my arms. "Oh fine, go ahead, defend your lying, cheating ass."

Desperation in his voice, his eyes. "Luce, we were falling apart, you and I. I didn't know what to do, how to fix it...I knew it was all my fault, for wanting to move back here, and love, I'm so sorry. But I wanted to get you out of New York. After what happened..."

He trailed off, and I rubbed the scar on the side of my neck involuntarily, remembering the call that went bad, just a few months before we'd to moved back. Stupid situation. Just some stupid crap over a small-time armed robbery. A bad call.

That bullet had hurt like hell. There'd been a lot of blood, but nothing too serious. Still, we didn't know that until I'd gotten out of surgery. I remembered Simon's face when I woke up. Tear-streaked, pale. He'd looked ten years older.

This one had gotten to me on the inside, though. I was more affected than I'd thought. In fact, I was nervous and jumpy for weeks afterwards. I guess...I didn't realize that Simon might have been even more scared than I was. The thing is, sometimes I just don't think. I sighed.

"Okay," I said, softening. "Okay. I'm listening."

"Lucie, I have screwed up, in so many ways, this last year or so. But I never meant to. I was just trying to make a new life for us. A safer life." His dark grey eyes bored into mine, willing me to understand. "A life where I'd never have to see you get hurt again..."

Ah, hell.

I never could stay mad at him. Especially when he said things like that. I hated that he could always wrap me around his little finger.

And I've never been one for staying mad or holding grudges. Besides, to be honest, my 'fling' was better than his 'fling'. Childish to say, but I'd won at that particular game. I guess it made me a bit smug. "Simon. Dammit...it's okay. We both screwed up. We've both been stupid. Now we know better." I sighed, and reached over and took his hand again. "Now we can start over. I'm still pissed off, but whatever. It's fine, I guess."

He got up, walked around the table to me, knelt to my level, and pulled me close. "Is that what you want? Or do you want to be with the other guy?"

I wrapped my arms around him. "I want us to be together. Orr was...just a friend. Nothing more. In fact, I honestly wish I'd never hooked up with him. For his sake, and for mine. I wish...that I'd stayed alone." I wondered if that was completely true, then decided that it had to be. I would make it the truth.

We stood like that for a few minutes, just holding each other. I could feel Simon's heart beating under his thin t-shirt, and I burrowed in closer. I could have stayed there like that, forever. But finally, I said, "I've got to go. Meeting this morning."

"I know. Call me after."

"I will. And we'll talk more later, Simon. And we'll fix this. I promise. But the case comes first right now. Okay?"

He tilted my chin up, and gave me a sad little smile. "Okay." Then he kissed my nose.

"Gotta go."

"Okay."

I got dressed and slipped out the front door, taking a deep breath of the crisp morning air. My feet got soaked as I crossed the lawn. I used the sleeve of my sweatshirt to wipe off the windows of the car, and slid behind the wheel, my breath frosting a little. The deer that I had watched earlier had managed to score some apples from one of the smaller trees, and was happily eating its breakfast. I waved at Simon, who was watching me from the front window, before I pulled away. He waved back and watched me go, his face inscrutable.

My mind whirled all the way into town. That had honestly been one of the most insane twenty-four hours I'd ever experienced.

When I pulled into the parking lot of my hotel, I realized that the craziness wasn't over yet.

Orr's car was parked in my slot. He was leaning against the hood, slouched forward, hands jammed into his pockets.

And he didn't look too happy.

~ ELEVEN ~

We stared at each other for a pretty awkward beat. His eyes flicked up and down, and I knew he was taking in the fact that I was wearing yesterday's clothes. I shouldn't feel this way, but it really tore at me to know that he probably hated me now. This was really shitty. Childishly, I wished I could put a band-aid on it.

Back when I was a kid, I used to drive my parents nuts. I used to put band-aids on everything, because I wanted to make everything all better. My folks used to spend a fortune on band-aids, even tried to hide them from me, but I always found them.

One time when I was eight, our cat had been hit by a car. My mother found me, sitting on the side of the road, crying and putting band-aids all over its dead little body. Really gross. That was when I learned that not everything could be fixed. Although, to be perfectly honest, I don't know if I ever really believed that, even to this day.

When I abandoned my rock star ambitions and became a cop, my mother was the only person who wasn't surprised. Worried, but not surprised. She always knew I would try to find a way to put a band-aid on the entire world.

I only wish it were that easy. I'd do it if I could. Starting right now.

"Lucie." Orr's voice was hard.

"What?" I didn't mean to sound so unfriendly, but I had to at least try to sound tough.

His lips flattened. "Just thought we should talk."

"Okay."

He frowned. "Can we go inside, at least?" He indicated the hotel.

Seriously bad idea. "No. Talk here."

He breathed out, hard. An exasperated sound. "Fine. We should talk about... well. You know. Us."

My eyebrows drew together, and I leaned against my car. Oh my God, this sucked so bad. I folded my arms and looked down at the pavement. "I'm sorry, Orr. I really, really am sorry."

He made no move to approach me. Instead, he mirrored my pose, leaning against his own car. "I'm sorry too." Then he looked up at me. "Are you sure?"

I slumped. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm sure. I'm sorry I let things go on so long."

"And now I've got to work with him."

"No, you don't. I already told you - "

"And I told you that I'm not gonna miss any chance at a promotion." Orr grimaced. "What does he know about us? About me?"

"I told him that you've worked in Computer Crimes, and that you've been helping out on this case. I told him that you and I were 'friends with benefits'. And that it's over between us." I bit my lip to keep my mouth from trembling. "And I told him that you're a professional, just like I am, and that you and I have a job to do." I didn't tell Orr about those pictures, no damned way. Simon assured me that he'd destroyed them.

Orr shot a fiery glance at me, but I managed to hold firm. "I know I can do my job," I said, sadly. "Can you do yours?"

"Christ, Lucie, why do you even have to ask?" He pushed away from his car and turned away, disgusted.

"Because you're here. Because I told you yesterday that things were over, and you're here. You're still here." I tried to keep my voice steady, but it was hard. I just wanted to wrap my arms around him, make his hurt go away. I wondered if that made me a sleaze. I think it did.

"Fine," Orr snapped, his voice bitter. He wrenched the door of his car open and slammed himself inside. "Fine. I'm leaving. I'll see you at the meeting." He slammed the car door, then lowered his window, and backed out of the parking space in a round swing, and stopped so that he was right beside me. "But like I said, don't come crying to me when he fucks off on you again. I won't be there for you next time." Orr slammed his foot on the accelerator, and peeled away with a screech of tires.

I kept it together through the long hallway to my room, but when I stripped off my clothes and stood under the hot, pounding water of the shower, I bawled like a baby until the water ran cold and I was shrivelled like a raisin. I wrapped myself in a towel, and sprawled out on my bed.

I lay there for quite a while, trying not to think. And once I'd gotten through my little meltdown, I told myself yet again to quit wallowing, quit blubbering, and suck it up. Then I got dressed and groomed and headed out the door. Just another day, blah blah blah... The world wasn't going to stop for my stupidity.

I didn't stop for another breakfast, but I did make a drive-through run, and when I hoofed into the briefing room with coffee and a large box of doughnuts, I think I was a bit better pulled-together than I had been in quite a while. Of course, I could just be fooling myself. The thing is, at this point, I'd happily settle for fooling everyone else.

Margherita and Claudia were the only ones there, poring over files and stuff that I had not a speck of interest in, right at the moment. When I said hello, they immediately began peppering me with questions and tossing random bits of information at me. Like I needed that right now. Still, I nodded in the appropriate places, and answered questions as best as I could. I put up a pretty good front, I think.

Claudia shot me a few quizzical glances, though. She knew me too well, and she didn't buy my "allergies" excuse for my reddened eyes. I'd fill her in later, if she didn't figure it out first.

When Orr walked in right behind Captain Dickhead, my traitorous heart skipped a beat. Hollinson sat across from me, beside Margherita. Claudia was in between us, and Orr sat on the other side of me. He gave me a cool nod and leaned forward, elbows on the table, looking every inch the professional that I was pretending to be. Good on him. Wish I could do that.

Hollinson called the meeting to order, and Margherita led off, running through the preliminaries and all that to bring him up to speed. My mind wandered a bit. I wasn't awake yet.

Hollinson surprised me, though. I've got to give him that. He actually listened, and didn't interrupt with a million stupid questions as he usually did. His hawk eyes flicked my way a few times, but he remained quiet. Astonishing.

After Margherita finished, he leaned back in his chair, arms folded. Looked like he was pondering something.

Finally, he looked right at me and asked, "So, where's your actual proof?"

Ah jeez. I knew it. I fucking knew he was going to ask that.

Well. We had a good run, anyway.

He continued. "Other than the obvious, I mean. You're assuming that these little Alltchips are behind all this. A far-fetched assumption..."

Dammit, dammit, dammit! Of all times for him to pay attention to something in this building. I don't know why I cared so much, but this weird-ass investigation had become really important to me, and I didn't want to give it up now. I stifled a groan.

He was right, of course. We had no real proof. Every scrap of it was circumstantial. No way to know for sure what the Chips could do. How credible were a bunch of teenagers, as compared to the school's surveillance system which clearly showed a perp smashing the hell out of two vics?

I could feel Orr's gaze on me, but I didn't look at him. I didn't want to see "I told you so" on his face. I didn't make eye contact with anyone.

"Tina Cogg..." Margherita began.

"...went bonko and killed those two kids. She's the perp, Lieutenant. She's the one we need to be focusing on. While I..." He held up a hand to forestall my protests. "While I agree that something funny may be going on over at Alltchip, that's not our problem. We'll provide them with the information we have, of course, but other than that, there's no need for us to waste our resources on - "

Just then, Joan from Reception stuck her head in the briefing room.

"Captain," she said, "There are some people here to see you."

"We're in a meeting here, Joan. Tell them to - "

"Thank you, Joan. We can take it from here," said a familiar voice.

My jaw nearly hit the floor as Simon walked in, followed by some suits.

I had a funny feeling that, just maybe, the cavalry had arrived.

Claudia's eyes were nearly popped out her head, and she shot me quite the look. I guess we were going to have to have a real catch-up session later. I hadn't yet updated her on the personal situation. For now, I just shrugged, and fought real hard to keep a most inappropriate, smug grin off my face.

Simon flashed a quick smile in my direction, and then he turned to Hollinson. "Hello, Captain. We've met before. Simon Nickerson, Director Of Internal Affairs at Alltchip." He held out a hand, looking really hot and authoritative in a charcoal grey power suit. I'm still not a fan of the look, but somehow Simon made everyone else look second-rate. Of course, I'd always thought that.

"Mr. Nickerson, yes," Hollinson said, shaking Simon's hand. "Lucie's husband. What can I do for you?"

I was surprised that Hollinson wasn't freaking out yet. Maybe all the expensive-looking suits kept him in check. He always did seem to know which asses to kiss.

I have to add, though, that he didn't look too happy. Margherita and Claudia kept shooting puzzled glances my way. Orr stared straight ahead, unsmiling. Poor guy. Damned awkward.

Simon said. "Allow me to introduce my associates. Percy Allison, Company President." A slim, contained man who couldn't have been thirty-five yet, nodded politely at Hollinson, and gave the rest of us a cordial smile. He seemed all right, I guess. For a suit.

"Vice-President Karen Daigle." An elegant woman, small and curvy like myself, nodded graciously. She seemed all right, I guess. For a suit.

"And Director of Daily Operations, Todd Kelly." A tall man with a friendly, energetic air about him, he lurched forward and shook Hollinson's hand energetically, and gave the rest of us a contagious, beaming smile.

Oh, fine. All right. I give up. For suits, they seemed pretty okay. I guess. Maybe I'm a bit too opinionated sometimes.

Captain Hollinson quickly introduced each of us. The suit-types all shot interested glances my way, and I felt a bit self-conscious in my usual uniform of hoodie, jeans and Chucks. At least my hair and clothes were clean today.

Simon stared at Orr. His face was grim. Orr stared right back, and his expression was basically, "Go fuck yourself". Awkward, awkward...

"Thank you for seeing us, Captain," said Percy Allison. "May we sit down?"

"Of course," Hollinson said, hesitantly. He shot me a nasty look, as though I'd orchestrated all this. I kind of wish I had, actually. I gave him an innocent shrug, and he narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Dickhead.

The suits took seats at our table. Simon sat next to Hollinson, right across from me, and gave me a warm and, I'd swear, mischievous, glance.

"So. Mr. Allison. What can we do for you?" Hollinson leaned forward, his arms folded on the table.

Allison smiled. It transformed his lean face, and his startling blue eyes sparkled warmly. Simon had spoken glowingly of him. I could see why. Too bad Hollinson couldn't take some charm lessons from the guy. Or human lessons. Something like that.

"Well, Captain, we're here about Mrs. Nickerson's investigation - these mysterious Memory Chips. Simon has discussed the situation with us."

"As to that - " Hollinson began. With a dazzling smile, Karen Daigle cut him off smoothly. She leaned forward, her shoulder-length auburn waves falling forward. They gleamed a fiery red in the morning sun. Nice color. I might get some highlights like that at my next salon visit.

"We wish to join in investigation, Captain. As your department has done so much excellent work so far, we'd like to co-operate. We wish to alert as few people within our organization as possible as to the nature of our investigation. And, apparently, there was talk of assigning one or more of your people to work undercover with us?"

"Yes," Margherita broke in, before Hollinson could put his foot in it. "Officer Harrison here has a background in Computer Crimes. He is willing to work with you." Beside me, Orr nodded, and Daigle cast a definitely admiring glance at him. Couldn't fault her for that.

"We'd appreciate that," said Percy Allison. I liked his name. I couldn't possibly think of the two names separately. I could never call him just "Percy" or "Mr. Allison". Had to be "Percy Allison" Great name for a cat. I bit my lip to suppress a giggle.

Everyone looked at Captain Hollinson, who smiled a smile that I had once heard my Gramps refer to as an "eating a shit sandwich" sort of smile. Heh heh. Looked pretty good on him, actually.

"Fine," he squeaked. "Okay." He stood. "I'll leave you all to co-ordinate, shall I?" And without another word, he stood and left the briefing room. He walked like he had a stick up his arse, as Gramps would have said. Simon looked at me, eyebrows raised.

"Told you," I mouthed.

"Huh," he muttered, nonplussed. I smirked. Margherita shot me a warning glance.

"Simon," said Percy Allison, "We'll leave you to it. Briefing first thing tomorrow." He smiled and nodded at us, and said, "Pleasure meeting you all. Thank you for your help. It's greatly appreciated."

The suits graciously took their leave. Simon leaned forward, hands clasped on the table. "Well, then," he said. "I guess we should get started."

"Thought you said you didn't know who to trust?" I teased.

He smiled ruefully. "I still don't. But I had to take the chance."

"Huh," I said. "I suppose."

"Any of your famous insights?" Simon said it half-mockingly, but I knew that he really did trust my so-called "famous insights". He might not always like them, but he did trust them.

I shrugged. "They're okay. For suits."

Claudia chuckled, and Simon smiled at her. She returned it hesitantly, with a questioning glance at me.

Simon leaned back in his chair, relaxed now. "I hope you're right. Well then. What are your plans so far?"

"Claudia's got an idea," I chirped. At least, I hoped she did. She'd mentioned it briefly yesterday. "It's along the lines of damage control."

Claudia shot me a glance, then said, "Simon, I'd like to work with the Computer Crimes Department, to troll online. I'd like to pose as a student in chat rooms and social networking sites."

"To warn students about these Memory Chips?" Simon asked, considering. "I was thinking along those very same lines. Can you begin right away?"

"Yes."

"Claudia, I do have one request. Can you please try to limit the damage to Alltchip's reputation? I'm sure you understand."

"Of course," Claudia said. "It's not a witch hunt."

"Excellent." Then he turned to Orr, clearly uncomfortable. "Well, I suppose we should get started."

"Yeah, sure," Orr said, relaxed and professional and ridiculously hot, with his arm resting on one crossed leg.

Simon looked glum. I don't think he liked seeing Orr sitting beside me. "Please report to the main Reception at Alltchip today. After noon, preferably. I should have everything set up by then. Just introduce yourself. Business-casual dress code."

"Sure thing."

Simon stood and gave us all a nod, threw in an extra little smile for me, then took his leave.

A thought struck me, and I was surprised that it hadn't occurred to me before. I wonder if Simon's self-esteem was...oh, I don't know...maybe a bit bruised?...by Orr? Orr was younger, after all, and drop-dead stunning, but I swear his looks had nothing to do with us hooking up. His friendship and personality and sweetness had me at "hello". The looks were secondary. Besides, Simon was still, and always, the hottest guy I knew.

Oh, great. What a line of thought to be having. Because now I was wondering how Simon compared his short, dumpy, sloppy wife to Taylor, who probably could have been a professional model if she'd wanted to. I've never had self-esteem issues like that, but now I couldn't help but wonder. Jeez. I guess sometime I should talk to Simon about all this. Not a conversation I was looking forward to. Why did relationships have to be such a pain in the ass sometimes?

Claudia and Margherita stood, and gathered up their notes and stuff. Claudia said, "I'll head up to the CCD and get started."

"Good idea," Margherita said. "Orr, you may as well prepare for your new 'job'. Lucie -"

"Mind if I take the rest of the day off? There are some case-related things that I want to look into. I tossed my backpack over my shoulder, and tucked my hands into my sweatshirt pockets.
Everyone stopped in their tracks, and stared at me.

"What?" I snapped, defensively.

"You never take a day off," Margherita said.

"Yeah, you even come in on your 'day off'," Orr added.

"And you bring work home with you," Claudia offered. "Sorry..."

There was a silence.

"Wow," I said, in a small voice, embarrassed. "Guess I need a life..."

"Well, a haircut, anyway. And perhaps some new clothes." Claudia supplied helpfully.

I curled my lip at her. Shopping and primping were not high up on my personal favourites list.

"And maybe a hobby or two," Orr volunteered. "Something other than reading old murder case files and practising on the shooting range."

I stared at him, speechless, and then I looked at Margherita, who just laughed. "Leave me out of this," she said. "Get out of here, Lucie. We'll call you if anything comes up.

"Thanks," I muttered, heading for the door. "And as for you two," I said, glaring back at Claudia and Orr, "You can go -"

"Maybe some anger management classes," Orr suggested.

Pfft. I flipped them both the bird and stomped out, ignoring their laughter.

~ TWELVE ~

Truth was, I had no intention of taking the afternoon off.

I pulled out of the parking lot, and turned down the street toward my hotel. I was "in a right mood", as my Gran used to say.

See, I'm not known for being long on patience, and Hollinson had pretty much pushed me across whatever little line I had been toeing. Man, he could really push my buttons, that guy. And also, I was some fed up of listening to everyone else. I was going to get the proof that we needed to push this case ahead.

I think I'd started to realize that I was going to have to do this when I was in Simon's office yesterday, when I found out that he had no way of telling me what those Chips could actually do. I think I knew then that there was only one sure way to find out, crappy as it was. But I also knew that there was no way in hell that Simon would ever let me try. As my Mom used to say, it's easier to get forgiveness than permission. Assuming that I was still around to do so, that is.

I was going to use the Chip myself.

It was flattering that Simon and the others thought I had some kind of extraordinary gut instinct, but what was the use of it if I couldn't get what I needed for a conviction? Because my so-called extraordinary gut instinct was telling me that we had no more time to waste on this. It wasn't a joke, it wasn't a prank, and I was pretty sure it wasn't over with. I had to get moving on it, and now.

I picked a few things up from my hotel room, and drove out to the farmhouse. Our farmhouse, I corrected myself. I was nervous as hell, so I cranked up the music and sang along at the top of my lungs. The streets weren't too busy, so it didn't take me long to get there. Not long enough, my shaky nerves were muttering in the background. I sang even louder, trying to shut them up or drown them out. Didn't really work. Damned nerves.

It was a surprisingly hot day out, not too humid. Would have been a great day to hang out at the beach, go for a hike along the coast. Once the building-lined city streets fell behind me and morphed into fields and trees, I didn't see another car until I pulled into the farmhouse's driveway.

Not a soul around, unless you counted horses.

The house was quiet. The guy who looked after the horses usually finished up by noon. The other guy who looked after the garden was usually done by noon, too. Simon, who had originally planned to be that guy (the one taking care of the horses and the garden), was still at Alltchip, working with (and probably thinking about strangling) Orr.

