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This Favor: Bequeathed

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1985

 

The phone rang.  He shifted from one foot to the other, waiting.  Three… Four… Five… He swore quietly.

Don't let me down, Brie, I need you.

A click.

"Hello?"

Her voice was deeper than he remembered, but then, five years had consumed him since the last time he'd heard it.

"Gabrielle?" he asked.  It had to be her.  There was nowhere else to go.  No one else he could trust.  He fought the fear back.  He was not alone, no matter what The Man had told him.

"Yes."

"It's Ray.  I need the favor."

"Name it."

"It could be dangerous for you.  If you have a family now…"

There was a short pause.  "No.  No family."

Thank God.  "I'm close.  In Reno.  I need a place… to rest."

He pressed his hand tighter against the already bloody bandage on his side, hoping the seep would stop before it became visible on his shirt.  He shivered despite the fever.  At least the drugs had nearly passed through his system.

"Wait until it's dark.  I'll have the garage door up.  Park inside.  Thirty-one, Pine Shadow Ridge, Colfax."

"You're sure?  You can pass on this one."  Pass, if it means you'll be hurt, Brie.  You could always sense those things before.  I can't deal with that right now.  "I don't want you to get hurt."

"A favor, you told me.  I'll be waiting."

Ray sighed and dropped the receiver back in its cradle.  Leaning his forehead against the ice cold glass of the phone booth, he let his eyes fall shut.

Why can't this end? he wondered.  Why can't I die like any normal man?

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Ray turned the Vette's headlights off, the black Stingray slicing invisibly through the murky Sierra darkness.  Clouds hid the half-full moon, and the lack of street lights in the mountain canyon provided him with the cover he wanted.  Now, if no cars passed, he would enter the small California community unseen.

Like a ghost, he thought.  Am I really here?  Is any of this real?  I'm real.  I hurt too much not to be real.  Oh man, I need to sleep…

 

 

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

The house was larger than he'd expected, although the rambling structure remained aesthetic, a mixture of redwood, stone and glass, resting above the garage and set half-way into the side of the mountain.  The 'Vette crept into the dark burrow of the garage and Ray killed the engine.

Remaining in the car, his breaths came in short, ragged pants.  Sweat beaded across his high forehead and his hands shook despite their death-like grip on the steering wheel.  More than anything he wanted a place to rest – someplace safe enough to close his eyes and sleep, unconcerned.

He wanted, no, he needed a friend, someone who wouldn't worry about what the next moment might, or might not, bring or be.  He needed to care about someone again, in some way.  He needed to care about himself.

The wooden garage door silently dropped shut behind him.  Ray reached for the small gym bag sitting in the passenger seat.  It was all he'd been able to salvage when his last assignment caved in around him.

The Man had found him, again.  Sharon was dead.  The drugs… lights… Sharon's screams, or was it his own voice?  Alone.  The Man had kept telling him he was alone.

No! Ray scolded at himself.  It's over.  I escaped.

The Reno hotel… running…  He shot me.

Ray ground his teeth together and forced the memories away.

Climbing slowly out of the car, he started slightly as a soft yellow light came on above a door leading into the house.

Desperately hoping he'd made the right decision, he gripped the gym bag's handle tighter and headed for the door.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

She was standing at the kitchen counter, slicing vegetables.  Long black hair brushed the rose colored sweat-shirt along her hips, thicker and wavier than he remembered.  But her height and build were familiar.  Still, he stiffened.  Something felt out of place.

"Gabrielle?"

She turned.  Strange, exotic gray eyes appraised him, a hint of laughter in their depths.  There was a resemblance to the woman he expected.  The high forehead and cheekbones, small widow's peak, broad chin, almond-shaped eyes, and the full mouth were all similar, but this woman was not Gabrielle.  This woman was more beautiful, more centered, or perhaps just more comfortable with herself.  This woman was smiling at him.

He watched the smile fade into the shadow of a concerned frown.

"No, I'm not Gabrielle.  My name's Dominique.  Call me Dom," she told him, her visual examination continuing.

The voice was lower, fuller.  A singer perhaps?  Actress?