I felt a ton of sympathy for both of them. What a rotten situation. I hoped they weren't at each other's throats, for real. Orr had this prickly attitude thing going on, and that was bound to get on Simon's last nerve real fast.

Life really sucked sometimes.

I got out of the car and stood in the driveway for a few minutes, marshaling my thoughts, or my courage, or my stupidity. Whatever.

Was this a stupid idea? Absolutely. My extraordinary gut instinct couldn't agree more. But, the thing is, sometimes I listen to my gut, and other times I simply tell it to shut the hell up. However, if I recalled correctly, it seemed to me that the times I've ignored my gut in the past have ended up with me getting shot... But let's not think of that just now. Let's just move that little thought train right along, now, shall we?

I checked the barn to make sure there were no humans around. All clear. No one here but horses. Good. I needed security and isolation to carry out my plan. I didn't want to hurt anyone. As long as I stayed put in the house, the horses should be fine. To be honest, if it came down to it, I think they could kick my ass. You know, there was just something unnatural about those damned horses, anyway.

There's no silence like country silence. A couple of the horses snuffled sleepily, a few birds threw their two cents' worth in, and I could even hear a faint rustle of leaves from the trees at the edge of the field. The sky was an impossible blue, the sun felt wonderfully warm on my skin. Jet trails streaked across the sky, looking like so much cloud poop.

Well, that was poetic. Maybe I'd do better to stick to police work. Poetry clearly wasn't my forte.

I headed for the house. It was easy to get in. I still had my keys, and Simon hadn't changed the passwords on the security system.

Inside, I set about locking doors and hiding any possible weapons. Anything that seemed dangerous, I chucked into a downstairs closet, locked the closet door, put the old-fashioned key in an envelope and addressed it to Simon. I scribbled a quick note of explanation, and folded it up and slipped it into the envelope. I then taped the envelope to the front door of the house, so it would be the first thing that Simon would see when he got home. This way he'd have an idea of what he was walking in to, so he could be prepared. I tried not to think about how unbelievably pissed he was going to be.

My palms were sweating. This seemed like such a great idea earlier. I guess now it was kind of scaring the crap out of me. I was hungry, too. I didn't know when I'd get a chance to eat again, but it might be a good idea not to have a full stomach.

Once I'd prowled the entire house and made sure it was as safe and secure as possible, I went into the bedroom and closed the door. A quick check revealed no potential weapons except for the window, but Simon had some heavy old wooden furniture that, with no small bit of effort, I managed to push in front, blocking most of the window off. I could still see a few inches of light at the top, but I wasn't likely to be climbing up that high. Unless I miraculously developed super strength, of course. The "denial" part of my brain was working overtime to suppress images of little Tina Cogg picking up a school desk, raising it overhead, and smashing it down on those two kids...

I scribbled another note, which I taped to the front of the bedroom door. There was no way for me to lock the door from the inside, so I didn't bother. I just hoped like hell that I stayed in the bedroom.

I quickly changed into a pair of old yoga pants and a sports-bra top-thing. If I was going to become a raving homicidal maniac, I may as well be comfortable while doing so. I wondered if that was somewhere in the Raving Homicidal Maniac Handbook.

I set my PC to video-record, and placed it on a desk that I had pushed into the corner, so that it would capture most of the room. I checked the angle, then I turned it on.

After that, there was nothing else to do but get on with it. I guess. I climbed into bed and piled blankets and pillows around me. Hopefully they'd take the brunt of any abuse.

My hands were shaking, and my pulse was hammering in my throat. I must be crazy to do this.

I turned to the video camera and started talking. My voice was a little bit unsteady.

"This is Detective Lucie Nickerson of the Indigo City Police Department." I took a deep breath. "I have in my possession a piece of evidence from a case that the Indigo Police Department is currently investigating. It's an Alltchip. It was given to me by Robyn Newmann, after she was arrested in a domestic violence complaint. We have theories that this Alltchip, and others like it, are behind three incidents that we know of. Two domestics, one by Robyn Newmann and one by Alex LaForge, and a double homicide by Tina Cogg. In all three cases, all three perps had been using one of these Memory Chips called "Pirate Adventure". Full details of these cases are on file at the Department."

I rolled off the bed and walked over to the camera. I held the chip up to the lens, hoping that the resolution was enough to pick up the writing. I turned both sides to the PC. After a few seconds, I returned to my little nest on the bed.

"I'm going to test this Chip myself. I'm doing this because we need proof of this Chip's capabilities. What I'm doing has not been authorized, and I'm sure I'm gonna get in all kinds of shit for this. But I have to do it. I have to know, for sure. And right now, there doesn't seem to be any other way to get the information we need."

I sat there for a few seconds, trying to decide what to say next. Anything I could have said to Simon was too personal. Finally, I said, "I'm inserting the Chip into my Reader now."

It took me a second to get the door of my Reader open. I hardly ever used it. When it was used, it was mostly in a doctor's office, by a doctor, for medical diagnosis.

Behind my left ear, I fumbled a bit until I found the tiny spring-loaded door, which popped open at my touch. I inserted the Chip. There was only one way to put them in, so I wasn't worried about inserting it backwards. I closed the door and waited for the Reader drive to start running.

My Reader was one of the first-generation ones, not having worn out with use. They were quite fancy now, and decorative, but mine was the plain brushed silver utility model, about the diameter and shape of a round coin, like one of those old fifty-cent pieces that my Gramps used to have a bunch of. He'd give me one every now and then, and tell me to save it, because it was a collector's item. I usually spent it at the ice cream stand downtown. Anyway, the Reader was designed to fit comfortably in my skull. I hardly ever noticed it anymore.

There were two options for Memory Chip operation. I could use the small buttons set into the Reader itself, or I could use an eyeblink feature. I wasn't great with the eyeblink technique, so I usually used the buttons. "Stop/eject", "go/pause", "back", and "forward". Pretty basic, pretty simple. Even I could figure those out.

Once the Chip started going, I leaned back against the pillows and stared up at the ceiling. One could look at anything and still see the generated images. For safety's sake, they didn't obscure your vision completely. It was more like looking through a glass window with semi-transparent images on it. The best quality, however, was to look at a plain white background, which is why I stared at the ceiling. You could even set your entertainment consoles to show a bright white screen that enhanced the images, if that was your thing. The brighter the white,the better the image quality.

I remember when I was younger and they used to check your blood pressure with a cuff thing that wrapped around a person's arm. I'm not a control freak or anything, but every time that cuff would get tight, I'd experience a quick minute or two of panic. Alltchips do the same thing to me. Once they activate, I panic a little bit. It takes some effort for me to relax and let them run. I had a feeling I wasn't going to be able to relax this time. I remembered that the video camera was recording. I blew my breath out in a shaky whoosh and began a running commentary.

"All right...I've inserted the Pirate Adventure Demo Chip. It's running. Um. The quality doesn't seem up to standard...the graphics are a little choppy. Okay, there's a logo...featuring the name of the Chip. Some drawings of pirates and stuff..."

Background music started to play. It was unremarkable except for a strange, almost subliminal, soothing sort of sound. I couldn't identify it. It was relaxing, though. That was odd. The last thing I expected to feel was relaxed. In fact, I tried to remain alert and on guard, but I could feel my muscles going slack. Very curious.

"Music is playing. A selection of characters are rotating for me to choose from. Generic. Pirates, villains and heroes, male and female. I guess...I'll choose a female, looks like she's a good character..."

At the prompting, I moved my eyes over to my chosen character. A small red dot at the bottom of the image acted as a cursor. Just to see if I could do it, I tried a quick double eyeblink to select that character, and was surprised and pleased to see that it worked.

"So. Um. Okay. My character is engaging in an almost video-game type of scenario. She's taking on the bad guys, having adventures, battles, that sort of thing. Very generic."

For the next few minutes – I had no idea how long, really – I played out the game, and tried to keep up a running commentary. I must have been more tired than I realized, though, because I was having a hard time staying awake. Could it really be the Chip, with its subliminal sounds, causing me to feel drowsy? If so, that was more than disturbing.

"I'm getting really sleepy and relaxed now," I mumbled. " A form of hypnosis, maybe? I was so nervous earlier that I find it odd ... if this is because of the Chip, I find that extremely curious. Something to look into. Okay. My character's losing this battle...huh...that's weird. The music's changed. It's...different. It's...it's all different. The graphics are different. This is weird. I don't like this." I tried to report objectively. "Music...lights...graphics...it's weird. Threatening? I...really don't like this. I think I'm going to stop now..."

My heart was racing. The images, the sounds, even the sensations - how could that be? - were freaking me out. I'd never seen anything like this, and I was pretty sure that this wasn't within the legal parameters of the programming. The images were now completely blotting out my vision, which was also a legal no-no. I was starting to panic, and I fought to keep it under control. The noises...flashing lights...images...

"I really don't like this...I don't...get it...I don't know what the hell is going on here, but I've had enough. No eyeblink feature. It's not working." I was speaking rapidly, could hear the panic edging into my voice, didn't care, couldn't do anything about it. My hands flew up to the Reader.

"It's not stopping! I'm pressing "stop/eject" and it's not stopping!" I could hear someone panting like a spent horse, realized it was me, terrified, out of control, wrong. My fingers scrabbled at the door of my Reader, eject wasn't working, panicking, heart racing, fists ready to pulverize something, get it out of my head...!

Dimly, I realized that I'd found what I was looking for. I'd found my proof...

"My Reader won't open, eject's not working, it's not working! Not responsive, can't see a thing, my vision's all black except for flashes and pictures, noises, and voices, the fucking thing is crazy..."

I yelped as I tore my Reader half out of my head, finally pried the door open and flung the Chip against the wall, left little bloody flecks on the paint and the floor, should go stomp on the goddamned thing, hit it, pound it, heart racing...

Blood poured down my neck and shoulder and arm, made me whimper. Intellectually, I knew it wouldn't cause serious damage, but try telling that to the animal part of my brain that was having a serious little freak out right now. Readers are designed that way in case of accident. Outpatient surgery was all that was usually needed to restructure and install a new Reader.

The blood was freaking me out though. As though I were a bull, enraged at the red. Panting, whimpering...I wanted to kill, smash, tear it to pieces...

I tried to crawl off the bed, but my legs tangled up in a blanket, and that's when I lost it. Completely lost it. I grabbed the blanket, twisted it, pulled it apart. Loud ripping noises, where the hell was this strength coming from? Blood on the pillow, pushing me beyond reason. Screaming, snarling, ripping, punching...I couldn't help it. I couldn't control myself at all. Had to stop, had to stop...the bedpost. Smashing my head against the bedpost...so tired now...

I wonder, how long did I lie on the bed, half-dozing, heart pounding like a jackhammer? Somehow I found the will to raise my head, and I groaned. The bed was a mess. Sheets and blankets torn, pillow fluff all over the room, blood all over the place...oh my God, Simon was going to be pissed...

And that's when the laughter took me, laughter that was too weird and hysterical and frightening and close to the edge. If anyone watched this video, they were gonna get an eyeful, that was for sure. The mental image I got from that made me laugh even harder and harder until I was crying, crying so hard. Jesus, what a fucking mess I was.

I was exhausted. I just lay there, curled up in my bloody nest, tears and snot drying on my face. I felt the spot on my head where I'd been banging it against the bedpost...more blood. Great. Simon was absolutely going to freak. The THUD-THUD-THUD of my heart made me think of the drumbeat of an old song, and I lay there, listless, my eyes darting back and forth, singing the refrain over and over and over, a tuneless, droning monotone. I was creeping myself out, and couldn't do anything about it. Couldn't lift my head now. Couldn't lift my arms.

Just as well. I didn't dare get up. Simon should be home anytime. I hoped like hell he would read my notes, take my warnings seriously, take the necessary precautions. I didn't know what I was capable of. But I did know one thing.

I have never been so utterly terrified in my entire life.

~ THIRTEEN ~

Minutes or years or seconds later, I became aware of my surroundings. The bedroom was getting pretty dark. I figured it was after five, or even later. My breathing and heart rate had slowed a bit. I had a teeth-clenched type of control going on.

Well, I guess I had my proof. But seriously, holy shit. How the hell did that Chip do this? How was it even possible?

To the best of my knowledge, only medical Chips were supposed to be able to cause actual reactions, and nothing at all like this. And legally, they could only be administered by a medical professional with the proper training. Something to discuss with Simon. I wish he'd come home.

Was it hopeful thinking, or did I just hear a car pull into the driveway? Yes, yes I did. I heard a car door close. Crunching footsteps on the gravel. The sound was nearly unbearable to my strung nerves, and I wanted to scream. Bit my lip. I was seriously fucked up. My own fault. I fucked up. And now I was fucked up.

At least a thousand more years passed. Or just a few minutes. Teeth clenched. Shivering.

More cars in the driveway. Voices. Footsteps. My nerves vibrated, so tight. Unbearable.

The front door opened.

I tensed. Flight-or-fight. Footsteps, voices, hushed. Not a threat. Not a threat. No. Just Simon.

Right outside the bedroom door.

Heart pounding again, hard.

The doorknob turned. The door inched open.

"Lucie?"

Oh, thank God. I willed my eyes to focus in the gloom.

"Lucie?"

He stood in the door way, gun in hand. Sick dread in his eyes. Slowly, he approached the bed. "Lucie?"

I rolled up into a sitting position, with startling speed. "Simon!" Too hysterical.

Voices, movement behind him. He waved them back, hushed them. I scrabbled back, whimpered. Losing control...again!...unbelievable. What the hell was this?

"Shhh," Simon said, softly. He holstered his gun, slowly approached me. Slowly, he reached over and, he turned on the light, and I snarled at the sudden brightness. Cowered, twitching.

"Okay, love, it's okay. It's okay." Soothing voice. He sat on the bed and gently, slowly, put his arms around me. Pulled me close.

And saw the blood.

"My God. Lucie! Are you hurt? Where does it hurt?"

My hand trembling, I pulled my hair back. Simon took a quick breath, shocked, when he saw what was left of my Reader. He groaned and pulled me close, held me tight, mumbled soothing nothings into my hair. I tried to say something, I opened my mouth, but I couldn't get the words out.

All I could do was cry.

~ FOURTEEN ~

It was nearly midnight, when we got back from the hospital. I was still pretty shaky, so Simon deposited me on the living room sofa and got the fireplace going while Claudia handled drinks. I was freezing, but I didn't know if that was from delayed shock or just the cool evening.

I was glad that I hadn't had to stay in the hospital overnight. I hated the smell in there. And every time I had a semi-private room, I ended up with a weirdo. Never failed. Tonight, of all nights, wouldn't be the best time to stick me in a room with a nutcase.

It was pretty short work to remove my damaged Reader, implant a new one, and heal the skin around it. Like I said, Readers were designed that way, in case of accidents. My old Reader was obsolete. The baby-faced technician had laughed at it, muttered something about museums, and then talked me into a snazzy new purple one, in a curly half-moon shape, with loops and holes to hang jewellery from. It curved around and under my ear in a pretty, abstract, swirly tattoo-like pattern, with a brushed satin finish. There were small silver accents, striking against the dark background. It even matched the purple streaks in my hair. To my surprise, I loved it. Maybe I'd even use it once in a while. To hang jewellery from, of course.

Simon and Margherita pulled a few strings, and were able to get a brain scan performed right away. Not surprisingly, it showed similar abnormalities to Tina Cogg's and Robyn Newmann's. So there. So fucking there.

This wasn't something that I said often, but I so fucking told them so!

Satisfying.

My experience, the video, and the brain scans, were the proof that I'd needed. I hoped that it would be enough to convince anyone else (Hollinson) who needed to be convinced. Besides, anyone who knew me knew that I just wasn't enough of an actress to fake that little Chip-induced freakout.

Everybody (meaning Simon, Orr, Claudia and Margherita) was wide awake and full of pep. Not me. I tried to act normal, but I was pretty far off that state. I was exhausted, sore, irritable, tense, and still pretty damned freaked out. I wished they'd all shut up. Their voices were irritating the hell out of me. I wanted to jump up and holler at them, to tell them to knock it off, but somehow I managed to keep control.

Simon hovered protectively. Orr alternated between looking like he wanted to take Simon's place, and looking like he wanted to leave. That hurt, but I deserved it. And he deserved better. Yeah, I still hated myself for that. Nothing new there.

Claudia and Margherita were making notes and asking question after question. Driving me nuts. I answered as best as I could, but I didn't have any speculation right now. Or patience. Just one hell of a headache.

I stared into the fireplace, eyes unfocused. My glass of soda was cold in my hands, and my legs were curled up under me. I huddled into a ball, trying to warm myself. My head was all buzzy. I wished everyone would shut the hell up and leave.

"Look, I don't know," I mumbled, for about the hundredth time. So tired. "I'm guessing that the more you use them, the more used to them you are. Tina Cogg's not a regular Alltchip user. I'm definitely not one. Maybe that's why we were more strongly affected than the kids. Kids are pretty much Chip junkies, right? Maybe their brains build up some sort of immunity, or tolerance, to them. Or maybe it's age-related? That's just speculation, though. I really don't know."

"So how is it that you kept more control than Tina Cogg?" Claudia wondered.

"I was just lucky," I said, darkly. "You saw the video. If I'd been around someone, I could have killed them. Without a doubt." I shuddered. "But I prepared for it, you saw that. I had a bit of an idea what to expect." I paused, and took a sip of soda, shuddered. "Then again, I was so very wrong! I can't believe how it felt...can't believe how completely I lost control. I was aware every single second of what was going on, and I could not at all prevent it. It was like being trapped in a really bad nightmare, and knowing it, but not being able to wake up. Know what I mean?"

Simon's arm tightened around me. I could feel his distress. I wondered if these heightened sensitivities were permanent, or if the effects would fade. I felt raw. It was taking a lot of willpower to act civilized, to not jump up and start screaming. Then I remembered a bit of information that had seemed important to me at the time.

"There's something else. If it's ever possible, try to analyze the audio part of that Chip. It's weird. There's this cheap-sounding music, like something from an old video game, but underneath, there was a sound...I don't know..." I trailed off, trying to remember it. "It made me feel...safe. Warm. Sleepy. Relaxed." I glanced up at Simon, saw something in his eyes. "What?"

"Can you imitate the sound?"

I thought about it. "No...not really. It was kind of a subliminal thing. Soothing. Almost..." I closed my eyes and tried to remember how it made me feel. "It was kind of like a white noise. I'm not sure how to explain this. Remember when we lived in New York? Remember that apartment we had with the huge bathtub?"

Understanding lit his eyes, and I turned back to face the others. "Whenever I was stressed out, I'd fill the tub with hot water, turn off all the lights, and light a small candle, just to have a soft, dim light. I'd roll up a towel and rest my head on the back of the tub and stare at the ceiling. The building had this junky old air exchanger system, and the one on our floor was right next to our apartment. When it was going, it filled the bathroom with this kind of soft, subliminal roar. Lying in the hot tub in a darkened room, with that roaring noise in the background...I don't know how, but that was the most relaxing thing in the world. I did my best thinking in there. It was the most soothing, comforting environment..."

Simon's face was tense. "We have a Chip that recreates that."

"What?" I swung around to face him.

"It's experimental right now." His eyes searched mine. "It's a medical application. Therapeutic. To calm people. A form of hypnosis." He paused, swallowed nervously. "We all contribute ideas in our weekly conferences. I mentioned that old apartment once. The medical division thought that was interesting. They thought it could be used with another kind of research, something to do with recreating womb-like conditions for people with mental issues, to calm them. They used an amalgam of ideas, not just mine." He said the last part a bit defensively, as though afraid we would blame him for those Chips. I reached over and squeezed his knee. He covered my hand with his, and held it reassuringly. Orr tried not to notice, but I saw his jaw tighten, and I was sorry.

"I wonder if our perp might have a medical background?"

"I wonder." Simon looked ill.

"What's wrong?" I asked, gently.

He looked at me, pale. "This...all this...it is real, isn't it? This is really happening."

I squeezed his knee again. "Yeah. I think it is."

"I had hoped for once you were wrong..." He hesitated. "My God. The implications..."

I gave him a sympathetic look. "Sorry." And I was. Boy, was I ever. Some of those "implications" were starting to occur to me, and I wasn't too comfortable with them.

"You took too much of a chance, Lucie." Simon frowned, and his voice turned hard. "Too much, this time. You went too far."

"Simon and I were working on it, Luce," Orr spoke up, still looking away from us. "We were going to find a way to safely..."

"What's done is done," I said, tiredly. "There's no point in arguing, and we have the information that we need."

Margherita glared at me. "But they're right," she said. "You crossed the line in more ways than one. Withholding evidence. Taking an insane risk." She shook her head. "I don't know what the hell gets into your head sometimes. You should see yourself right now. You're not fit for duty. I don't think you're fit to be outside of this house." She spoke in an even tone, but I could tell she was angry. "Effective immediately, you're on sick leave. Indefinitely. You don't come back until I'm satisfied that you're okay. Claudia, I need you to take the lead on this case. We'll work together."

Claudia shifted uncomfortably. I knew she hated being the lead, but I had more faith in her than she had in herself. She'd do fine. More than fine. After an awkward moment, she said, stiffly, "In that case, I'd better get home and get some rest. Goodnight." Without another word, she picked up her coat and left.

Orr was next. "Not too smart, Luce," he said, his eyes cold. He nodded at the others, and left. That left me alone with my husband and my boss.

"I've got to call it a night, too," Margherita said. "Simon, I'll get a couple of uniforms out here to help you tonight, to keep an eye on Lucie so you can get some sleep. Lucie, we'll talk later. Goodnight."

After she left, Simon and I sat together on the sofa, staring into the fireplace. I snuggled against him, resting my head on his chest. The anaesthetic was wearing off, and I had a mother of a headache where I'd ripped my head open, not to mention where I'd smacked myself against the bedpost. Not to mention all the other aches and pains and bumps and bruises. And also not to mention how screwed up I was in my head at that moment. Simon held me tight, and made a disgruntled sort of noise.

"What?" I asked, sleepily.

He shook his head. "Nothing. Other than the fact that you're a complete nutcase sometimes."

"Just sometimes." I mumbled. "You knew that when you married me."

"I must have been crazy."

I kissed his collarbone. "I thought you were sweet."

He held me tighter, and kissed the top of my head. We stayed like that for a little while. It was nice. Soon, there was a knock at the door.

Simon got up to let the patrolmen in, and he showed them around the house. I stayed where I was, watching the flames leap and dance.

"Bedtime." His soft voice startled me, and I jumped a little. I hadn't heard him return.

"Oh. Okay."

"Are you going to be able to sleep?"

He pulled me to my feet and held me steady, his hands on my shoulders. His blue-grey eyes searched mine, and I guessed he didn't much like what he saw. His lips tightened, and he hugged me again. "Come on, love."

He put me in our bedroom. Since the furniture had not yet been rearranged, he probably figured it was the safest place for me. He quickly stripped the bed, and tossed some clean blankets and pillows down. He didn't make the bed up, and I didn't mind. It looked cozy.

I leaned against the wall, hands tucked into my sleeves, and watched him. When he was done, he turned and started to say something to me, but then he froze. Maybe I looked weird. I think I must have. I know I had the wide-eyed power-stare thing happening. Simon immediately came over and took me into his arms. He was so warm. I was still freezing, and I burrowed into his chest. He held me tight, held me close, and whispered soothing nonsense until I stopped shivering.

"Are you going to be all right in here tonight?"

No. "Yes." I sighed. "Are you sleeping in here with me?" Part of me wanted him to, but part of me wanted him to be safe in another room, and a huge part of me just wanted to be alone for a while.

"No." Relief. Sad. "Cindy and Bryan are going to be on guard outside the door. If you need anything, let them know. They'll check in on you periodically." Simon kissed the top of my head. "Until we know how badly this has affected you, I'm going to sleep in the spare room." He chuckled. "I don't want to wake up with your hands around my throat."

That hit me, and I started crying. Not a freak-out-crazy-lady crying, just a sad, scared, whimpery kind of crying. He held me, murmuring soothing stuff again, until I was all cried out. Sort of like I was a baby. It actually felt pretty nice.

"S...sorry," I snuffled, wiping tears and snot off my face with his t-shirt. He chuckled again.

"It's okay, love." He kissed my forehead. "Let's get you to bed now." He helped me strip down to my yoga top and girl boxers (no butt floss for me, thank you) and tucked me in to that warm, soft, fluffy nest of blankets. It was amazingly comfortable.

"Will you be all right now?"

"Yeah." I wrapped myself around a pillow.

Simon sat there for a few minutes, holding my hand. Then he sighed, stroked my hair, and got up. "Good night."

"'Night," I murmured. "Love you."

"Love you, too."

At the door, Simon paused, and I heard him say to the cops sitting in the hallway, "Wake me up if anything happens. Keep checking on her every few minutes, please. And help yourself to anything in the kitchen. I've put a pot of coffee on."

"Thanks, Mr. Nickerson," the young rookie - Bryan - said. "We'll keep an eye on things."

"Thank you."

Simon turned off the light. It was quiet, and I was exhausted, but sleep was a long time coming that night. And for many nights afterwards, it turned out.

~ FIFTEEN ~

I was butt-deep in research when Simon came home from work.

It was Friday, about a week and a half since I'd been relieved of duty, and one could say that I was going nuts. Absolutely bored right out of my mind.

My head was still screwy, so I was enduring Simon's version of house arrest. He'd asked me to stay home. No driving, no going out, no nothing, without him. At least until my head was as normal as it could get. I wasn't happy about it, of course. But, he was right. Of course.

There was no hiding the fact that I was a bit left of normal these days. Simon saw the tremors and the jumpiness every day, and he was the one holding me close to chase away the nightmares every night.

The first couple of days weren't too bad, actually. I lounged around and spoiled myself rotten. But that had gotten boring quite fast. I'm not really the lounging type.

I'd spent the last week scrubbing and cooking. I cleaned the house and barn and stables from top to bottom. The freezer was full of home-cooked meals. Four or five days in, Simon had come home to find me washing the walls. I think that probably had been the point where he figured he'd better find a way to keep me busy. I don't think he liked finding me tottering on top of a stepladder. Balance has never been my strong point.

So, research. Simon fed me as much information as he could, and taught me to use his special search programs. I spent hours sifting through online information, vaguely horrified at just how invasive those programs could be. So far I'd resisted the urge to search myself out, and I'd keyed in Simon's name once, only to hesitate for a long moment before deleting. We were still a bit shaky, and I guess I just didn't really want to know, you know? Maybe later, if I was feeling more courageous.

I was staring at the touchmonitor, doing my deep thinking thing, when Simon came up behind me and gave me a hug. "Hello, love," he said, dropping a quick kiss on top of my head. I grunted in reply, and he headed for the bedroom, to change out of his work clothes.

Our home office, where I was currently working, was a little room, just off the living room. When the house was originally built by my great-grandparents, I think it was used as a storage room for winter gear. It was cozy and warm and old and cluttered with all kinds of crap. Lived-in, shabby, and dominated by a massive old wooden desk that my grandparents had used. My great-grandparents had eleven kids, so they needed the storage space. My Gran and Gramps had only had a couple of kids, so they converted this room into a den, of sorts.

The cool thing was, Gramps had built that huge desk by hand using scrap wood, and this little room had ended up serving as a home office for handling the farm's paperwork and stuff. Gran used it to write a household hints column for the local newspaper whenever she had a spare minute. Even when home computers had become commonplace, she still used that monster of a manual typewriter for all her paperwork. We still had that beast. It was on display in the living room. I smiled, remembering how filthy I used to get when changing the ribbon on it. How primitive. She taught me to type fast and accurately on it, and she taught me how to properly write correspondence. She taught me how to read and write. She also taught me proper spelling and grammar. I bet I was the only first-grader in school who knew the difference between there, their, and they're; to, and too; and, your, you're, and even yore. I bet I was the only first-grader who could type twenty words a minute. It never ceased to amuse me when someone at work would ask me how to spell a word. I'd ask, "Don't you have spellchecker?" And they'd say, "I trust you more." That always makes me chuckle.

Gramps saved every one of Gran's columns, and proudly mounted them in an elegant hardcover scrapbook, which now sat on a hutch in the living room where Simon just as proudly displayed that old typewriter, along with a jumble of little family treasures that had come from both our homes.

Always a freak for old stuff, Simon had loved the desk on sight. Instead of replacing it with a more modern unit, he'd paid some good coin to have the antique decked out with state-of-the-art computer technology. I wonder what my grandparents would think about it now? Not for the first time, I wished they'd lived long enough to meet Simon.

Personally, I liked what Simon had done with the place. There was just something kind of...nice...about him running his home office, and me doing my own paperwork, on the same heavy, scarred, mismatched hunk of wood that my family had been using for decades. I loved the fact that there was a little heart carved into the wood, in the upper right hand corner, with my grandparents' initials in it. My parents had done the same, right next to it. When I'd explained what the carvings were to Simon, he hadn't wasted a second. With the engraved Swiss Army knife that I'd given him back when we were dating, he'd scratched out a heart just underneath the other two, with our initials in it. That had completely melted me. Funny how the smallest things could stop me in my tracks. I must be getting sentimental in my middle age.

I could hear Simon shuffling around in the bedroom for a bit, and then I heard the bathroom sink running. A few moments later, he slouched into the office and curled up on the comfortable old loveseat that was angled to sit beside the desk. It was a bit of a squeeze, and if I wanted anything from the built-in bookshelves (more of Gramps' handiwork), I had to climb on the loveseat to reach...but it worked. Usually I was the one snuggled into the loveseat, unwinding from the day with Simon sitting at the desk, doing his thing. I think this may have been my very favourite spot in the house (other than the breakfast nook, that is). We always seemed to have our best conversations here.

I smiled lazily at him. He looked good, wearing an old pair of jeans and a soft, broken-in hoodie. His hair was a bit rumpled, and he had the five o'clock shadow thing happening. If I could have reached it, I would have kissed his stubbly chin.

He set a chilled can of soda on the corner of the desk for me, next to my empty glass, and popped open a can of beer for himself. I pushed the old plaid beanbag ashtray towards him. That ashtray had been sitting on this desk since I was a kid. Another treasure.

Simon lit up a smoke and took a long drag. After a few seconds, he sighed, exhaling a plume of smoke through his nostrils. I'd tried to do that before, but hadn't quite managed it. I'd nearly coughed my head off. Smoking clearly wasn't my thing. Simon squinted at me through the smoke, contented and mellow.

"How was your day, love?"

I yawned and stretched, then leaned back in the huge leather chair that barely fit in the small room. "Not bad. Boring. Lonely. Productive. Yours?"

"Not bad. Orr's doing remarkably well. I'd hire him if he were available."

Simon took another drag.

"Wow. So how are you two getting along?"

He shrugged. "All right. After he informed me that if I ever treated you badly again, he'd tear me into little pieces, we reached an understanding. We have a lot in common, actually."

Choked up, I shot Simon a puzzled look. Simon said, "You."

"Oh." I didn't know what else to say.

He gave me a relaxed smile, and tapped a stretch of ashes into the beanbag. "We both care about you. We both want what's best for you. We both want to protect you. And," he chuckled, "we both think you're absolutely impossible sometimes."

It was probably just the smoke that made my eyes water, my throat close up, and my face crumple. I looked down at my hands. Simon understood, and he stood up and wrapped me in his arms for a moment, murmuring soothingly. Then he gave me a kiss on the forehead, held me for a moment longer. "I'm sor..." I started to say, but he shook his head and smiled.

"Water under the bridge, love." He blew me a little kiss.

After "my little stunt", as Simon referred to my Chip experiment, he'd called the hotel, had them pack up my stuff, and ship everything here, to the farmhouse. He settled my account with them (generous!) and said that he wasn't letting me out of his sight again.

And I had to say, things were going pretty good between us.

Our little "break" had apparently done us a world of good. Thinking about it, I realized that we'd grown apart a bit even before we'd moved to Indigo. Maybe we'd both hit a midlife sort of thing, and just hadn't realized it.

We hadn't fully reconciled yet (read: no sex. Yet. Just serious cuddling.) And if things were still awkward, well, I guess that had to be expected. It would take time.

When the lump in my throat had receded (damned smoke) I said, "So...I've been doing a bit more research. I've found some stuff."

Simon had asked me to scope out the few suspects that Alex LaForge had identified. He'd done some snooping himself, of course, but I think he was hoping my super fantastic amazing gut instinct would kick in.

On the surface, there were no red flags. Alex had picked out two first-level Subprogrammers, one second-level. Alone, none of them had the necessary knowledge to create those Chips. In fact, they didn't have the knowledge even if they'd combined their skills. Simon insisted that the perp had to have at least one accomplice who was a Senior Programmer.

When trying to figure out a case, one of the first things I've always considered first was motive; or, even more specifically, who gained what from the crime? Simon and I had debated this point in regards to our current mystery. Motive and gain? I had two ideas.

My first idea? For the hell of it. Some bored employees playing a game of "what if?". Simon wasn't sold on that idea. He thought they'd put in a hell of a lot of effort for a prank. Myself, I favoured it. Sometimes, the reason really is that simple.

My second guess was that they were developing these Chips for someone else. Simon scoffed at what he called my "conspiracy theories". However, he'd yet to come up with any real theories of his own. He had some vague notion of the perps planning to develop their own technology, an offshoot of sorts. Competition. Maybe. I couldn't rule that out, but it didn't make my gut tingle.

Something had surfaced in my research today, however. Something that left me kind of uneasy. It made my nerves go all funny, like when I was on to something. I brought it up now.

"It's not a lot. Just bits and pieces."

Simon smiled. "Bits and pieces, in your hands, often amount to more than what other detectives put together with a full confession."

My eyes stung again. The doctor had warned me that my emotions would be floating close to the surface for a few days. He hadn't been kidding. Every kind word from Simon made me want to fling my arms around him and howl like a baby. What a mess I was.

"It's about Kevin Stephenson and Mark Wilter."

Kevin Stephenson was one of the Subprogrammers that Alex had tentatively identified. The second level guy. Alex had been least sure of him, but his background was interesting. He'd transferred to Programming after achieving top level in Chip Manufacturing, and prior to that, he'd been at top level in Machining. He had the knowledge to physically create the Chips. Not only that, but he had the experience and knowledge to manufacture the machines needed to physically create the Chips.

Even more interesting? His roommate was a Senior Programmer named Mark Wilter. Uh-huh. And - get this - he was previously in the Medical Applications Programming Division, as a neuro-something-or-other. And, even better, previous to his Med Apps position, he'd been a Senior Programmer in the division that programmed the machines that physically created the Chips. Tell me my spider senses weren't going crazy with that.

I'd passed this information along at one of the informal evening briefings that we'd been having here almost every day. It was the easiest way to have Simon, myself and Claudia in the same place without looking too suspicious. Sometimes Claudia brought Alan along, sometimes Margherita attended. We could have done this all via conference call, but we preferred to speak in person. Orr didn't attend any of the meetings, a fact that I didn't know how I felt about.

I knew he was terribly busy with his undercover work, and we couldn't risk someone seeing him with us. Indigo was still a small town in a lot of ways, and it was just too likely that he'd be seen by someone who knew someone who knew someone, etc.

I missed him terribly. Missed his friendship the most. I think that made me a dirtbag. I wished we could talk things over. But really, we didn't have anything more that we could say without re-hashing stupid hurts. It was driving me nuts. I couldn't talk to anyone about my feelings, but it hurt too much to keep inside. My own stupidity. I just wish that I hadn't hurt anyone else. Wallowing again. Yup. Wallow, wallow, wallow. That's what I do best, I guess.

When I'd mentioned the Stephenson and Wilter information at one of the evening gatherings, we'd discussed the next step. Snoop through their work terminals, looking for smoking guns. ICPD's Computer Crimes Division was all over it. Good start, but I had a feeling that these two were way too smart to leave anything lying around. I mean, they were both only in their early thirties, and look at how much they might already have accomplished. Still, we had to follow procedure.

What twisted my gut was that Margherita and Simon had ordered Orr to cozy up to Kevin Stephenson. Orr had been pushed through to Stephenson's programming level (smart guy!), and he'd been assigned to the same division. The thought of Orr getting too close to this guy scared the crap out of me, and I said so.

"Christ, Lucie, Orr's trained law enforcement!" Simon had snapped at me, when I brought it up. "Don't worry about it. He can take care of himself. He's no good to us dead. We're keeping an eye on him, don't you worry." Simon spoke bitterly, and turned away from me. He was angry. I knew I had hurt him, and I was sorry for it, but I couldn't help it. We all went silent.

"Simon's right, Lucie," Margherita added, taking a second helping of maple-frosted brownies. "Orr can take care of himself. He knows how to do his job. Unlike some of us, namely you. My God, these are delicious. Why don't you bring some of these to the station?"

"I usually don't have time to bake," I said, stiffly. I didn't appreciate her snide comment, even though I knew she was only teasing. She was trying to diffuse the tension in the room.

"I can arrange an extra day off per week for baking, and I can even make it an order, if you prefer."

Claudia sipped her coffee and smiled, and I wanted to scream. Didn't anyone give a damn about Orr other than myself? I mean, these assholes had targeted kids, for Chrissakes. What would - could - they do if they found out that Orr was a cop? Who knew what the hell other kinds of Chips they had created, that they had lying around?

I sighed, and returned my attention to the here and now, and to Simon. "I found some interesting information online today. I need your input."

"Shoot." He stubbed out his cigarette and started to light another one.

"Have you eaten yet?" I asked, eyeing the half-empty beer.

"Not yet. Why?"

I rolled my eyes. "Hang on." Darting to the kitchen, I threw together a plate of homemade bread, some cheese, and a couple of slabs of roast beef left over from yesterday. There was a beef stew simmering on the stove, but it wouldn't be ready until later. I grabbed another beer and carried it all back into the office. "There," I said, setting the plate on the corner of the desk and pushing the ashtray out of the way. "Don't smoke and drink on an empty stomach. Jeez. I thought I was a slob."

Simon grinned. "I could get used to this."

"Don't you dare. You eat, I'll talk." I took a sip of soda. "I think I may have found a hint of a motive."

"Could you be a little more vague?" He smirked, and tore off a chunk of bread.

"Shut up. I've been zipping through some online forums about Alltchip and its products."

"That's a hell of a lot of zipping."

"Yeah, tell me about it. My eyeballs are burning out. But there's been something that's been turning up a lot, and it seems to get frowned on a lot. Something called...'Chip Connection'?"

Simon paused in his eating, and his expression darkened. "It's not going to happen. It's been legislated against. There's no need of it, and frankly, it's dangerous."

"There's an online petition for it, with millions of names."

"Idiots. They don't realize the dangers."

"Stevenson and Wilter are both on it."

Surprise flashed across Simon's handsome face. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. I had CCD check it out. They signed it a few years ago, before either one was employed at Alltchip." I leaned forward. "They're hugely into gaming, both of them. Isn't that what people mostly want this Chip Connection thing for?"

After talking to CCD today, I had to admit that I was shamefully out of the technology loop. I'd never even heard of Chip Connection before this. Now that I'd been informed, I was thoroughly creeped out. It was everything I hated about Alltchip and technology, rolled up into one tidy little package.

Background info: The internet was huge, more than ever, and social networking was absolutely all the rage. I liked social networking sites, myself. At my age, friends were scattered around the world, settled with families and new lives. It was so easy and fun to keep up with everyone this way.

In this day and age, though, gaming had gotten even bigger than it was when I was younger. It was beyond huge. The most popular games were those that allowed users to escape into other virtual worlds and virtual lives. Pure escapism. Simple enough, and understandable, even. Not my thing, but that's me. Chip Connection, on the other hand, was nothing but bad news.

Alltchips were not meant to link up. Except for the medical ones, they weren't even allowed to affect your brain. What a frighteningly large group of people wanted, though, was greater Chip/brain interaction. The ability to connect with one another. Basically, to plug a Chip into your head and access your online world all the time. To turn your own brain into a wireless PC. Sounds like a bad movie, doesn't it?

Alltchip and the major governments had quashed that notion, fast and hard. In fact, they'd made it illegal. I was beginning to suspect that the Alltchip technology was like having a monster on a leash. It had grown too big, too fast, and now the panicked handlers were trying to find ways of reinforcing that chain in any way they could, hoping it would be strong enough to keep their monster under control. A chain was only as strong as its weakest link, though, and sooner or later, the monster was going to break free. And that idea seriously gave me the willies.