Ray's mind raced, his muscles tensed and the gym bag shifted slightly in his hand to be more easily used as a weapon – if that became necessary.

Always so damned careful, he thought.  Paranoid.  Trust her… there's no one else.

The door into the garage was directly behind him, but the heavy redwood door was down.

Trapped!  The emotion flared in his mind, red-hot in its intensity.

Stop! he commanded.  It's the drugs, just the drugs.  Trust her.

The large ranch-style kitchen opened on two sides -- one into a dining room, the other into a living room.  He could run.

Run… run… run! a part of his mind beat out like a persistent drum.

That's all I've been doing!  I have to stop.  Just a day.  I have to stop.

She's a stranger!  Danger!  Run!

No!  Wait…  Dominique?  Trust her.  "Gabrielle's sister?" he asked, his hand coming up to rub the sweat away before it rolled into his eyes.

"Yes."  Dom turned back to her vegetables, allowing Ray to make his own decision.

Ray relaxed slightly.  It wasn't common knowledge that Gabrielle had a sister.  When he'd agreed to help her, five years earlier, she told him to contact her sister, if anything happened to her.  Brie had said it would be difficult to find the woman.

He stood, unmoving, watching her, trying to sort out the situation.  Make the decision for me, Dom.  Please.  I'm too damned tired to make it myself.  Kill me or help me, I don't care, but you make the decision.

She waited until it seemed he would remain rooted to the floor, then said, "I'm almost done.  I thought we could get acquainted over dinner.  I made up one of the guest rooms.  It's the one farthest down that hall…"  She waved the carrot-peeler toward the hallway off the living room, "On the left.  That'll give you the most privacy.  But, you should let me take a look at that wound before we eat.  You look terrible."

Ray flinched slightly at the mention of the bullet furrow, disconcerted by the ease with which she'd noticed it.  Whoever Dominique was, she was good at seeing things.

Be careful, another part of his mind whispered.  Don't let her see too much.  You'll chase her away… too many shadows.  Don't feel too much or she'll die, like Sharon.  Like all the others.

He weighed his options, deciding to give in to his gut feeling that she was who she said she was, and could be trusted.  If not, he thought, I'm ready to lay down my sword.  He left the kitchen without a word to find his room.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

"I think I need to eat first.  It's been a while since the last time. . ." he trailed off, joining her at the dining room table.  "I'm hungry."

"Okay."

"What happened?  Where's Gabrielle?" he asked after she handed him a plate with a small broiled breast of chicken, roasted potatoes with herbs, a serving of salad and a slice of fresh warm French bread.

Dom glanced up, one black eyebrow climbing slightly.  A brief smile passed over her lips, affectionate as he accepted the food with a hungry gleam in his eyes.

The food was perfect, but he silently cursed his hand for shaking every time he lifted the fork.  She stared at the quaking hand.

The woman's smiled faded.  "A little over three years ago Gabrielle found out that she had fallopian cancer," she said sadly.  "They operated, but it was more widespread than the doctors originally thought.  It killed her eight months later.  Before she died, Brie put everything in her life in order."

Ray smiled slightly, remembering the times he had teased the woman about her fastidiousness.

Dom paused, watching, allowing him time for the memory, then continued, saying, "Everything but you and the favor."

"She didn't need to worry about it."

A shrug dismissed the notion.  "She called me to the hospital the day she died.  We'd made our peace – with each other and the situation – but I knew there was something else holding her back, something keeping her from dying in peace.  She told me what you'd done for her, and the payment you required.  Brie asked me to take on that responsibility.  She was very careful to tell me exactly what that meant.  I agreed.  She died three hours later."

"I'm sorry," Ray said, watching the fleeting traces of loss and pain pass across the woman's face.  "She was a very special person."

"I travel a lot, so I made arrangements to insure that I'd get your call, then, I waited."

"You must have loved her a great deal."

"Yes, I did."

"The favor was for her, Dom, and with Gabrielle gone, it's paid.  I can't ask you to risk your life."  Eat and get out, he decided.  She's too much like her sister – too easy to care for.  Don't get her killed.  The Man will be here, sooner or later.  What would he do to her?  You can't be the cause of her death, too.  She cares, I can see it in her eyes.  And I'll have to leave, just like always.  I don't want to see pain there.  Gray eyes… so beautiful…

"I made a promise, Ray.  To do whatever you would've asked Brie to do.  Please, let me take care of her last wish."