"So what are the risks with Chip Connection?" I asked, curious. "Other than the obvious, of course."

"The obvious?"

"Users will become mindless, drooling zombies."

Simon frowned. "Potentially, the risks are to the users themselves. For one, they would become technological zombies, like you say." He chugged the rest of his beer, set the empty can down on the desk, and continued. "Secondly, computer viruses. Where there's a will, there's a way. I can't even begin to guess all the possibilities that a virus could unleash."

I nodded, and said, "Think about it. With a programming virus, people might be able to invade each other's minds, or even control them, wouldn't you say? All it would take is someone with medical training, medical engineering capabilities..." I trailed off, letting Simon come to his own conclusion.

His face was grim. "Someone like Mark Wilter."

"Who happens to have a roommate with manufacturing skills."

"Damn..."

We were silent for a minute. Personally - and I hated to even consider this - I was thinking that even people with good intentions would end up abusing the technology. Think about it. How much easier would it be for cops to get - to force confessions out of suspects? Mental torture? Forced insanity? It all made me sick to my stomach.

Then an idea hit me. "But they can't be the only people to come up with this idea. There are probably people all over the world...?"

"Probably," Simon agreed. "But right now, these are the only ones that we're dealing with."

"As far as we know."

"Yes."

We fell silent again, lost in our own thoughts. Then Simon brushed crumbs off his shirt and stood up. "Good work, Luce. I'll bring this up at the briefing tonight."

"I can bring my own stuff up." Stung.

Simon glanced at me in surprise. "The official briefing, love. The one at the station, that Captain Hollinson has requested."

"Oh. Is that tonight?" God, I was losing track of time. I needed to get back to work bad. "Who's all going?"

"Myself, Claudia, Margherita, the CCD division, and possibly Orr, if he can get away. I doubt he'll be able to. His efforts to befriend Kevin Stephenson have gone remarkably well. They hang out on all their work breaks now, and even outside of work."

I paused in the process of shutting down the search programs, and turned to face Simon, as his words, and their import, sunk in.

"That's...awfully fast, isn't it?"

"It's what we were hoping for."

I frowned, and chewed my lip. Orr was charming, but that was too fast, especially if those two had something to hide.

"They've made him," I said, anxious now. "They know he's a cop."

"I don't see how," Simon said, sceptically. "Orr's very good at this."

I shook my head. "Doesn't matter. They know. You've got to get him out of there."

Simon's expression hardened, and I knew that once again, my concern for Orr had wounded him. Dammit! Would I ever stop hurting the people I loved?

"Don't worry about Orr, Lucie," Simon said, in a distant voice. "I'll mention it at the briefing. See what the others think."

Irritation flashed through me. "I can mention it myself, thank you," I snapped, heading to the coatroom to find my shoes. "What time's the briefing? Do we have time for supper first? Maybe at the pub?" I was looking forward to getting out of the house. I'd been too cooped up.

"Lucie," Simon said, slowly. "You're on leave. You're not going to the station with me." He sighed. "You shouldn't be as involved as you still are, but I knew that you wouldn't take 'no' for an answer." He put an arm around my shoulders. "I'm sorry, love. I'll fill you in when I get back, though."

Simon gave me a quick kiss, then slipped on a pair of sneakers, turning away from me. I just stood there, in the living room that had become a prison of sorts, and I watched him get dressed. A quick flash of nostalgia for the freedom of living in a little hotel room washed through me. I suppressed it immediately. "Right," I finally said, in a small voice. I didn't know what else to say.

He straightened up and pulled me close. I stood there stiffly, not responding. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'll be home as soon as I can, and I promise to tell you everything." Simon hugged me gently, kissed my forehead. "Is there anything you want me to bring back, love?"

I felt like saying, "My self esteem", but I bit the self-pitying words back and shook my head. Unbelievable. My case, and I was being kicked out of it. Bastards.

Stony-faced, I pushed away from Simon and sat on the living room sofa. I didn't even look at him. Simon stood there for a moment longer. I could feel his gaze on me. "Love...I'm really sorry. I'll see you soon, all right?"

I shrugged, and didn't say anything. After a few seconds, he left, quietly closing the door behind him.

And with absolutely nothing better to do, I sat down to watch a movie, and sulk.

~ SIXTEEN ~

I guess I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew, I was startled awake by something. My half-empty popcorn bowl went flying and made a nice greasy mess on Simon's beloved hardwood floor. The console had shut off after the movie ended, and a shrill beeping was making me go all wide-eyed and snakey.

Oh. My cell phone. I really needed to get around to getting a new ring tone. Cursing, I whipped it out of my pocket and tapped it open. "What?" I barked, glancing at the clock. A couple of hours had passed, and I had a kink in my neck from falling asleep on the couch.

"Detective Nickerson?" I didn't recognize the young-sounding voice, so I glanced quickly at the small viewing screen. Alex LaForge. Uh-oh.

"Alex? What's wrong? Are you all right?" I demanded, in a sharp voice.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Are you? You sound weird."

"I was just taking a nap. It's all right, I'm okay." Sort of. I stretched out and yawned, cramped from my awkward napping position. Damned old bones. The house was quiet. I guess Simon hadn't come home yet. "What's up?"

"Oh, okay. I was just wondering if you had plans tonight?"

I frowned.

"Uh...Alex, I'm, um, too old for you...and married..." How awkward.

A horrified pause. Then, "You did not just say that!" Scandalized.

"Um...well, what were you asking?" I yawned again, and shook my head to try to clear the cobwebs. Obviously my brain wasn't firing on all thrusters yet.

"Jeez," he muttered. "Overreact much? There's a party at the beach tonight, a bonfire too. I was thinking that maybe that guy might show up again. Why don't you come out and see if you can catch him?"

Huh. That sounded like...well, like a damned good idea, actually. Of course, I wasn't supposed to be working. But, it was a really nice night out. And I hadn't been to the beach in forever. And, there might be a chance to catch this predator before he hurt anyone else. That was important, right? Simon would shit a brick if he found out, but I was getting a bit tired of these leg shackles, and besides, it was my case, to begin with...

It took all of half a second to talk myself into what was probably a really bad idea. Simon would probably shoot me if he found out. I really probably should not do this.

"Okay. When? Where?"

We arranged a time and meeting place, and I was bouncing to my feet before we even disconnected.

I practically flew to the bedroom and threw on what I considered 'teenager clothes' (jeans and a hoodie, and a ball cap for good measure. Mind you, they were my everyday clothes. Whatever.)

It would be dark, with only the light of the bonfire, which would hopefully hide any wrinkles (not that I had any) and help me blend in. I tucked my phone and my personal handgun - a gorgeous, fancy, expensive and powerful Les Baer model that had been a gift from Simon - into my yoga top. Not the most comfortable location, but I didn't think walking around with a holstered gun would help me blend in on the beach.

I probably should have called and told Simon. It was pretty stupid and selfish and pigheaded of me not to, really. But you know what? The thing is, sometimes, that's exactly what I am. Stupid and selfish and pigheaded. Wasn't my current predicament proof of that? Besides, I knew that if I called Simon, there was no way in hell that I'd be allowed out of the house.

And I'll be honest, I was still pretty pissed off about not being allowed to go to the briefing tonight. Maybe I just needed to prove that I wasn't a total fuck-up. Maybe it was just a case of childish wounded pride. Or hell, I could just be crazy. But whatever the reason, knowing that everyone was at the station working on my case just made me even more pissed off. Fuck them. With a curled lip, I flipped them the bird. They couldn't see me, of course, but it made me feel better.

Maturity's never really been my strong point.

I peeked out the window. It was dark out, and there was no sign of Simon's car. Almost eight-thirty. I was good to go.

At the door, my glance fell on the side table, on the pile of mail that Simon had brought in when he had come home from work earlier today.

Oh, no. A bright pink envelope, half tucked into a magazine. And there was no stamp or postmark on it. Hand delivered?

Autopilot took over. Swearing a blue streak, I sprinted to the kitchen and grabbed a pair of rubber kitchen gloves, a plastic bag, and a steak knife. Carefully, I picked up the envelope and slid the knife under the flap, to open it. My hands were shaking so badly that I could barely read the address on the front.

So it must be true. The perp is watching me. He or she knows that I'm here, at home, and not at the station. Sonofabitch...

The picture that fell out was the next part of the woman's arm. It would fit perfectly above the last photo. As before, there were no identifying marks or symbols. Still no way to know what the hell this was all about.

I slipped the envelope and picture into the plastic bag, and placed them in my drawer of the office's filing cabinet. I'd have to deal with it later. Right now, I had a beach party to get to. Quickly, I peeled off the gloves, tossed them into a wastebasket, and slipped out the front door.

I felt too vulnerable, too exposed, as I trotted out to my car. I'd drawn my gun and kept it at the ready. I beeped the doors unlocked and launched myself through the driver's side door after a quick check through the windows. I was still jittery. I kept my gun in one hand and drove too fast along the back roads to the beach, steering with the other hand.

It was usually a ten-minute drive or so, but I drove like a maniac (poor car) and got there in around half the time. I parked the car by itself as near to the road as possible, where there were few bushes and almost no areas of concealment. After a moment of looking around, gun still in hand, I got out and locked the car. Another moment of reconnaissance – nothing. No one around.

Hyper-aware, I slipped through the crowded parking lot over to the piled boulders that sort of separated the public side from the private side of the shore. My eyes kept moving, looking for anything odd. My ears twitched to the night noises. I could see a slim, dark figure standing by the low cliffs, watching and waiting. I paused, a few feet away.

"Alex?" I whispered loudly.

He whirled and jumped. "Lucie, oh shit, you scared me! I didn't hear you." In the moonlight, I saw shock on his face as he noticed the Les Baer. "Is that a gun?"

I tucked it into the waistband of my jeans, under my shirt. Also not the most comfortable spot, but easy to get to. I ignored his question. "Update me."

He stared at me for a few seconds, then said, "Uh...okay...um, there're already a few people here." He pointed down the shore a bit, to the left, where I could see the bonfire crackling. A couple dozen kids, maybe. I could hear music and laughter.

"Anything else?" I was on my game right now. I was focused for the first time in a couple of weeks. I was right on edge. And it was great. I guess maybe I might be a bit of an adrenaline junkie.

Alex peered at me critically. "Not yet. I haven't seen that guy, but I've been looking." He handed me a can of beer. "Here. So you don't look so much like an undercover cop."

My mouth watered at the feel of the cold, slippery can, but I popped a piece of gum into my mouth. I could handle this. I was all over it tonight.

"Do I really look like a cop?"

"It's the hat."

With a disgusted noise, I yanked it off and tossed it into some bushes, and shook my hair out around my shoulders.

I slipped my hand into my shirt, pulled my phone out of the cleavage part of my top. Alex tried not to notice. "Sorry, not trying to flash you or anything. Here...set your phone to vibrate." I thumbed the settings, then I glanced around. "I'm gonna stay by the rocks, near the water, where I can see both sides of the beach. Head over to the party. Keep your ears open. If you see or hear anything that I need to know, buzz me. Don't bother texting, I'm too slow at that. Stay clear of the suspect. Do not, by any means, endanger yourself. Understood?"

"Yeah, sure." He turned to go, and I grabbed his arm and swung him back.

"Alex," I said, firmly. "Again. Do not endanger yourself. Is that understood?"

"Yeah...okay. Okay, Lucie. Jeez. Drama much? I'll be careful."

"See to it. Now go."

Giving me an aggrieved look, Alex made his way over to the bonfire. I surveyed the private stretch of shore for a long moment, but didn't see anything suspicious. Most of the cottages were closed up this time of year, and if anyone was still staying in them, they'd be inside this time of night, or mingling at the bonfire. I waited a few minutes, then slipped along the boulders to the public side. Carefully navigating the cold, slick sand, I found a boulder that was flat enough to sit on, and sheltered enough that I wasn't easily visible. I could still see most of both sides of the beach, though.

I took a long, deep breath of the cool sea air. God, it felt good. I might be a bit of a fresh air junkie, too. Or maybe I'd just been cooped up too long. It was a beautiful night out. The sky was dark and clear, and the stars were out in full force, huge and luminous. The moon was fat and round and a bright lemon colour, its light dancing prettily on the gently-breaking waves. A perfect night for a romantic stroll. If things weren't so serious, I could really enjoy this. I wished Simon were here to enjoy it with me.

It was chilly down here by the water - late October, after all - but refreshing. I could smell hot dogs roasting down at the bonfire, and my stomach rumbled. I'd missed supper, and the popcorn just hadn't done the trick. Someone had brought a guitar, and several of the kids were singing along enthusiastically. Sounded like an off-color drinking song...something about old black rum. It sounded good. Sounded fun.

I couldn't help but smile. This really brought back memories. Hell, some of the best times of my teenage years had been right here, doing the exact same thing those kids were doing.

I double-checked to make sure my gun was loaded (obsessive habit), and returned it to my jeans' waistband. I was getting pretty cold now, and I set the beer down and burrowed my hands into my pockets.

The kids were getting noisier. The party had grown in size since I'd gotten here. I spotted Alex down by the water with a couple of girls. He wasn't paying attention to them, though. He was staring up at the private section of the beach.

Before I could turn and look for myself, my cellphone vibrated. I looked back at Alex. He was slowly, casually strolling in my direction. He'd left the girls behind.

"Yeah?" I whispered, ducking down with my cell phone pressed close to my head.

"On your right side, farther up the beach, back near that big cottage," he whispered back. "The guy with the ball cap. I think it's Kevin, but he looks different. Looks like he shaved his beard. I think it's him, though. He's not alone."

"Thanks. Keep your eyes peeled." I disconnected, and slipped my phone back into my jeans pocket. Trying to look like I belonged, I nonchalantly wandered down to the water and casually looked around. Alex joined me.

"I'm sure it's him," he muttered. "I don't know the two guys with him, but I think I know the kids."

I tilted my head a little and took a closer look from the corner of my eyes.I could see them fairly well in the moonlight. Some of the cottages had exterior lights on, which was a help. And then my breath caught in my throat.

Sure enough, there was a medium-height man in a hoodie and ball cap. A shorter, stockier man stood beside him, with dark hair and a goatee. From Alltchip's personnel photos, I was pretty sure that they were Kevin Stephenson and Mark Wilter. But what knocked the knees out from under me, though, was Orr was with them. Shit and damn. That was going to complicate things. Well, so much for Simon not finding out about my little excursion. I was gonna be in ankle-deep in it now.

There were five kids with the perps, all sitting cross-legged in the cold sand. The wind was rising, and a couple of them were shivering. Right then, Orr looked around, spotted me, and froze. He gave me an exasperated look, then shook his head slightly. Stay back.

I nodded. "Alex," I whispered urgently, "Watch the party back at the fire. Stay alert for anything unusual. Keep an eye on me, too. Call me if anything comes up."

"Want me to call for help?"

I looked at him. His big brown eyes were tense, worried. I wondered what to do. Could Orr and I handle this alone? I looked back at Orr, who was still watching me. Again, he shook his head. No. Stay back.

Damn it. What to do, what to do. Go with my so-called extraordinary inner gut and barge in right now, or follow Orr's instructions? Inspiration struck. I whispered Simon's cell phone number to Alex, who entered it into his own phone. "If I give you a thumbs up, call Simon and tell him everything. Okay? That guy in the brown jacket is an undercover cop, and I can't risk blowing his cover. But I've got a real bad feeling about this."

"Me too," he whispered back. Then he frowned. "Look!"

I spun around. Something was happening. One of the kids - a tall boy, athletic-looking - had risen to his feet, in an oddly jerky manner. Kevin said something to him, and the boy shook his head.

I saw Mark Wilter point something that looked like a remote control at the boy, and the next thing we knew, the kid was doubled over, clutching his head. My hand went to my gun. Orr was tense, but he shook his head at me again. Was he joking? I couldn't stand by much longer. I knew he had a cover to protect, but not at that kid's expense.

The thing is, sometimes I have a hard time focusing on the bigger picture. Needs of the many versus need of the few, blah blah blah. I don't always buy that line, and I'm not gonna apologize for it. Sometimes you just gotta jump right in and hope to hell you're around to deal with the fallout later. That's life, I guess.

Abruptly, whatever it was that Wilter had been doing, it was over. The boy had risen to his feet, and was standing straight again, shaking his head like a dog with ear mites. Then he started walking - straight into the water.

Shit. Anyone knows that the Atlantic Ocean around Maine is cold, even in the summertime. But in October? Risk of hypothermia. This was bad. I had to do something.

But what? The kid kept going. He was up to his knees, and starting to shiver. Alex tugged on my sleeve, and I murmured something soothing.

I glared daggers at Orr. He held my gaze for a second, then he nodded, looking resigned. Yes.

I understood. He couldn't blow his cover, and by giving me the okay to go in, he might be blowing any progress that he'd made so far. Whatever. Too bad.

Now what? Inspiration struck again, and I turned to Alex.

"Call Simon!" I hissed. "Tell him what's going on! Tell him we need emergency medical! For at least five patients." I hoped like hell that I was overreacting - please, let it be so – but I knew I'd waited too long. "What's that kid's name?"

"Dave."

The boy in the water stumbled, fell over. He couldn't seem to get back up. He had to be freezing. We were running out of time. I had to get him out of there. None of the kids at the party had noticed him yet, which was good, and the other kids sitting on the beach with the perps weren't doing anything. They were kind of zoned out. Orr was staring at me, his eyes pleading.

"Alex...call Simon! Stay back, stay safe."

"Good luck," he said, ducking behind the boulders and making the call.

I managed to slip my gun out of my jeans and back into my yoga top, so it wouldn't get wet. I lurched down the beach, trying my best to act like a drunk chick making a booty call. With my sense of balance, it wasn't too hard.

"Dave!" I squealed, slipping and sliding in the sand. "Dave! What the hell are you doing? It's too cold to go swimming! C'mon over here! I got somethin' for ya!" I giggled foolishly, cringing on the inside. I was such a horrible actress.

Kevin and Mark turned and stared at me, frowning. Orr was braced for something to happen. What worried me, though, was the blank expression in the eyes of the kids still sitting in the sand, and the blank eyes of Dave, shivering and sitting in the water. What the hell had been done to them?

"C'mon, Dave!" I cried. I staggered into the water.

Oh my God, it was cold! I had to get that kid out of there and soon. He kept slipping under the water. I wasn't even sure he was conscious.

I tried not to think about crabs and flounders and jellyfish and other gross sea things that might want to eat me, and I straggled over to Dave's side, tried to haul him upright. He was soaked, and freezing, but at least he was still breathing.

He gave me the creeps. Lights were on, no one home. I tried to open his Alltchip reader, but my chilled, stiff fingers weren't cooperating. Better to just try to get us both out of there, for now.

My legs were going numb, my hands weren't working right, and Dave was like a dead weight. I couldn't seem to get a good grip on him. "Come on, Dave, come on, come on, come on!" My teeth were chattering so hard that I could barely talk. It was no good. If he didn't help me out, I was going to have to get out without him.

I heard Orr call out, "Come on, let's get out of here! That crazy bitch is fucking it all up!"

And just like that, Dave snapped out of his trance. His eyes cleared. "Huh...?"

"Come on! Come on, Dave! We need to get out of here!" I couldn't feel my own feet anymore, but I was still standing, so I knew they were still attached. We didn't have much time, though. "Come on!"

"Okay...okay..." Stumbling, shivering uncontrollably, he somehow managed to lumber out of the water, with me half-dragging him.

Clumsily, we fell on the sand. Ouch, ouch and ouch. My feet and lower legs were so cold, they were actually cramping up. I hoped there were ambulances on the way. I prayed that Simon took Alex seriously.

"Help!" I yelled. "Help! We need blankets! We're freezing here! Help!"

Dave was gasping, crying, clutching his legs, trembling violently. Not good. Without thinking, I tore off my half-wet sweatshirt and wrapped it around his feet, rubbing my hands gently on them. No good, it was no good, I was too cold myself to provide any warmth for the kid.

Around me, it was all confusion. A crowd was gathering around us, and a couple of kids wrapped blankets around us.

"Good! Use body heat! Try to warm him up, he's freezing!" So was I, but adrenaline was pushing that out of my mind right at the moment.

I looked around wildly. I could see the disappearing forms of Orr and his two pals back in the private parking area, behind the cottages. I thought they'd have been long gone by now. One paused for a second - Wilter, I thought - and turned back to look at us. He held out a hand. I thought I could see that remote thing in it.

Next thing I knew, Dave and the other four kids who had been sitting with him collapsed, doubled over and crying. Clutching their heads. Screaming. Oh, I tasted white-hot fury and I was on my aching feet, lurching after them, stumbling and slipping. I was gonna get my hands on those sonofabitches and tear them limb from fucking limb...

"Lucie!" Alex shouted, literally tearing poor Dave's Reader open. "Look!"

Reluctantly, I turned back. "What?"

I looked, and what I saw made me want to throw up, made me want to rip my own Reader out again.

My God. The kid's Reader, and the skin around it, had turned black and charred. I lunged for him, still tripping and stumbling on numb feet.

"Back, Alex, back!" I pried the charred Alltchip out of the Reader, cursing as it burned my fingertips. Dave was doubled in on himself, crying. Around me, the kids were converging on the other four prone teens, ready to help.

"Careful!" I screamed. "Don't burn yourselves!"

They didn't care. They gathered around their friends, holding them, prying open Readers and digging blackened Alltchips out with no regards to their own safety.

"Careful! Be careful! Give those to me, they're evidence! Alex, did Simon reply?"

"Yeah," Alex called out. "He's on his way, he's bringing help. Oh, and he's really mad!"

Yeah, no shit. I was in it now.

It might have only been moments, but it seemed like hours, sitting there, freezing, the unaffected kids holding their friends and trying to comfort them, until we heard sirens. Someone wrapped a warm arm around my shoulders, and I started sobbing. I was a wreck. My cramped leg muscles were just screaming with pain, my adrenaline had burned away, and I was surrounded by scared-shitless kids who were all trying to help their friends. What a mess. What a fuckup I was. Five kids hurt, who knew how bad. I wish I'd ignored Orr and gone in and done what I thought was right. This was my fault. I was a total fuckup.

Bitterness burned in my throat. Never again would I let someone else tell me how to do my job. Every time I let someone guide me, something went wrong. Never again would I ignore my own instincts. This mess was all my goddamned fault.

Alex joined me. "Lucie?"

"Y-yeah?"

He looked me in the eyes. "Thank you for coming out tonight. Thank you for taking me seriously. I tried to warn everyone, tried to get them to cancel out, but they wouldn't listen. I didn't know who else to call. You saved them."

I stared at him, tears and snot running down my face, stunned. Maybe he was right. It could have been a lot worse. It could have been.

Alex looked over at one of the injured girls, and pointed at her burnt Reader as the EMTs began to storm the beach, barking orders and carrying stretchers. Thank God they were finally here.

"Look at her Reader, Lucie. Know what I think happened?"

I shook my head.

"I think this was a self-destruct order that was sent to their Alltchips. Did you see the medical remote that guy had?"

"Yeah, I didn't realize that's what it was, but I saw it."

Alex looked grim. "I don't think it worked right. But did you see what Dave was doing?"

I nodded. "Like he was being controlled. How is that possible?"

We stared at each other for a long moment, oblivious to the chaos around us. Then, I said, almost hesitantly, "Alex...what do you know about the Chip Connection movement?"

His dark eyes were serious and scared, and he said, slowly, "This is bad shit, Lucie. This is really, really bad shit."

"Do you think this is...I don't know...maybe a step? Towards it?"

Slowly, he nodded.

Just then, Simon, Claudia and Margherita rounded the boulders. Students were already directing the EMTs toward the injured kids.

Simon grabbed my arm and hauled me upright. I yelped, and crumpled. My sore legs would barely hold me. I don't know if I've ever seen Simon so angry.

"What the hell are you doing here?" He raged, holding me by my shoulders and shaking me like a rag doll. "Are you insane?"

Claudia stared, wide-eyed, at Alex. "And what is he doing here? Lucie...you didn't involve a civilian, did you?"

Margherita pointed at my gun, sticking halfway out of my bra. "Care to explain this?"

I closed my eyes.

Great.

~ SEVENTEEN ~

What a hellish night. It was almost five in the morning by the time we were able to drive Alex home. We could have called his parents to come get him, but he'd refused. I think he wanted to stay in the loop. Couldn't blame him, could I? I knew exactly how he felt.

Good news first: All the kids would be okay. Their Readers had to be removed, but they'd be able to get new Readers installed (probably behind the other ear, though, depending on scar tissue and how well the nerves healed). I mean, obviously the doctors had never seen this kind of injury before, so they couldn't make any informed predictions. Oh, and Dave was going to be fine. He wasn't going to lose any toes or anything. Neither was I, happily. My legs still ached like crazy, though, and I was shivering like a wet kitten in a cold wind. I couldn't wait to jump into a hot shower.

Orr managed to show up at the police station around four or so. Right in front of everyone, he pulled me close and squeezed me hard. "My God, Lucie!" He exclaimed. "Are you all right? What the hell?"

Simon was scowling at us, but after having been his verbal scratching post for the last few hours, I didn't much care what he thought of Orr holding me. I just needed a good hug so bad, and Orr was great at hugs. "I'm fine," I whispered, holding him tight. "You?"

He kissed my forehead, and let me go. With a twinge of guilt, I knew that I didn't want him to. "I'm all right now. But you, you're ice cold! You must be freezing, babe. What happened after we left?"

I filled him in while he held both my hands in his, rubbing them to warm them up. It felt good. Simon was pissed, of course, but he didn't say anything. Orr was blown away to find out that the kids would be fine. "Fantastic! That was supposed to be a self-destruct command, but Wilter had trouble with the remote."

He released my hands with a final squeeze, and sat on the corner of my desk. "I had just finished eating. I was getting ready to go to the gym when those two clowns showed up at my door, telling me they needed help with a project. They didn't even give me time to take a piss. I had no chance to contact anyone. We went to their place to work on some electrical stuff with that remote, and then we went to the beach. They wanted me to act as a lookout. I tried to message you, Simon," he added. Simon, stony-faced, didn't respond. Orr looked at him, hesitated, then continued. "But I didn't have a chance. They were watching me pretty close. Luce, I nearly crapped when I saw you. Aren't you still on leave? Why were you there?"

"Yes, she is on leave," Margherita snapped. She and Claudia were leaning against Riley's desk, and she was pissed. Claudia alternated between looking at me like I was a total nutcase, and glaring in anger.

"You're on leave?" Alex looked at me curiously. "What for?"

"Because she thought it would be a good idea to lock herself up in our house, all alone, and try one of those damned Pirate Chips, to see what they do. She nearly went crazy. It's a miracle she didn't kill herself." Simon's voice was icy, and an awkward silence filled the room.

Alex goggled at me. "Are you completely stupid? What were you thinking?"

"Okay, enough," Orr snapped, exasperated, and glared back at Simon. "Lay off! We're only as far along as we are in this case because of Lucie's work. A little respect, people."

"Exactly," said a new voice. I nearly groaned. Captain Hollinson. He walked in and sat down at my desk, looking almost as dishevelled as I was. I'd never seen him look anything less than spit-polished, and I did a double-take. He shot me a hard look.

"A little respect, indeed. Detective Nickerson. Am I to understand that you, being on leave, performed undercover work, while enlisting the aid of a civilian? And you were armed?"

It sounded pretty bad, when he put it like that. "Yes, sir," I said, wearily.

"And," he continued, "Am I also to understand that by doing so, you thwarted an attempt by the suspects to test more of these damned Chips on children, thereby possibly saving their lives? My daughter was at that party, and she told me what happened. You're quite the hero." He gave me a genuine smile, something I'd never seen on his face. I blinked in surprise. A smile transformed him completely.

"Oh." I didn't know what else to say.

He nodded, satisfied. "Well, then. It seems like you've recovered enough to come back to work. We'll see you Monday morning. Good job. Don't ever do anything like that again." He stood up. "Go home, everyone. Goodnight."

Things were a bit awkward after that. I didn't dare make eye contact with anyone. It was almost a relief when Alex broke the silence. "I can't believe you were so stupid!"

I had to laugh. "Believe it. 'Stupid' is my middle name."

Everyone pretty much rolled their eyes, and went back to discussing Orr's information.

Problem was, we still had no proof. Oh, we knew that Kevin and Mark used the Alltchips. But we had no clue where the Chips came from, and if there were any other perps, or even any other Chips in the works. It wasn't feasible to move in on them yet.

Orr hadn't seen enough yet to definitely say that Kevin and Mark had created these Chips. So, we'd just have to keep investigating. We all agreed that it was time to "wire" Orr (which was something I'd suggested right from day one, but who the hell ever listens to me?) We all agreed that we were on the right track. My concern - which everyone seemed to ignore yet again - was that Orr had been made.

"It doesn't make sense any other way," I insisted. "Why else would they have acted the way they did? They're trying to flush you out. See how much you know."

"How would they know Orr's a cop?" Simon asked reasonably.

"Hell, I don't know. Speeding tickets? Maybe they've seen him around? Searched him out on the net? It's possible."

"Orr's using an alias, Lucie. Your own CCD set it up. They won't be able to search anything out online."

I was frustrated. "Sure, just ignore me once again. Why do you guys always ignore me? I'm right. I'm always right. If you'd get your heads out of your stupid asses..."

"That's enough, Detective," Margherita said. But I was cold, hungry, tired, itchy from sand stuck in private places, and by now, absolutely pissed off. I didn't care if I was being unreasonable and childish.

"Orr," I pleaded, "Trust me. They're on to you. I know it, even if these idiots here won't believe me. If you don't pull out altogether, then be careful. Be damned careful."

Orr looked tired. He'd moved to sit in Claudia's chair, and he reclined there, his arms folded, dark shadows under his eyes. He yawned, and said, "Okay, Luce. I'll keep my head up."

"Lucie..." Claudia began, but I cut her off and stood up.

"I'm going to bed. I'm tired of this bullshit." I dropped the blanket that was still wrapped around my shoulders, and tucked my gun back into my jeans. I was freezing, still wearing just a yoga top (my hoodie had disappeared), but for some reason, it was important to me to storm out like this. I'd probably feel like the worst kind of drama queen tomorrow, but I honestly didn't care. Sometimes a girl just has to make a dramatic exit. If my hair wasn't such a tangled mess from the sand and salt water, I'd flip it back disdainfully and tilt my nose in the air. Just to make the point, of course.

Simon rose with me. "Come on, then. I've got my car. Let's get you home. Alex, we'll drop you off." He put an arm around my waist, but I resisted, and turned back to Orr.

"Thank you for your support," I said, very deliberately. "I appreciate it."

Orr shrugged. He didn't look very happy, but he said, "No problem, Luce. I've got your back."

"And I've got yours." I held eye contact for a long moment, and truthfully, I didn't care whose feelings were hurt. Then I remembered something. "Orr...have those two said anything about Chip Connection?"

Orr's handsome face shut down and went unreadable. He and Simon exchanged a look. I got the message. Butt out. Again.

I rolled my eyes. Fine. Screw them.

Turning my back to them, I put a hand on Alex's shoulder. "Come on, you. Let's get out of here."

Alex paused, then said to the room at large, "You should all listen to her. Seriously. She's got a grip on this. You guys are all too busy shooting her down to realize that she's probably right." He bent down and picked up my blanket, and wrapped it around my shoulders again. "Bye," he called, as we left the room.

Alex chattered all the way to his house. He alternated mostly between rehashing the night's events, and berating me for my stupidity. Simon said little; he was brooding. I hated brooding. It was usually the precursor to endless arguments and ultimatums. He could be quite the drama king when the mood struck, and I had a feeling it was striking right now.

We stopped at an all-night drive-through and picked up a few sandwiches. I was starved, and I could hear Alex's stomach rumbling. It was just a short drive to Alex's house, but we had the sandwiches polished off before we even pulled into his driveway.

Alex climbed out of the back seat, then turned back to me and said, "Let me know how this all turns out, okay?"

I smiled. "If I'm not dead, then I promise. I'll let you know."

"That's not funny."

Simon said, soothingly, "Don't worry, Alex. She'll be fine."

Alex gave him a stern look. "You take care of her. And listen to her." Then he smiled at me. "Bye, Lucie. Thank you."

I waved, and we waited until Alex had gone inside the house and we heard the lock click, before we drove away.

Simon was silent and grim for the entire drive home. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but I was too exhausted to talk, anyway. I might have dozed off a bit.

Once we got to the farmhouse, Simon gently shook me awake. He got out and plugged the car in, then helped me inside. That was nice of him.

I carelessly tossed my gun into its desk drawer (even though I knew better), and jumped into the shower. I had beach sand stuck in every nook and cranny, and my hair was a disaster. I turned the water as hot as I could stand, and let the powerful jets pummel me until my chills were gone. It took quite a while.

I'd just finished drying off, and had stepped out of the bathroom amidst billows of steam, wearing nothing but a towel. Hoping for another snack, I was en route to the kitchen when Simon grabbed me and pulled me close.

"What?" I asked. Impulsively, I leaned up on my toes and kissed his chin. I didn't care if he was mad at me. When all was said and done, I was just happy to be here with him.

"Don't you ever...I mean ever scare me like that again, love. You keep this up, I swear you'll drive me insane," he hissed, holding me tight and kissing my wet hair. "This has literally been hell."

Full-blown drama mode. "I'm sorry, but..."

"You could have been killed." He stared at me, anguished. "Don't you realize that? We have no idea what those two are truly capable of! Why didn't you call me?"

I wrapped my arms around his waist, and he cupped my face in his large, strong hands. "Because I didn't want any bullshit arguments," I said. "I'm really tired of being told what to do. I am a cop, you know. I'm very well-trained..."

"No," he ground out. "You're my wife. And I don't ever want to go through a night like this again." Then he pushed me against the wall and crushed his mouth against mine.

And that pretty much ended the discussion - for the rest of the night.

~ EIGHTEEN ~

It was too damned early, and it was Monday morning. Ugh.

I was slumped at my desk, exhausted and yawning, while Claudia looked on. She had an expression on her face that fell somewhere between concern and amusement. I must have looked pretty bad. I tried to say something, but another yawn interrupted me. She chuckled.

"Do you need another coffee? In addition to the two that you've already inhaled?"

That bad, huh? "No," I smiled tiredly. "Well, maybe. Yeah, okay. It was just a very long weekend. I'm still not sleeping very well." Massive understatement, that. My nerves were shot, still. Even though Simon was doing his absolute best to exhaust me every night (in a good way!), I was still having nightmares. I'd kill for a good night's sleep. Preferably dreamless.

I was one of those people who rarely remembered my dreams, but the last couple of weeks had been different. I wonder if I really screwed up my head with that damned Chip?

As if the Chip-induced nightmares hadn't been bad enough, they were now mixed with random fragments of the beach party debacle, and even the odd snippet featuring those creepy photos, and camera flashes. I hate camera flashes. The nightmares were getting weird, though. In them, I was the person tied to the table, drugged and paralysed and helpless. I kept hearing Simon's voice saying, "Freeze!". With that weird little movie playing in my head all night, it's a miracle that I'd made it in to work this morning at all.

I'd actually come in early, to read the notes and reports and stuff, just to get myself up to speed. Things weren't going real great, case-wise. In fact, I was sure that's why Hollinson had brought me back so soon. Hoping for another breakthrough. Bad news for him. Simon and I had spent the entire weekend discussing (arguing) the case, and we'd pretty much come to the same conclusion: we weren't going anywhere with it. It was too big. It was time to bring in the Feds.

He really hated to do that. He'd been one of those cops who hated dealing with the FBI. Myself, I hadn't minded them either way. Sure, some of the Feds that we'd dealt with in NYC had been arrogant arseholes, but I'd never had a problem with them. There was this one Fed, a tall, skinny blonde weird guy that I'd always hit it right off with. Wish he was here now.

One of the other things that we'd argued about this weekend had been my job. Simon wanted me to quit. He wanted me to be safe, which I thought was pretty sweet of him. And, funnily enough, I had wanted the same thing, but when he'd started yelling at me about it, I'd ended up telling him to go pound sand. (That was one of my Gramp's favourite expressions. No idea what it meant, but it sounded good and tough.)

Long after Simon had fallen asleep, I'd tossed and turned (hence the bags under my eyes this morning) and thought about it. Retirement, I mean.

The idea made me a bit anxious - was I really old enough to retire? - but the timing was right. I could feel it in my gut. I decided to hand in my resignation. And just the thought filled me with a huge sense of freedom, relief.

No damned idea what I was going to do afterwards - the last couple of weeks had convinced me that unemployment wasn't the path I was meant to tread - but I needed a change, and bad. There had to be something out there that I could do.

Now that I thought about it, I wondered if perhaps Simon had felt this very same way three years earlier. At the time, I couldn't possibly fathom why he would retire, but maybe he was in the same place then that I was now. It had just been luck that I'd inherited the farm, which made the whole change easier. For him, anyway. I still grumbled about that.

While my mind was wandering around in la-la land, one of the guys from downstairs walked over, wearing a pair of evidence gloves and carrying a neon-blue envelope. Oh, no. My shoulders slumped. Here we go again.

"Mail," he said, grimly.

"Thanks," I said, faintly, using my phone to send a quick message to Branden upstairs.

"Another one!" Claudia frowned. "We didn't receive one last week."

"No, but I did," I said, digging in my tote bag. "I forgot to hand it in this morning."

"Wait," she said. "How did you receive it?"

"Mailed to the farmhouse. No postmark. No stamp." I glanced down. "This one doesn't have one, either."

We shared a meaningful look. I was trying to stay cool, but inside, I was shaking. Whoever was sending these to me must have known that I was back at work today. Or were they just taking a chance that I'd be here?

And then I understood why they were apparently hand-delivered. Because the perp knew where I was, but didn't know how long I'd be in each location. It was important to the perp that I personally receive these.

Jumping Jesus Murphy. What the hell was this, anyway? Why me?

I shot a questioning glance at Claudia, who had jumped up and was heading for the stairs. "I'll be back in a moment," she called over her shoulder.

Branden arrived, and began to do his thing with the latest photo. While he did that, I stared at last week's photo for a moment. Something about it was triggering something for me. I wondered what...

And it hit me with a clang. Back in the day, when I'd worked in a photo processing place, digital photography was just a distant rumour. Thirty-five millimetre film was the big thing. When I was older, my parents had gotten all their family photos scanned onto CD, and then for some reason, had them all printed off again digitally. I remember the flat, crappy quality of the reprinted scanned pictures. That's what these mystery pictures looked like. They looked like old film photos that had been scanned and then reprinted. These pictures could have been taken years ago. And by scanning them, any identifying information on the back of the photos would not be reproduced on the newly-printed ones. And if the new ones were printed at home, there wouldn't be any lab information printed on the back of the photo.

I looked at the back of the photo that I had brought with me. Blank. Damn. Not a hope in hell of tracing these.

I handed Bran the plastic baggie with last week's picture in it. "This arrived at my house last week," I said, trying to keep my voice steady. "It fits with the other pictures."

Branden stopped what he was doing, and shot me an alarmed glance. "Wow," he said. "Lucie, we need to step this one up. Whoever the perp is, he or she is watching you. We need to get a leg up, here."

"I'll be careful."

He held my gaze for a bit, concerned, and then nodded. "I'll brief the guys."

"Okay. Thanks." I was pretty impressed by how steady my voice sounded.

He removed the newest photo from the envelope, and we saw immediately that it fit with the rest of them. It was the upper part of the arm, with a blanket-covered surface beneath. Bran slipped it into a plastic bag.

"I've got something," I said. I gave him a rundown on my theory about the age of the pictures.

"Okay, then," he conceded. "Possibly film."

"If so," I said, "then the photos are probably a few years old. Hardly any place does film processing anymore."

"Does anyone?"

"There might be a few film processors still out there. Probably at the big companies, like Fuji and Kodak. Or mail order." I folded my arms and leaned against one of the tables. "I used to work in a photo lab when I was a teenager. I guess I just kind of kept up on the new stuff, out of curiosity." Bran nodded, and I continued. "Digital photography was fairly cheap and widespread by about 2005, 2006. Film photography was slower, more expensive, and more importantly, less anonymous. A developer had to have processed these, if they are film-based. Very few people did home color developing, as it was so expensive and tricky. Home labs usually stuck with black-and-white."