Ray paused; she wasn't asking.  She'll die.  He closed his eyes briefly, then nodded.

"Good.  Now, finish eating so I can take a look at that side."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

He sat on the wide counter in the master bathroom, leaning back against the cool glass and staring stoically at the western painting that decorated the wall across from him.  Trying to ignore the discomfort was taking more of an effort than he'd anticipated.

Dom carefully removed the blood-soaked bandage, and using several three-by-three gauze pads and a strange smelling clear liquid, gently but thoroughly cleaned the wound.

"Nasty," she commented.

He grunted in reply.

"I have an ointment I want to treat this with.  It'll help reduce the bleeding and swelling, and draw the infection out faster."  She grinned when he flinched slightly.  "It'll also cut the bite a little, too."

He nodded.  You do care.  Why?  Don't you know I'm death?  Don't— It doesn't pay to care about me.

Reaching into the medicine cabinet behind one of the mirrors, she took down another unmarked brown medicine bottle.

"What is that?" he asked suspiciously, the paranoia and caution rising again.

"Homemade remedy.  Calendula infusion to clean it, and ointment to help the healing," she explained.

A skeptical look settled across his face as she smeared several of the gauze squares with the contents and laid them across the furrow.

"You're lucky.  If that bullet had traced along the underside of the rib you'd be in a lot more trouble."

"Yeah, lucky," he muttered, the words slurring as exhaustion finally caught him in its grip.  He had been on the run for two days.  Two days with no sleep and little food, bleeding and afraid…  It had left him with few resources remaining.  With a meal in him, his wound treated, and in the company of someone he'd decided to trust, he was rapidly losing the battle with sleep.

Lucky indeed, he thought.  If I'd been lucky, I would've died.  Now…  Now there's a chance he'll be back – again.  The Man.  When is this nightmare going to end?  I have to kill him.  It's the only way.

Covering the wound with a dressing, Dom taped it down and helped him back to his room.

Leaving Ray to get into bed, she headed off, returning several minutes later with a cup of warm tea.  "Here, drink this," she told him, holding it out.

Half-asleep, he managed to whisper, "What's this?  More home cures?"

"Not exactly, just a little mix of chamomile and catnip tea, it'll help you sleep."

"Don't think I need help."  He sniffed.  A pleasant odor.  He sipped.

She waited until he finished the cup and then took it back.  "See you in the morning."

"Yeah," he whispered, dark-down eyes closing.  "Than—"

"You're welcome," she whispered to the already sleeping man.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Dom wasn't sure what woke her up, just a feeling, but she pulled an extra-large sweat shirt over the T-shirt and sweat pants she slept in and headed across the house to check on her guest.

Ray was tossing under the covers.

She approached the bedside silently and watched.  Sweat was beaded across his forehead.  The skin of his face was pale and drawn taut across the bones, and his eyes squeezed shut, like he was trying to force away the visions haunting his dreams.  His arms were folded protectively across his chest.

"No," he mumbled.  "No.  Gotta… help…"

"I'm coming, Ray," she said softly.  The tossing stopped.

"Run… escape."

"I'm here, Ray.  How can I help?"

"Escape…  Dom?"

"I'm here.  Let me help you.  This way.  I know the way out.  Follow me.  It's okay."

"Out…  Dom?"

"This way, Ray, come on.  That's it.  This way…  We're safe, now.  We're safe."

"Safe…"

"Yes.  We're safe, Ray.  It's all over.  We're safe."

The muscles in his face relaxed, softening the sharp lines there before.  The ragged breaths flattened into the deep, slow sighs of sleep, and his arms relaxed, sliding slowly off his chest.

She watched for a few more minutes to make sure the dreams did not return, then turned and headed back to her own bed.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Ray lay in the soft sheets and listened to the birds chirping noisily outside his partially opened bedroom window.  His side had stopped throbbing and the fever that had been building seemed to have broken sometime during the night.  Whatever she'd used, worked.