"Would a photo lab print these?"

I thought about it. "Possibly. The lab I worked in would have contacted the police if they thought something was wrong. But that was us. I'm sure there were labs out there that would process anything." I shrugged. "Maybe our perp worked in a lab himself and printed his own pictures. That is, if I'm actually right about these being scanned film photos. They look like it, but there's always the possibility that the perp was using a crap digital camera, too."

"Yeah..." Branden trailed off, staring at the pictures. Then he turned back to face me. "But what do you think? For real?"

I smiled wryly. "My famous little gut is saying that these are film photos. Digital just has a different look, even crappy digital. I can't explain it. It's like the difference between watching a movie filmed on actual film, and watching a video recording. There's just a difference."

Branden nodded. "Okay. Something to look into. I'll see what they can turn up in Imaging, and I'll brief the guys on this." He smiled. "Hang tough, kiddo." He gave me a quick one-armed hug and a brotherly smooch on top of my head, and then he headed back to his Crime Scene lair.

I returned to my desk, and even tried to look like I had something to do. On the whole, I think I did a pretty good job of keeping it together. Maybe I was numb.

A moment later, Claudia returned, her expression tight. She sat at her desk and leaned close.

"The surveillance cameras show a person - possibly male, tall, slim - wearing a peaked cap and a hooded sweatshirt, slipping the envelope into our mail slot around three a.m., then walking away quickly." She sighed, frustrated. "That's all. We can't even guess anything more about the person. We'll need you to review the video." She began scribbling a few notes for Codie and Riley.

"Okay." Mental head smack. Surveillance cameras. Why didn't I think of that? Maybe I needed that third coffee after all.

I stared at the pretty patterns on the tiny little aloe vera plant that I'd picked up this weekend. I was pleased and grateful that someone (probably Claudia) had been watering my plants while I was on leave.

"What's Simon's take on this?" Claudia asked.

I was silent for a moment. I'd forgotten to tell him about these pictures, about the picture delivered to the farmhouse last week. I chewed my lip for a moment, thinking. Finally, I said, "I haven't told him about these yet. I'm not going to, not yet."

"Why not?"

"We're...having some issues right now. He doesn't need something else to worry about."

"But Lucie, this could involve him. He could be in danger, too."

I frowned. "Who says anyone's in danger?" It could be true. So far, all we'd received were the pictures. No other contact. Okay, so realistically, I was pretty sure that whatever was going on was bad, but Simon was on edge enough lately. I didn't want to deal with him freaking out about these pictures, too. "I'll tell him later, okay. Just not right now."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Margherita hang up the phone in her office, and I decided that now was the time. "Excuse me. I've gotta go talk to Margherita."

Claudia muttered something and kept scribbling notes. I crawled out of my chair and made my way towards Margherita's office. I knocked lightly on her door, and sucked in a deep breath. This wasn't gonna be easy.

"Come in."

"Hey," I said, slipping through the door. "Mind if I sit down?"

She glanced up at me through her fashionably side-swept blonde bangs. I felt a moment of envy. Why wouldn't my hair go like that? "Go ahead." She gave me a curious look. "What's up?"

Okay, then. "Well," I began, "I...uh...I'm giving my notice. I'm resigning."

Poor woman, I don't think she could have looked more shocked if I'd picked up her mug of tea and dumped it over her head. She actually stared at me for a good five or ten seconds before speaking.

"You...all right, then..." She frowned. "May I ask why?"

"Sure," I breathed out, relieved. The worst was over. I leaned back in my chair and casually crossed my ankle over my knee, boy-style. "It's been coming on for a while," I said. "I don't know if I'm burnt out, or just fed up of the job. No idea. But I think I'm done. Simon...he really wants this, too. I'll try to hang on till the end of this Memory Chip case, though. If that's okay with you?"

"Of...of course," Margherita said, looking a little dazed. "I see. Have you made any plans?"

"Well," I grinned, cheerful now. "I've got a few ideas. I've got a pretty good little nest egg put away, and Simon will be more than happy to handle the finance part of things. He loves to spend money on me. Maybe I'll finally let him. But I'm thinking of just taking a year or two off. You know," I said, warming to the conversation, "I've always loved creative writing, and over the years, I've put together some plot outlines for a few novels. Maybe I'll take a crack at that, finally. And I used to be in a band, back in high school. Since I've moved back, the guys and I have been getting together and jamming a couple of times a week. We're pretty good. We could do a few gigs." I lifted her huge potted spider plant off the stand beside her desk, and absent-mindedly began pinching dead leaves off it. She gave me an amused glance. Margherita was used to me fussing with her plants (which had actually been mine in the first place).

"I never knew that. I thought your idea of a hobby was the shooting range."

"Yeah, that, too."

She grinned. "Let me know and I'll come and see a show."

"Thanks. I'll keep in touch, you know that. You know, Simon and I have been talking about taking a road trip from one end of North America to the other for years now. Hop in the car and go. Maybe I can get him to take a year off, we can hit the road. That'd be a blast."

"It sounds like it." Margherita smiled. "Now you've got me thinking about it. Well," she teased, "You're a royal pain in the ass, but I hate to lose you. You really are one of the best I've ever worked with. I'd appreciate it if you could stay on till the end of the case, though. And it's true that we wouldn't even have a case, if you hadn't followed your own gut feelings. Who knows where things would have ended up?"

"That reminds me. Simon and I have been talking about it. We're both thinking it's probably best to hand it all over to the Feds."

Margherita grimaced. "Unfortunately, you're probably right. Captain Hollinson and I have been talking about that, and a few other things. He really is your biggest fan right now." I grimaced. Her phone buzzed, and she checked the display. She rolled her eyes. "It's Todd. We broke up, and he won't stop calling. I've got to take this. I'll talk to you later. Can you do up a letter of resignation?"

"Sure thing." With a mock salute, I stood up and closed the office door behind me, and bounced over to my desk.

"Guess what!" I crowed to Claudia, who was frowning at her monitor. Casually, I slid my bromeliad over onto her side of the desk, to make some room. Just as casually, she pushed it back.

"What?"

"I just resigned. For real. I'm done after this case."

Claudia studied me with those x-ray eyes of hers. "I'm not surprised, really." She smiled. "But I'm very glad for you."

Just then, Margherita joined us, her face animated. "Briefing room, five minutes, ladies. Time to rethink things."

~ NINETEEN ~

Claudia and I were sitting in the briefing room, waiting for everyone else to show up. Five minutes had turned into ten, and I guess I was getting a bit impatient. Besides, she'd beaten me at four out of five games of Crazy Eights. Stupid game.

"Quit cheating," I grumbled.

"And how would one cheat at Crazy Eights?" Claudia teased.

"If I knew, I'd beat you more often."

"You just need a better grasp of strategy," she said, shuffling the deck for another round. "A flying tackle doesn't often work at cards."

"Good point," I sighed, casting an irritated glance at the door. "Strategy's never been my strong point."

"And flying tackles are not my style. That's probably why we work so well together."

I grinned. "I bet you could manage some kick-ass tackles if you tried."

"And I'll bet you could manage some kick-ass tactical, if you tried." She dealt a new hand. I picked up my cards and scowled. Nothing good.

Margherita was talking on the phone, pacing back and forth in the small hallway outside the briefing room. I could see her through the open door, and her pacing was annoying the hell out of me. I wondered who else we were waiting for.

I got my answer when Simon walked in a couple of minutes later, chatting with Captain Hollinson. Simon was wearing a dark grey suit today, with a black shirt and black tie. It really brought out the blue in his eyes. I had to admit, my man cleaned up good. I couldn't help but ogle. He shot a warm glance my way, and I smiled back at him, feeling teenager-ish and giggly.

He stood with Hollinson over by the windows, still deep in conversation, and I admired the way the sunlight lit up the blonde highlights in his still-thick hair. Yeah, he was a hottie.

Matt and Jeremy from Computer Crimes sauntered in and pulled up a couple of chairs. Matt had brought a box of doughnuts to share, and I'd made a couple pots of coffee while we were waiting.

"Ladies," Jeremy said, with his usual megawatt smile. He was definitely one of my favourite computer geeks. Not that I ever called him that.

"Any idea what's going on?" I asked, flashing a flirtatious little smile back.

"Taking it to the next level, baby." He handed me a maple glazed, and gave me a wink. Jeremy was also my favourite flirt buddy. A girl needs a good flirt buddy now and then.

"Which means?" Claudia asked. She was getting impatient, too.

"You'll see, Gorgeous."

She playfully curled her lip at him, and he gave her a sunny grin in return. Simon and Hollinson finished their chat, and moved closer to us. Simon took a seat across from me and gave me that small, secret little smile that always made my fingertips tingle.

"All right, everyone," Margherita began, clicking off her phone. "You've all been briefed on the events that occurred Friday night. Except for Lucie, of course, but as she was smack in the middle of them, she doesn't need to hear it all again."

"You got that right," I muttered, to assorted chuckles.

"Thanks to Detective Nickerson's hard-won information," Captain Hollinson said, with an approving glance my way, "We've got enough to pick up those two suspects and question them. We even have enough to charge them. But we still don't know the origin of those Chips, nor have we sussed out any accomplices yet. Clearly, we've barely scratched the surface, and we don't want to scare them into hiding until we can get to the bottom of this." He paused. "The plan now is to keep an eye on them, to get as much information as possible. It looks like this case is an awful lot bigger than we've guessed."

Murmurs of agreement around the table. "We've approached the FBI, and they're going to begin assisting in this investigation, and in fact, may take it over completely. Until that happens, we are still in charge. Officer Harrison is still working undercover. The suspects have taken him into their confidence."

I held up my hand at this, but the Captain merely said, "We know, Lucie. Orr has elected to remain where he is. He's aware of the risks."

I sighed, but said nothing. Hollinson continued. "We have, however, obtained a warrant to perform electronic surveillance."

"Really?" I was impressed. "I didn't think we had enough on the perps to justify that."

"Thanks to you, we do." Hollinson smiled at me. It made me nervous. I was used to him looking at me like I was something to be scraped off the bottom of his shoe. This new approval kind of creeped me out. I guess I probably couldn't call him 'Dickhead' anymore.

As though she could read my thoughts, Margherita shot me an amused glance. She picked up the thread. "While the suspects were out yesterday, Jeremy and Matt managed to get some bugs into place, in order to monitor their apartment. Of course, everything they do at Alltchip is being monitored. A search of their systems turned up nothing, but the Feds are assisting Alltchip in workplace surveillance."

I hated to rain on their parade, but: "All things considered, I can't see these geeks not having their own surveillance. You know, to detect any kind of intrusion, bugs, whatever, into their own apartment. I'd bet that they know you've bugged their place." I shrugged. "I'm just sayin'."

"We ran our own detectors first, Luce. Everything came up clear." Jeremy smiled at me again.

"I know you guys are good, but these idiots have things to hide. I wouldn't rule it out."

"I have to back Lucie up on this," Claudia added. "I think we should assume that they are aware of our surveillance. It would be foolish of us not to."

It occurred to me that I might be overly-suspicious. But was that really a problem? Not to rag on my esteemed colleagues, but I was afraid that they just weren't being suspicious enough.

Margherita and Hollinson exchanged a glance. Hollinson shrugged, and nodded.

"So," Margherita said, "We'll do that. We'll assume that they are, indeed, aware. Since there's no footwork to be done right now, I'm assigning Lucie and Claudia to help monitor the apartment. Night shift, that is. Computer Crimes can handle it during the day, while they have other projects to work on. There's no one home during the day, so there isn't much to watch. Wilter and Stephenson get off work at four p.m., and should be home shortly after that. I'd like you two to work the four to midnight shift. That's when most of the activity is likely to take place. CCD's night shift can take over from then. Everything's being recorded, anyway. And we've got plainclothes physically watching them, too. Their car is being bugged today, while they are at work. Orr is also wired now."

"When? Only at work? What about after work?" I wanted to know.

" Anytime he's wearing his new wristwatch. It's wired."

"Good idea. Panic button?"

Hollinson and Margherita glanced at each other again. "That's a good idea," she said.

"Yes, it is."

"We can get that set up," Matt said. "We'll get a new watch set up, he can pick it up later today."

"Good stuff," Hollinson said. "Good thinking."

I nodded, and somehow refrained from saying, "Someone has to do some thinking around here". Claudia and I shared a look. I mean, how hard was it to think of a panic button?

It's the shit like this that drives me absolutely crazy. I swear human beings spend their entire lives trying to make everything harder for themselves. I get so frustrated sometimes. Society is going to confuse and legislate itself to death, I know it. As my Gramps always used to say, common sense is pretty uncommon.

Hollinson added, "Anything to add, Simon?"

Simon thought for a moment, then said, "No. You've got everything covered, as far as I can see."

"Good, then. Anything to add, anyone?" Claudia raised her hand.

"Is Orr under plainclothes surveillance, too?" She asked.

"Only when he's around the perps. He should be fine when he's not near them," Margherita answered.

I didn't say anything. Not verbally, anyway. My loud sigh and exaggerated eyeroll said it for me. It's a good thing my gun was in its holster and not easily accessible right at that moment, because I could cheerfully have shot myself in the head just to get away from this meeting.

Margherita and Simon both shot me warning glances, but I ignored them. Hopefully I'd be done with this job soon (not soon enough).

Hollinson stood. "All right, then. Good work. Thank you, everyone." He nodded and left the room. Margherita followed, talking to the CCD boys as she went, which left me and Claudia and Simon.

Simon sighed. "I guess I won't be seeing much of you for a while."

"You can come by and we'll do lunch."

He grinned. "I will. And, after all, midnight is not that late."

"Exactly. I handed in my resignation, by the way. When I'm done with this case, I'm done altogether. Thank God."

Simon looked surprised, and pleased. "Good. Thank you, love. You have no idea how relieved I am." Just then, Hollinson appeared in the doorway, beckoning Simon. "Must go," Simon said. With a wink and a wave, he followed Hollinson out.

Claudia smiled. "He seems happy to hear that."

"Oh, he is. He's been bugging me to quit."

"You seem happy to say it, too."

I shook my head in disgust. "I'm so sick of this bullshit." She nodded sympathetically. We were silent for a moment, and then I said, "Want to go for breakfast? I know a place."

"I'll bet you do." She grinned. "You always do. Sure. Let's go."

We dropped in at Alan's restaurant. It wasn't open yet, but he and his staff were there, and we sweet-talked them into throwing together some real breakfast, the kind with bacon and eggs and toast and biscuits and ham and sausage and...well, you get the idea. If I'm ever in the market for a new husband, I want a chef.

We lingered for a couple of hours over the feast that they prepared for us, and had a good gossip-slash-friendship-repair session. It was great. We hadn't had some girl gab time in a couple of weeks, and boy, had we needed it. I filled Claudia in on the whole personal situation (Simon and Orr, specifically), and she filled me in on all the case and station stuff that I'd missed over the last couple of weeks. We had a blast, and I felt like my old self again. I felt good. I felt almost normal. I was glad she wasn't mad at me anymore.

We both went home after that. Claudia, to get a few hours of sleep, and me, to do some thinking. Maybe even a nap. Things were bothering me, and when they bothered me, my mind went over and over and over them, like a broken record. I'd learned to pay attention to that sort of thing. After I'd changed clothes and did all the housework, I went out to the stables.

The farmhand had finished up for the day, and I felt the need for some companionship. Two-legged, four-legged, I didn't care. I needed someone to bounce some ideas off. Besides, I hadn't spent much time with the horses lately. I grabbed some of their favorite treats on the way.

Half an hour and a couple of bags of carrots later, I'd finished listing all the sordid details for my attentive, furry audience.

"What do you think?" I murmured to the fluffy miniature horse I was grooming. The horses were already groomed, but they never minded an extra session, and I remembered from childhood that they'd usually been pretty good listeners when I needed someone to talk to. And they were always happy to nibble on any extra carrots and apples that I happened to have in my pockets.

This particular horse, I'd named when I was a senior in high school. Froey. Rhymed with 'Joey'. No idea why I'd called him that. He'd always been a challenge to groom, with his puffy, spotted grey fur (or was it hair? I could never remember the proper term). He was a weird little fella, with a quirky little temperament. I guess that's why he'd never been sold. He'd been my Dad's favorite, so he'd ended up being one of the resident pets. Miniature horses can live for quite a long time - well over twenty years. There were four that my parents had kept, and I noticed that there was a cute little white one that Simon never seemed to get around to selling. Considering that he'd named her 'Sweetheart', I figured she was going to be around for a while.

I felt more relaxed than I had in a while. It was nice here, in the stable. Another beautiful autumn day, clear and blue and warm. I could go to sleep right here.

Fro whickered, and shuffled restlessly. I hadn't realized that I'd stopped stroking his soft mane. I quickly resumed, before he got all nippy on me. He was a champion nipper.

"What do I mean, what do you think? What I mean is, what am I not seeing here?" I muttered fretfully while Fro nosed my pocket. Absently, I fed him some more carrots.

"I guess what's bothering me is why the perps haven't taken off yet. I know...I absolutely know...that they know Orr's an undercover cop. They know we're on to them. I don't know why they're keeping Orr close. Unless it's a case of "keep your enemies close"? In which case, are they going to mislead him, to give us bad information? Shit," I hissed, frustrated. "I don't get it. What's their game?"

I set the brush down and leaned back against the stable, stroking Fro's fluffy fur with my hand. He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against mine. Okay, even though I didn't especially care about the whole farm thing, I had to admit that I loved this little guy. He was so sweet. Maybe I was exaggerating when I complained about the horse farm. Maybe I just liked to complain. These days, it sure seemed like that.

"Unless...you know what, Fro? I don't think they really have a game. I think they're just horsing around. Pardon the expression. But I really do. I think they just want to see what they can do. Maybe they're gonna back off...but no. If they were going to do that, then why did they bring Orr to the beach with them?"

My inner gut thing kicked into gear, and I leaned back against the warm wooden wall, my arms folded behind my head. "You know what, Froey? I think they're biding their time. Finishing up their stuff. I think they're stringing Orr along, keeping him close, until they do what they want to do. Then they'll get rid of him. And you know what?" I rolled to my feet, alarming the dozing horses. "Sorry, guys. They're going to try to find out what they can from him, to cover their tracks as best as they can. And I don't like the thought of that one little bit. How far will they go? How crazy or ballsy are they?"

I yanked out my cell phone, still talking to the tiny horse. "You know what else? I think they really were just screwing around, too, until they realized that we were on to them. Then I bet they decided to step it up. Shit. I bet we were the catalyst for them moving ahead. Shit and damn and fuck." I thumbed the speed dial icon and tapped the list of numbers until I came to Orr's. "Fuck Hollinson and fuck what everyone else says. I'm gonna talk to Orr. I don't care if anyone else gives a damn about him, because I give a damn about him, and I'll handle this in my own way, I don't give a sweet flying fuck what anyone else says. So there." A burst of childish attitude, but whatever. It felt good.

Fro whinnied softly in agreement, and I stroked his mane some more while waiting for Orr to answer his phone. It took a couple of rings, but he answered. "Luce?" Bewildered. "Everything all right?" His voice sounded a bit weird, almost echoing.

"Fine," I said. "Can you talk?"

"Yeah, sure. I'm in the washroom."

"Oh," I grinned. "Will your wire pick up this conversation?"

"Oh, yeah. It's active."

Good. Saves me from having to repeat myself later. "Listen, do you remember what I said about those morons knowing you're a cop?"

"Yeah."

He sighed, and I continued. "Be careful."

"Always am."

"Sure, okay. But promise me."

Another sigh. He was either getting impatient, or annoyed, with me. "I promise."

"Thank you. And don't count on their apartment not having its own surveillance. I'm betting that they know we bugged them. I brought it up in the meeting today. We're proceeding on that assumption."

"Yeah, I heard. Simon messaged me." Orr was silent for a moment. "Possible. It's possible, Luce. They're pretty sharp guys. No social smarts, but a lot of tech smarts."

Uh-huh. "I think they're fucking with us. I think they're keeping you close, as in 'keep your enemies close'. You know what? At first, I thought that they were just screwing around, but now I think they've got focus. And," I said, "I think we gave it to them. This is bad, Orr. Be careful. Please."

"Lucie, you think too much, you know that?" Orr chuckled, but there was no humour in it. "I'll be careful." A silence. Then, "I turned off my wire. So tell me something. What's it to you, Luce? Do you care? Be honest. Do you really care?"