He frowned.  The nightmares of the last few days hadn't driven him awake.  There were vague memories, but he couldn't remember them, and there was something strangely comforting in the memory as well.

Faint noises from the other end of the house told him that Dom was up.  Stretching cautiously under the covers, he let himself relax as much as he could while looking around the room.  Rustic wooden halls were hung with western prints, and several photos of wild mustangs.  The pictures were good, very good.  Probably Gabrielle's, he decided.

There was a single closet, a desk, full bookshelf, dresser and a computer table with PC, printer and modem.

Throwing back the covers, Ray sat up and waited for the first waves of nausea to hit, but they had been erased along with the pain and exhaustion.  He made the bed and headed for the computer.  After all, she had said she'd set the room up for him.

Attaching the modem, he entered the system and dialed the familiar number that gave him access to the government's largest super computers.  He waited for KARL's code sequence to come up and cleared himself through to the classified databases.

First order of business was to erase any traces of his entry, then check for anything on The Man.  He found nothing.  Then…

 

> Enter next request.

 

Connect to Karl clearance #1303_123171*022440*SR

 

> Enter Code.

 

1303_SR021450*040262*[K1303].RAY

 

> Good morning, Ray.  How may I help you?

 

Good morning, Karl.  I need information on Gabrielle Nathenson.  Agent, the Firm.

 

> Nathenson, Gabrielle.  Died 4-28-83.  File inactive.

 

Activate.

 

> Nathenson, Gabrielle (Gierard).  File activated.

 

Display bio.

 

> Born April 7, 1948 in New Orleans, LA, USA.  Father: Jean-Luc le Esprit Gierard (US citizen) d. 6-18-68.  Mother: Chin Mei LeBec (citizen of Vietnam and France) d. 4-13-60. Sister: (classified).  Husband: Bradford Nathenson (US citizen) -- Married 6-7-70. B. Nathenson died 6-7-80, Firm file inactive.  Children: Charissa Marie Nathenson b. 4-7-73  d. 12-24-78.

 

> Do you need additional information, Ray?

 

Display information on sister.

 

> No information available.

 

Ray frowned at the terminal.  "Okay," he said softly, "let's try it another way."

 

Karl, identify Dominique Gierard.

 

> I cannot identify Dominique Gierard.

 

Access all databases for Dominique Gierard.

 

> That access is denied.

 

Define clearance required to access files on Dominique Gierard.

 

> That information is unavailable, Ray.

 

Karl, do you recognize Dominique Gierard?

 

> That information is classified, Ray.  You must enter private access code.

 

Karl, do you recognize Stingray?

 

> Yes, Ray.  You are Stingray.

 

He frowned.  Sighing, he terminated the connection.  She was as invisible, her records locked as securely as his own – perhaps more so.  Curiosity aroused, he turned the machine off and headed for the kitchen.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Dom sat in the living room, sipping coffee in front of the fireplace and reading while instrumental Celtic music played quietly on a CD.  Snow fell lightly outside.

"Morning," she said without looking up from the paperback.

Ray's eyebrows climbed in response.  He'd made no sound to give away his approach.  "Good morning."

"There's coffee in on the counter.  Hope you like African Thunder."

"Sounds interesting.  Thanks."  He proceeded into the kitchen and paused to smell the tantalizing aroma rising from the steaming coffee.

"Pancakes and fruit all right with you for breakfast?" she called.

"Huh?  Sure," he said as he poured himself a cup of the steaming coffee.  "But you don't have to cook for me."

"You can cook for yourself if you want to."

He thought about that.  "Why don't we trade off?"

"Fine with me.  Since this is your vacation, just let me know what sort of space you want.  I can even disappear for a day or two if you'd like."

He carried the cup into the living room to join her, sitting down on the bricks in front of the stone hearth, close, but not touching her.  "No.  I don't want you to go.  I…"  He trailed off, staring at the orange flames dancing across the top of a dried pine log.  "I need the company right now," he finished in a whisper.

"Okay," she said, reaching out to pat his knee, her nose still buried in the text.

Must be a good book.  Clearing his throat, Ray stood and walked over to the large bay window in the rustic living room.  He watched the snow falling on the quiet countryside.  Careful, don't get too close, he chided himself.