I bit my lip. "You know I do. I can't help it." My voice broke. "Don't do this. Please."

More silence. Uncomfortable.

I checked my watch. "I've gotta go."

"Busy day at the shop?" He tried to hide the bitterness.

I willed my voice to return to normal. It was hard. "No. I'm on the four to twelve surveillance shift. Right now I'm grooming the horses."

"I thought you hated working on the farm."

"Something to do."

"Wow. You're bored."

"No. Just...nervous. Worried." My voice trembled, and with my free arm, I hugged my knees to my chest. "Worried sick."

Another silence. It was awkward. Abruptly, Orr said, "Gotta go." I heard a door open in the background, and then water running. "Don't worry so much, babe." A pause. "And I love you, too."

I heard a click. I pocketed my phone, then sat down again, with Froey nuzzling my neck. Impulsively, I reached out and hugged him to me, and held him tight.

My tears made wet tracks, sliding through his fur.

~ TWENTY ~

Well, I managed to get an hour or so's nap. Bad idea. I felt groggy as hell when I woke up. A coffee run was definitely on my 'to do' list.

It was just after three p.m. I was trying to do something with my bedhair, when my phone buzzed. Orr, sending me a text.

"Sorry. Will be careful. You be safe too. Xox"

He was such a great guy. And probably the biggest mistake I'd ever made in my life, no matter that my heart said otherwise. Grumbling, I gave up on my hair. I tossed it into my usual ponytail and headed for the kitchen.

It took me a minute to pick out a meal in the freezer (I'd stocked it pretty well during the last couple of weeks of house arrest), and write a quick note for Simon with re-heating instructions. Then I drove to the station, making a stop at Mug's first.

To be honest, I was kind of pumped. Surveillance was a pretty boring job, but being out of work for two weeks was even more so. I was just happy just to be out of the house.

Technically, we didn't even need to watch the monitors. All the information would be fed right to the CCD's computers, and electronically analyzed. But we mere humans might find something that the computers overlooked. And it would give me a feel for these two assholes.

Claudia and I settled ourselves into a couple of comfortable leather chairs in one of the CC offices, and prepped ourselves with pens, paper, coffee and doughnuts. The essentials.

"How come CCD gets these nice chairs? Ours are so crappy. I might steal one of these." I wiggled my butt and spun the chair around, trying to make myself dizzy.

"You're surrounded by cops. We'll figure out who the perp is and arrest you."

"You can have it when I quit."

"I'll get the charges dropped." Claudia grinned.

"Speaking of when I quit, can you distribute my plants around the station?"

Claudia groaned. "You've got so many!"

"Yeah, but my house is full, too."

She shook her head and muttered to herself. Then we heard a sharp beeping.

"Well, here we go," she said, as the feed went live. "Let's see what the rats' tunnel looks like." The large monitors buzzed to life. The feed was sharp, and in color.

I was surprised. "It's a pretty nice rat tunnel, actually." The apartment, in a large complex in the north end, was roomy and very new-looking. "Alltchip must pay pretty good. That's a nice place."

"We're not in New York City. You don't need a fortune to rent a place here."

"True. Good point. Oh, now look at their toys." I pointed with my pen. "Simon has that same entertainment console. We're talking ten grand, maybe more."

"And barely a stick of decent furniture."

I grinned. "You're right...the sofa looks like something they found at the dump. Looks like the kind of pad a couple of tech geeks would have, huh?"

"Indeed."

I pointed with my pen again. "What's going on over here?"

The far end of the living room was either a gadgetry junkyard, or an electronics museum. Crap was piled up, nearly to the ceiling. Although it sort of looked organized...kind of.

Claudia squinted at the image. "Are those things that Kevin is going to be repairing, perhaps? Or are they hiding something in there?"

"That's an interesting idea," I said. "I hope like hell CCD swept that mess when they were checking for bugs." Claudia nodded, and made a note.

I pointed at the upper left hand corner of the monitor. "See that little thingy-thing there? I've seen that before."

Claudia frowned. "I haven't. What is it?"

"Simon had one in his office, in his desk. It was connected to his computer. He used it to read the contents of that Pirate Chip. I wonder..." I felt a tingle of excitement. "I wonder if it can write on Chips, as well as read them? I wonder if this could be their little manufacturing facility? Disguised as junk? I bet they're stealing blanks from Alltchip, and recording them here."

Claudia pressed a couple of keys on her keyboard. "I'll tag this screen, for further examination."

"Yeah, good idea." I took a chug of coffee. "Oh, look. Showtime."

The suspects had just walked in the front door. Every room was monitored. We watched as little as possible as they changed from work clothes to casual wear, and we cringed and did our best not to watch as they used the bathroom. Ick. Let the CCD handle that one.

The guys made sandwiches, and settled down in the living room. Kevin activated the entertainment console, flipping through channels, and Mark plugged his PC into a port and began to surf the internet on another screen.

It was quiet for the next couple of hours. Thankfully, Alan dropped by the station with a supper delivery that probably could have fed six. Bless that man and his unearthly knack with chocolate. Have I mentioned that Claudia owes me? Big time.

The big meal he'd brought us (not to brag, but: roast beef, baked potatoes, roasted asparagus, hot sourdough rolls, butter, and these chocolate brownie-type things that were seriously worth killing for) was taking its toll. I was starting to doze off in front of the monitors. I was sinking downward in my chair and going cross-eyed, when a new arrival perked my interest and woke me up.

Orr.

They greeted him like an old friend, although this was the first mention of him that either one had made. Interesting. Their conversation so far had been boring and run-of-the-mill. In my opinion, it was the kind of chit-chat people make when they suspect someone's listening. In fact, everything they'd said and done since they'd gotten home had the feel of a show, of putting on a performance.

A thought occurred to me. "Claudia?"

"Yes?" Drowsy.

"I just thought of something."

"Of course."

"Assuming the suspects know that Orr is a cop, and that they are under surveillance..."

"Yes?"

"So...who's to say that they don't have Orr wired, themselves? Under surveillance? Maybe? Perhaps?" I thought back to our conversation today, and wished that I'd texted him, like Simon does. But I hated texting, and I'd really just wanted to hear his voice. And that's a thought that I really shouldn't be having. Dammit.

Claudia shot me a troubled look. "I hope you're wrong. For once."

I bit my lip. "Me, too." I made a mental note to talk to the CCD, and to Orr, and to Simon.

Shortly after Orr's arrival, there was a pizza delivery, and they spent the rest of the night eating, drinking beer, and playing video games. That was it. My God, how did they stand themselves? I was bored senseless.

Simon showed up around nine with more coffee and doughnuts. Jeez, much more of this and my ass was gonna be as wide as a dump truck.

"Simon, how do you and Orr communicate at work? It's only by text, right?" I asked, around a mouthful of doughnut.

"Mental telepathy," he said, drily. Claudia laughed, and I shot them both a dirty look. He grinned at me. "Yes, text," he replied. "Why do you ask?"

"Okay," I said. "Well, let's assume that I'm right about the boys knowing that Orr's a cop, and knowing that they're bugged. Is there any chance that Orr could have been bugged by them? Under surveillance?"

Simon frowned. "I sure as hell hope not." He shook his head. "Good thinking, Luce. I'll have his work station checked. We should also have his car and apartment checked. Even himself. Maybe something has been slipped into one of his pockets. It's not unheard of. You know, this just gets crazier and crazier."

No shit. "Thanks, Simon."

He gave me a warm smile, then plugged his PC in and went to work. Claudia and I went back to watching the monitors.

Orr left shortly before midnight. Simon sent him a quick message. The suspects got ready for bed. Then they went to bed. End of story.

"Christ almighty," I said, stretching. "How boring was that?"

"Dreadful," Claudia chuckled. "But they seemed to be having fun."

"I'm glad somebody was."

Simon leaned back in his chair and yawned. He turned to us. "What's your take on things, so far?"

"Same as earlier. This is useless."

He nodded. "The FBI are taking over next week, it's been decided. They have requested that we continue the surveillance for the next few days, though. Just until they have their own set up."

"Fuckin' yay."

Orr showed up, and Simon held a finger to his lips for silence. The two of them went to the main office of the CCD. A few minutes later, they returned. "All clear," Simon said.

"No cooties," Orr said, grinning hugely. "Hello, ladies. And how are my two favourite Peeping Tomettes?"

I yawned. "Absolutely the most boring fucking surveillance I have ever done."

Orr sat down next to me, rested his hand lightly on my back. Simon ignored it. "We'll try to be more entertaining next time. You mean to say C-cups versus D-cups wasn't riveting enough for you?"

"Like listening to teenage boys."

He laughed. "Yeah, guys are like that sometimes." Simon chuckled, and I rolled my eyes. Orr continued. "I got a bit of information from them last weekend, after the beach thing."

Simon raised an eyebrow. "It's quite interesting."

"And you were going to tell us when?" Claudia gave him a look.

"Right now, Claudia." Orr gave her a flirty little wink. "I asked about those Chips. They're calling them 'Control Chips'. They're perverted versions of medical Chips. They simulate a 'high', targeting the pleasure areas of the brain. Legally a total no-no. If the subject is a good little doobie, they get a steady stream of 'feel-good', which basically turns them into blanked-out zombies. If the subject isn't very cooperative, like that kid the other night, then zap. The pain centers of the brain are stimulated." Orr shook his head, disgusted. "So illegal, it's not even funny. Mark said that the med division was trying to create a Chip, back when he worked in neuroscience, to help drug addicts. It would create the feeling of a 'high' without physical side effects. The idea never got off the ground, because of the potential to abuse such a Chip. Well, you saw that Friday night. The possibilities are terrifying."

We were all silent for a minute or two. Then Claudia said, "The problem with such an idea is that, once it's been thought, it can't be un-thought."

"Exactly," Orr agreed.

Once again, I was reminded of my thought from the other day. "It seems to me," I began, carefully, "That Alltchip is realizing that it has a tiger by the tail. When it was a cub, there was no problem. But the bigger it grows, the harder it is to keep under control."

Simon sighed. "You have no idea, Lucie, how very true that is. Absolutely no idea."

"And Alltchip is still tied to the government, isn't it?"

His face grim, Simon nodded slowly.

I turned to Orr. "So are you saying that Wilter admitted to creating this Chip?"

"No," Orr said. "He knows what he can and can't say. He's careful. He's smart. It's Kevin who blabs, until Mark shuts him up. Kevin's the loose cannon here. I'm keeping at him, to see what I can get out of him."

I made an irritated noise. "So what happened at the beach? When the Chips burned up?"

"Your friend Alex was right. They were self-destruct signals that malfunctioned. They were only supposed to deactivate and erase the Chips. They weren't supposed to physically hurt the Reader."

"Wow."

I was seriously thinking of having my Reader removed. "So, Orr...are these idiots working towards that Chip Connection crap I keep reading about online? They've signed petitions to support it."

Orr glanced at Simon, who shrugged. Then he shook his head. "Saying 'Chip Connection' at Alltchip is like saying 'bomb' at an airport. You just don't do it."

"I suppose. But what do you think?"

Orr exchanged another look with Simon, then sighed. "I think...yeah. I think that's part of their plan, if they even do have a plan. Luce, they're basically overgrown kids. Book smarts, but no street smarts. They really don't know what they're doing."

"Don't underestimate them," I warned.

Orr smiled.

The replacement shift of CCD techs arrived just then, so we took our leave. We chatted in the parking lot for a few minutes, waiting for a tech to join us. She used a wand-thingy to scan Orr's car.

"Clean," she announced a few minutes later. "I'll follow you to your place and give your apartment a quick scan."

"Thanks," Orr said. "Night, everyone."

We all said goodnight, and left.

Much later, though, I was still tossing and turning, listening to Simon's slow, deep breathing beside me. I couldn't stop thinking about those Chips, and the possibilities. About what this Connection thing could do in the wrong hands. About how maybe even the right hands could have the best intentions and still abuse it.

My Gramps used to say that once weapons were created, they wouldn't be un-created. The possibility was always there that they could be used. I had a feeling that even if we managed to contain this, it wouldn't be for long.

Win or lose the battle, it didn't matter. I was a crappy feeling that we were going to lose this war.

~ TWENTY-ONE ~

"Right," I said quietly into my cell phone, trying to concentrate. Outside in the living room, Simon and Margherita were chatting up a storm. Turns out Margherita had a thing for interior decorating, too, and now that we had a bit more leisure time on our hands (read: Alltchip case, bye-bye, and good fucking riddance), Simon was giving her the grand tour of the farmhouse, with play-by-play detail on all the renovations he'd done since we'd moved in. I was glad he had a chance to show it off to someone who was really into that sort of thing. I mean, I liked the end results, but that kind of stuff bored the living crap right out of me. (Although I did enjoy our antique-hunting expeditions. Simon was a lot of fun to take road trips with.)

"Okay," I said again, keeping my voice down. I didn't want to be overheard.

It was Saturday afternoon, and I'd officially quit yesterday, after we'd finished a long week of boring, pointless surveillance. Everything was prepped and ready to hand over to the Feds. Simon still wasn't happy about that, but we just weren't getting any breaks, and it really was too big of a case. The potential of it could go global. Hard to believe that little ol' me had stumbled across something big like this, especially in little ol' Indigo.

A decision had not yet been made whether or not to keep Orr in his current role. I hoped they wouldn't. I didn't trust those Alltchip bastards, and the memories of those poor kids on the beach with their Readers half burnt into their skulls still haunted my nightmares. Even though bug sweeps on Orr's place had come up clean, I had a real bad feeling concerning his safety. And I don't think I was being paranoid, regardless what anyone else (Simon) said.

Everything had been tied up on our end. There were no loose ends now, save one. That would be the weird mystery of those photos that kept arriving for me in the mail. Those photos made my gut churn. I was planning to ask Simon about those pictures, and soon, but not yet. I wasn't ready for him to go all drama-macho-protective-worried-husband on me. Let him get over the whole Chip thing, first. Still, I was curious to see if my 'stalker' was still observing me, and if he or she would send any more pictures to the farmhouse, now that I wasn't a cop anymore.

Codie and Riley were still keeping tabs on the 'picture case', such as it was. It was Riley I was currently talking to, in fact. He and Codie were working this afternoon and wouldn't be able to attend my little retirement party, but they'd sent flowers and chocolates (nice!), and there was a big bash planned at the pub next weekend.

"Sure," I muttered. I was keeping my voice down so Dane Shand wouldn't hear what I was talking about. He was seated just a few feet away. "That's what we'll do, then. If I get anything more, I'll call you guys right away and you can either come and pick it up, or I'll just drop it off. I've got lots of gloves and evidence baggies here at the house." Riley talked for a minute longer. Then I said, "That's great. We'll keep in touch on this. Besides, I'll be able to do some research too, if needed. I've got to go, but I wanted to thank you and Codie again for the flowers and chocolates. That's really great of you guys. See you next weekend. Talk to you soon. Bye."

I clicked off my phone, and glanced over at Dane, who was muttering and grumbling and frowning at the monitor. "Problems?" I asked.

"Not really," he grumbled. "These files are slow."

I shrugged. "What's the rush?" I left him fuming, and I peeked around the doorjamb into the living room. Simon and Margherita were examining some minute detail of the flooring - I tried to remember if it was oak or maple - and comparing durability or something like that.

I folded my arms and leaned against the doorway, my mind obsessively going over details again. Everything had been done up for the Feds. I wondered how they'd do, if they'd get some breaks that we hadn't. I guess we probably should have turned the case over to them right from the start. But hey. We didn't know. Hell, we'd had absolutely no idea. I mean, really, who could have guessed something like this?

The FBI guys said they'd be in on Monday to get all the files and debrief the ICPD. I was to go in for the debriefing. I didn't mind. Besides, I'd forgotten to bring the cardboard file box containing all my paper printouts from the case.

And then, after the debriefing, I'd start my new job. I still wasn't sold on it.

Over the last year, Simon had been working less and less with his investigation business. Dane had been doing the lion's share, and they'd been toying with the idea of hiring an assistant. Guess who the new assistant just happened to be.

I'd be handling all administration, and any kind of computer research. That way, I'd be able to mostly set my own hours, and work right out of the home office. That's what Dane was doing here today. Getting everything set up for me, transferring all administrative stuff to this office, and giving me a quick training on the systems. I was semi-familiar with it already, so it shouldn't be a problem. Simon already had most of it installed, but he'd been neglecting it. Dane was just bringing everything up to speed.

I guess it would be all right; but, I'd hoped that Simon and I could take some time off together first. You know, go for a vacation or something. Although he was going to be busy at Alltchip for the next little while, dealing with this damned case.

The doorbell rang, and Simon broke off his interior decorating seminar to answer it. I peeked around the doorway to see Claudia come in, bearing large platters of food that smelled nothing short of incredible. Sweet. Setting her up with Alan was probably the best thing I'd ever done. Man, she owed me. Big time.

"Luce, are you going to join your own party?" Simon asked, as he took the trays from Claudia and ushered her inside.

"In a bit. Just finishing up some stuff in here."

"All right, love." He gave me that warm smile that made my belly go all flippy, and headed for the kitchen with the food. I gave a little wave and turned my attention back to Dane, who was waiting for me, more or less patiently.

We went over a few more things. I was pretty sure I had the hang of it, and I said so. Dane agreed. Then we did the awkward-silence thing.

There was a big-ass ol' elephant in the room, and one of us had to bring it up. I guess it was going to be me. "So..." I began, at the very same second that Dane said, "So, Lucie..."

We both stopped, and laughed. "Go ahead," I said.

"Okay." Looking pretty damned embarrassed, Dane tried again. "So. Um. I sort of need to talk to you about...you know..."

"Those pictures."

"Yeah." He was flushed bright red now, his long hair and beard hiding much of his face. The red and gold made an interesting contrast.

"Go ahead," I said, keeping my voice neutral.

"Look, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I was hired to do it. I didn't want to do it, but I didn't want that bitch going to someone else." His words tumbled over each other in his haste to speak. "Who knew what might have happened with those pictures then?" He finally made eye contact with me. "Simon and I shredded all the photos, and deleted the files."

"Thanks."

"But there's something else. What happens between you and Simon is your own personal business, okay? Leave me out of it? Now that we're working together?"

"Sure."

Dane fixed me with a concerned look. "You're mad, aren't you."

I spread my hands out. "I'm trying not to be, but it's hard."

He looked as sheepish as a six-and-a-half-feet tall mountain of a man could. "Simon's a friend of mine. His girlfriend said it was to help him out with his divorce. I didn't like it, but I wanted to help."

I felt a flash of anger, and it surprised the hell out of me. "Yeah, his girlfriend, the girl he was seeing for over a year. I only started seeing someone after Simon and I split, I'm not the one who -" I trailed off and shut my mouth. What the hell was my problem? Dane had nothing to do with my marriage.

He held up his hands. "Hey, I'm not taking sides here. It's your own damned business, Lucie. I'm just saying that I'm sorry it all happened. And maybe you've got some anger issues to work out, you know?"

"Maybe." I closed my eyes and hung my head, mortified. What was I, twelve or something? Couldn't I at least pretend to be an adult? "Yeah, maybe. Sorry, Dane. I thought I was okay with it, though." I really thought I was. What had just happened? I said, "It's just that I'm tired of being thought of as the bad girl, when I'm really the one who got fucked over the most here, you know?" I looked down at the floor, wondering what the hell had just happened.

Dane gave me a searching kind of look. "Well, that's in the past, isn't it? You've got a new job, a new life, and you and Simon are back together. Maybe you should try to be happy with that." He turned back to the computer monitor. "Are we good?"

And bam, just like that. The fatigue, the depression, even the craving for a good shot of whisky, hit me again. Just like that. I thought I was doing so good. Damn.

"I can work with you, if that's what you're asking," I said in a small voice. "But I don't have to like it."

Dane swung around and glared at me. "Jeez, Lucie, I said I was sorry. Can't you just let it go?"

Holding his gaze, I slowly shook my head. "I'm not the bad guy here. And I'm tired of being thought of that way."

After a moment, Dane said, "Well, you know the old saying. You made your bed. You lie in it." His turquoise eyes were cold, distant. "Maybe you've got issues."

I shrugged. He was right, and I didn't know what the hell to do about them. After a moment, he turned back to the monitor and began keying in quick, angry strokes.

The doorbell rang again, and I heard Simon greeting Captain Hollinson. Beside me, Dane tensed.

"Is that C.J. Hollinson?"

"Yeah, the Captain." Then I remembered that he and Dane used to be friends, and were currently on the outs. Trying to change the mood, I tried to sound friendly. "Uh, you want to come out and say hello?"

Dane glared again. "No. No, I really don't. Look, why don't you go enjoy your party, and I'll finish up in here?"

I rolled my eyes. "Hey, Dane, come on. Life's too short, and all that. You can't accuse me of having issues, and then refuse to admit your own. Come on and say hi. Have some cake. There's a ton of food here."

He snorted, and went back to his keying. "Save me some."

I studied his shaggy head for a moment. I could feel my resolve melting, as usual. I was never one to stay mad, to hold a grudge.

Sometimes I wished I could. You know, seek vengeance and all that crap. Display a bit more backbone. But that sort of thing took a lot of effort, and hell, I was far too lazy for that.

I reached over and gave that big, gorgeous teddy bear of a man a quick little hug and kiss on the cheek. He looked surprised, and gave me a hesitant little smile.

"Fine," I said. "You're right. I'll make you up a big plateful. And I'll save you a corner piece of the cake. You know, with lots of frosting."

"Thanks, kid," he said, beaming. He gave me a quick one-armed hug that nearly knocked me flat.

"BUT," I added, "Hollinson's been going through some tough times lately. Personal issues. Maybe he could use a friend, you know?"

Dane looked away, a sad expression on his face. "He's mad at me," he said, softly. "He shuts me out."

"He's your best friend. Kick the door back open, Dane. He needs you and won't admit it." I gave him another quick hug, and then sauntered into the living room. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, but Orr hadn't arrived yet. Simon had thought he'd be here. I hoped nothing was wrong.

"Simon?" I asked, interrupting him while he was showing Margherita some of the antique wood trim that we'd found in a small shop in Rhode Island. "Did Orr hang out with the perps last night?"

"I don't think so," Simon said, his voice even and his gaze steady. He always kept an even tone when we discussed Orr (unless I pissed him off, which has been known to happen), and once again, I felt a pang of sympathy for him. For both of them, really.

The truth is, in another reality, they would have been great friends. The crappy thing is, I think they both realized that for themselves, but thanks to me, it could never happen.

"I called him last night to remind him of the gathering today. I think he was at home, watching a movie." Simon added.

"Okay," I said, unable to let it go. "It's just that he's not here yet, and I was worried."

A quick look of hurt fleeted across Simon's face, and he looked away. I folded my arms, pissed at myself. I hated to keep hurting him, but if Orr was in danger...

"Don't worry, Lucie. Everything's probably fine," Claudia said from the sofa. "Come and try one of these chocolate fudge bites that Alan sent. He made them especially for you. He'll be along after the lunch rush, by the way."

I plopped down beside her. She was the only one I could really talk to about this. "I can't help but worry, Sis. I can't help but care about him," I said, very softly, so Simon wouldn't hear me. No worries there. He and Margherita were engrossed in heritage paint colours now. Good Lord.

"I know," Claudia said, also very quietly. "It will take time."

I leaned my head on her shoulder. "It's just...God, it kills me to think that he was sitting home alone on a Friday night. He's a great guy, Claudia. He's awesome. He should have an awesome girlfriend." I sighed. "He deserves so much better than what he got."

"Don't worry," she said again. "Things will work out. They always do." She wrapped an arm around my shoulders and squeezed. "I don't mean to say that casually, either. It's just that I've noticed that, more often than not, things really do work out."

"Yeah. I know. But it sucks."

"I know."

Just then, the doorbell rang. I jumped up, hoping it was Orr. "Maybe that's him," Claudia said, smiling.

"Hope so."

I crossed the floor in two steps, and flung the door open. And I have to admit, I was a lot happier than I should have been to see him standing there.

"Orr! Come on in, before we eat everything. You should see what Claudia's husband sent over -"

"Freeze, bitch!"

?

Oh, come on.

I didn't just hear someone yell "Freeze, bitch", did I? No, like...really?

From just off the side of the doorway, Kevin Stephenson jumped in and held a gun right to my forehead. For real, then. He grabbed me roughly, swung me around and held me tight against his chest, one arm across my throat and choking me slightly. How ridiculous.

I could have easily gotten out of his hold, even with the muzzle of his gun pressing hard against my ear. But Orr had this weird, blank look on his face that reminded me far too much of those kids at the beach, and I couldn't see if Mark Wilter was around. Couldn't chance it.

Orr stumbled through the doorway, and sure enough, Wilter strolled in right after him, holding that damned medical remote. Horror washed over me. I would bet that the bastard had fixed what had gone wrong the other night. My God, I hoped Orr wasn't going to be his test subject.

Wilter held the remote in his left hand, and a gun in his right. It looked like Orr's personal handgun. Bastard. By now, everyone had drawn their own weapons, even Simon and Captain Hollinson. I guess that's what happened when you tried to crash a party of cops. Go figure. Dane and I were probably the only people in the house who weren't armed. And Orr.

"Drop them," Wilter said. Unlike Stephenson, Wilter sounded like he had his head on straight. To a point, anyway. Stevenson sounded like a badly-written TV character. Stupid, crazy fuckers. This wasn't going to be easy.

"Drop the fucking guns, and back up against the wall, all of you, or I'll shoot your bitch, Nickerson. Starting with her knees." Kevin giggled.

I was getting pissed off. See, the thing is, I never take these situations too seriously. They annoy me. In my own personal experience, the more a baddie yaps, the less likely said baddie is going to carry out their threat. It's the quiet ones you really gotta watch out for, as my Gramps used to say. They're the ones who mean business. They're not looking for attention. Just results.

Anyway, when it's just my own safety involved, it's no big deal. I can take care of myself. But when someone else's safety is involved, well, that's when I start second-guessing myself, and that's not good. Like right now. Damn it.

"You're making a huge mistake," Simon said, gently lowering his gun to the floor. Everyone else followed suit. "You're just making things worse for yourselves."

"Shut up, Dirty Harry," Kevin said. "Wilt, don't you find he looks like Dirty Harry? Remember those old movies?"

Wilter tilted his head a bit. "I told you, more like Denis Leary. The comedian."

"Dirty Harry."

"Denis Leary."

"Dirty Harry. Definitely."

I rolled my eyes. The look on Simon's face was priceless. "Are you two for fucking real?" I couldn't help but ask. "Is this is joke?"

Kevin kicked me behind the knee. My bad knee, at that. I buckled, and saw red. "Shut up, bitch," he snapped.

I dropped my head down, pulled Kevin's gun hand down, and started swinging and kicking and elbowing. He staggered, but Wilter was quick. He swung around and aimed his gun right at my forehead. Orr still stood in place, in a daze.

"Simmer down, bitch."

"Call me 'bitch' again, Missy," I snarled, "And I'll shove that gun so far up your - "

"Lucie," Simon said, anxiously, "Now's not the time to let your temper get away from you."

"That's right, Dirty Harry," Kevin said. He seemed to have recovered, and had tightened his grip on me. I had a gun in my face and a gun at the side of my head. Not cool. "The bitch has gotta know her limitations, eh?"

Idiot. "I am going to fucking kill you," I hissed, trying to act all crazy-like. I twisted to glare at him, all the while keeping a part of my attention on the remote in Wilter's hand. I had to get that thing away from him. "Hear me, little boy. I'm going to fucking smash you into a pulp."

Both Stephenson and Wilter started laughing, and that was excellent, because it covered up the sound of the floor creaking in the office, just behind the door. Hopefully, neither one of these idiots had realized that Dane was there. Hopefully, Dane had figured out what was going on and had called for help. I just had to make enough fuss to keep those idiots from noticing him. Not even thinking about what I was saying, I kept spitting out obscenities as loud as I could.

Simon was still doing his rational thing. Good. Maybe it would help keep them distracted. Sane cop, crazy cop. A variation on the good-bad scenario, and it had actually worked quite well for us in the past. I hoped Simon would clue in. "Okay, Mark and Kevin. Calm down. No one's going to be hurting anyone here. Lucie, calm down. What is it you boys want?"

"Your files." Mark grinned. "We've got this Chip working pretty good now. It's working great on pretty boy here. He only needed a few demonstrations at the highest setting, to spill his guts. He told us this case is getting handed over to the FBI next week. It was easy to convince him to go to the cop shop and delete everything." He laughed. "Want to see how easy it is to persuade someone to do something?"

"Don't you fucking do it," I warned. Wilter grinned at me, and pressed a button on the remote. Orr went down, writhing.

It was only a few seconds, but it seemed like forever. I kept screaming for them to stop. I wasn't faking 'crazy cop' now. Tears were pouring down my face - I couldn't stand the sight of Orr in pain. Wilter let up on the button, and grinned at me again. "Can't do it too long - he might have an aneurysm."

"Yeah, he's already had a couple of nosebleeds. He's pretty tough under torture," Kevin chuckled.

My stomach roiled in fury, and so help me...

There was another creak of wood from the office, louder this time, and damn it, Wilter heard it this time. He turned to look. When he turned, his gun turned with him. Inexperienced idiot. Distraction time.

Pushing back and holding onto Kevin's arm, I kicked my legs off the floor and managed to connect with Wilter's wrist. The remote went flying. My sudden shift in weight made Kevin lose his balance, and we both started to fall. I managed to kick myself farther backwards, pushed out with my elbow to move his gun away. Kevin and I both slammed into the wall behind him. His head made a satisfying cracking sound against the old hardwood panels.

I heard a gun go off, but the moment was too crazy-confused and I didn't know if anyone got hit, or even who did the shooting. Until I felt the white-hot pain in my ribs.

It was all kind of blurry after that. I saw Simon, growling, tackle Mark Wilter, and he started pounding the snot out of the dumb punk. Wow, Simon!

Abruptly, Kevin slid out from underneath me and I fell on the floor. The pain made my vision go black for a second or two. I couldn't even get enough breath to cry out.

Above me, there was the sound of fist meeting flesh, and I heard Kevin screaming. My vision was still fuzzy, but I could see that Dane was holding Kevin a foot off the ground by the throat with one meaty hand, while slamming him in the gut with the other. Whoa. Remind me never to get in a fight with Dane Shand.

My chest hurt like nothing I'd ever felt before, burning and crushing, and I think I was losing consciousness. Just before I did, though, I heard voices and realized that Dane had managed to call for help. Good job, Dane! I could barely hear Orr shouting my name, could barely focus my dimming sight on Simon's panicked face.

Everything was closing in, condensing, to a tiny little point. It was so cold...

My last thought was that this ending had all the melodrama and foolishness of a really bad movie, and I really, really, really hated to go down this way.

~ TWENTY-TWO ~

I was having a nightmare.

It was a weird one. I think I was naked. Camera flashes kept going off. Someone kept saying "pretty little kitty" over and over. Creepy. My head hurt like hell. So bad.

Everything snapped, shifted. I gasped, and woke up too quick. I took a deep breath, tasting the air. I remained still, listening hard.

Ugh. I knew those sounds, and those smells.

I was in a hospital.

I opened my eyes - easier said than done - and tried to focus on the anxious faces surrounding me. Claudia, Margherita, C.J. Hollinson, Orr, Dane, and - most importantly - Simon. Great way to wake up. I tried to come up with words suitable to the occasion.

"Yay...above ground..."

Simon laughed, a bit shakily. "Yes, you're very much alive, love." He squeezed my hand. "You've got a couple of shattered ribs, which are going to hurt like hell when the drugs wear off, and a punctured lung, but other than that, you're fine."

I tried to squeeze back, but couldn't seem to suss up any strength. I did manage a sickly sort of smile, though. "So keep pumping me full of drugs, then," I said, weakly.

"Don't worry, that's definitely the plan." Simon's face crumpled a bit. "I do wish you'd be more careful, though. This is the fourth time I've had to keep a hospital vigil over you, and I hope it's the last."

My brain was still fuzzy. I remembered one of the first cases we'd worked together on, where I'd taken a bullet in the side of the knee. Hence the bum knee. And then there was the aforementioned bullet in the neck. And now this one. Hard to think. Simon was probably just confused.

"What happened?" I managed to croak. "How long?" Slurred.

Simon misunderstood me. "It's just after eight p.m. You've been out for a few hours. Wilter and Stephenson have been taken into custody."

"What was left of them," Dane said with gloating satisfaction. Beside him, Hollinson grinned and clapped him on his huge shoulder.

"And you didn't even get shot this time."

Dane rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on! That was fifteen years ago! Are you ever gonna let it go?"

"Nope."

They burst out laughing. Looked like the friendship was back on, then. I was glad. Sounded like there was a story there, too. I'd have to ask Dane sometime.

Orr spoke up, his face unreadable. "You were right, Luce. They knew I was a cop. You'll never guess how." He raised an eyebrow. "I'd ticketed one of the girls in Kevin's programming division a few months earlier for speeding. Somehow she remembered me." He shrugged. "Must have a pretty good memory."

Claudia gave me a wry look, and winked. We both perfectly understood why a girl would remember Orr. Hell, she probably saw him working, in that hot uniform of his (and maybe the handcuffs dangling from his belt) and was speeding on purpose. I couldn't blame her. That was fantasy stuff, all right. It'd be worth a speeding ticket or two.

I tried to talk again, but I think all that came out was some kind of mumble, which Simon took to mean, "Why?"

"Why what, love? Why did they come to the farmhouse?" He chuckled. "They'd destroyed all the files at the station, and I think they thought that they'd be able to cover their tracks by killing all of us. You know, I thought they'd be smarter than that."

"Actually," Orr said, "That virus program they created was genius. It took out every mention of their names in the Alltchip system," he explained to me. "They even got Simon's separate system. And at the station, too, as you know. They were going to introduce it into the systems at the farmhouse." He frowned. "And then they were going to get rid of the kids that they'd experimented on. They thought they'd be able to get everything. They would have been close, but it's not really possible, not in this day and age."

Margherita laughed. "I actually feel a bit bad now for snapping at you, Lucie, for wasting so much paper printing out files. That box is the only remaining evidence. Of course," she added thoughtfully, "After they killed us, they were planning to burn the house down to destroy evidence, so I guess the paper wouldn't have helped, anyway."

"Oh my God," I croaked. Fire was the one thing that I was truly terrified of. Great, more fodder for my nightmares...

"My little technology dinosaur saves the day," Simon cooed affectionately, stroking my hair. Orr looked away.

I wasn't really processing everything. I was still fixated on what Simon had said. I tried again to ask, but the edges of my vision were going dark, and my brain was shutting down. Guess they'd given me some pretty good drugs.

The last thing I saw before sleep claimed me was Simon's tender smile.

~ TWENTY-THREE ~

"Ah, the pleasures of being retired. Sort of, anyway," Simon said, grinning at me. He stretched his long legs out, feet on the coffee table, and folded his hands behind his head.

I grinned back. "You've only been retired since yesterday at five. And technically, you ain't gonna be for long." I plopped my ass down beside him and snuggled up. "I'll put you to work."

Simon wrapped his arm around me and kissed me. I started to climb on top of him, but the sound of someone clearing his throat made me pause. "Shut up, Dane," I muttered.

"Get a room, you two."

"It's our house."

"Whatever. I'm heading out now anyway."

"Bye," I said, still half on Simon's lap. "Got a hot date?"

Dane smiled. "You know it."

The door closed behind him, and I rested my head against my husband's chest. He pulled the scrunchie out of my hair and fluffed it out into a tangled mess. I burrowed into his arms and purred as he gently ran his fingers through, undoing the knots. I always liked it when he did that. I closed my eyes and let my mind wander while Simon did his thing. "I like the new color," he murmured. "The red streaks complement the purple streaks quite nicely, and they look really nice with your natural black."

"Dark brown."

"Same thing. It's very pretty."

"I'm thinking of getting a few silver streaks for contrast."

"Mmm. Beautiful." He kissed the top of my head.

I snuggled in closer and made contented noises.

It had been eight months since the "Rogue Chip Scandal", as the press had dubbed it, had been resolved. An awful lot of changes had taken place since then.

Dane was a hero. Not only that, but he'd fixed up his friendship with C.J. Hollinson, and he'd begun dating Margherita. How cute was that? He said he'd completely fallen for her when he saw her holding a gun on Mark Wilter, and she said she'd fallen for him when he was beating the crap out of Kevin Stephenson. Warped, but cute. Takes all kinds. I thought it was sweet how she brought him out of his shyness, and how he made her giggle like a teenager. Okay, I'm a total mushball. Whatever.

Claudia was still quietly and effectively kicking ass at the ICPD, but I was working on changing that. Not the kicking ass part; the ICPD part. We were expanding the investigation business in a huge way, and we needed her.

Along those lines, Simon had pink slipped himself at Alltchip yesterday (yay!). He would provide security consulting for them, though, so he was technically still on the payroll. And one thing he had made sure of, before he left, was that Alex LaForge had been hired on as a programming intern. Brilliant. Alex would probably be running that company in a few years.

I had no idea where Orr was. He'd left the ICPD. Ironic, since my job had opened up and had been offered to him on a silver platter. He'd turned down some pretty good offers from Alltchip, too. I'd tried calling him, emailing him, messaging him, but he didn't answer. I never even got to say goodbye. Maybe that was for the best, but oh God, it hurt like hell.

Have I mentioned what a great guy my husband is? He was there for me, totally there for me. We'd thought about going for marital counselling, but instead we'd decided just to try talking about things ourselves. I realized now how little Simon and I really talked before. Well, the floodgates had opened up, and how. We talked the whole Taylor thing out, and the whole Orr thing, the whole partying thing and overworking thing and basically every thing. I don't know if I've ever talked so much in my life as I have since the day I came home from the hospital. It's like our marriage has taken on a whole new life. Unbelievable. Wonderful.

And I was thrilled when Simon decided to leave Alltchip. The nine-to-five bit just wasn't his thing. Since I was semi-retired, what better way for us to spend our extra time together than to - you guessed it - work together.

After I learned how to do everything in the business, I was surprised to find out just how much I enjoyed the private sector thing. I really didn't think I'd like it. The office stuff was good, the occasional bit of footwork was good, but what really amazed me was how much I enjoyed researching. It was actually my favourite part of the job.

Private investigation was surprisingly huge, and we had more work coming in than we could handle. With Simon back on the payroll, we decided to expand, and even go global. We'd renamed the business, and Simon had graciously let me do the honours. I'd thought about it, and finally gave it the tongue-in-cheek moniker "Bad Cops, Incorporated". BCI for short. The logo looked very snappy on the new black windbreakers and ball caps that we'd ordered. The business cards were cool. I'd ordered stuff for Claudia, too, in the hopes of luring her away from ICPD. There was even a hefty pay raise involved. I had my hopes.

Surprisingly, Alltchip's reputation had been relatively untarnished. Oh sure, the media had jumped all over the 'Rogue Chip Scandal'. Just the other day, even, there'd been a news article about how the 'price of memory' had dropped. It made me sad. I knew they were referring to Alltchip's shares dropping a bit, but it made me think that for some of the victims, the 'price of memory' had been high. Too damned high.

Speaking of that. Alex was doing fine. We kept in touch, and like I said, he'd probably be running Alltchip someday. Robyn Newmann and her family were all fine, and even Tina Cogg was home from the hospital. All charges had been dropped against her. Alltchip had settled very generously with her - in fact, with all the victims - and Tina was in counselling. She had left teaching. I'd visited her a few times, talked to her about her experiences. I hoped I helped her understand and accept that what happened wasn't her fault. I think she'll be okay.

As for myself, I still had the occasional nightmare, but it was getting better with time. I'd even kept my Reader installed. With Simon watching over me, I'd used a few Chips. It still wasn't my favourite thing, but I'd always found that the best way to conquer my fears was to face my fears.

On a weird side note, I'd stopped receiving pictures in the mail. I was glad, but still curious. Codie and Riley kept their files open, but it was on the back burner. Maybe I'd research them a bit more, when I had time. I had bigger fish to fry right now.

Because today, we'd posted our first "help wanted" ad.

~ THE END ~

~ ...or is it just the beginning?... ~

~ Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed it, and please write a review...I worked hard on this one, and I'd love to know what you think of my little world that I've created...Thank you! ~