"You own this?" he asked.

"In a manner of speaking."  She looked up, her finger slipping into the book to hold her place.  "I was up here on vacation and stumbled across the community.  It's small, isolated, friendly and the view's hard to beat."

Ray nodded his agreement.  "What sort of business are you in?" he asked casually.

She flipped the book back open.  "Contract work, mostly."

He considered the reply.  A half-truth.  "I see."  Turning, he watched her shove a bookmark into place, her gray eyes watching him.  She set the book on the hearth – Godel, Esher, Bach.

Here was a worthy enigma.  You're a mystery, aren't you, Dom?  Do you ever feel like giving up?  Do you ever need a friend like I need one now?  Just a friend, not a lover, not a commitment, just a friend.  Is that so much to ask?

A car rumbled by outside and he turned back automatically to watch.  It was an old four-wheel drive pick-up.

"That's Mr. Grover's son, David," she said, standing and stretching.  "He still hasn't fixed the suspension in that heap."

"Have many neighbors?"

"No, it's just me, the Grovers and Rick Adams.  And there's a new cabin not too far away – a family from Los Angeles owns it.  Basically we're four houses clustered on the top of the hill with the properties running out in wedges behind us.  I have stables out there.  I'll introduce you to my kids later.  I guess with the weather, they thought it'd be safer to build the homes in clusters."

"Makes sense."

"You're watching for the guys who did that?" she asked, nodding to where he was absently holding the side wound.

"It's a possibility."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Ray spent the rest of the day familiarizing himself with the house and the surrounding property.  It would be very difficult to surprise them, thanks to the heavy snow.  Reaching them would require a four-wheel drive, skies, snow mobile, dog sled, or air transport.

The Grovers had three large dogs, who all shared a healthy dislike of strangers, which meant the ground routes might be more difficult.  Add the security system Dom had for the house – she was obviously a careful sort – and it would be even more difficult.  But The Man could reach them, Ray was sure of that.

For the first time in longer than he could remember, he smiled.  Even the Grovers' dogs liked her.  He'd have been treed for sure if Dom hadn't accompanied him on the walk around the property.  It was beautiful country, still half-wild.  He swung his arms, feeling the tension that always occupied his muscles as a persistent hum die away.

He looked back at the woman as she wrestled with the three dogs – huge Husky-like animals, maybe wolf hybrids.  It was hard to tell who was winning since all four of them were covered with snow and growling happily.  He shook his head.

She understood him, knew him better after a day than anyone he'd met in years.  The people he worked for saw a part of him – the carefully honed mask of the crusader was his most comfortable face, but this woman looked past that mask like it wasn't there.  She looked into the shadows that lay behind the dark glasses and didn't blink or glance away.

Before he fully realized what was happening, Ray found himself being pulled roughly out of the path of two half-out-of-control dog sleds.  A pair of teenaged kids called out their apologies as the Grovers' dogs set out after them, barking madly.

"You're going to have to watch the traffic out here a little more carefully," she teased him.  "They're part of that LA family I told you about."

Ray watched them disappear into the pines, his cheeks reddening.  "Yeah.  Sorry."

"No problem.  You were a little lost in thought there.  Want to talk about it?"

Ray shook his head.  "But I could use a cup of tea, or coffee."

"You're on.  Let's head back.  I know a shortcut from here."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

A routine developed over the next few days.  Ray rose in the mornings, spent an hour on the computer trying to find The Man and Dom, then went in for breakfast.  She never interrupted him before he emerged to eat, and, he discovered, she was an excellent cook, although they traded off on the chore.

After breakfast, he spent a couple of hours reacquainting himself with some of his favorite books that he found among the large collection scattered throughout the house.  There wasn't a single room that didn't have its own shelf of books, and most had a full bookcase or two of possible selections.

Dom would disappear while he read and he felt no need to ask her where she was going.  When she returned they would use the bedroom she'd set aside as an exercise room.  The side wound kept him away from any heavy work-outs, but he amused himself on the exercise bike while he watched her.

A small lunch followed.  By that time it was warm enough to head outside for a walk, Dom promising some skiing or sledding when he was up to it.  They returned to the house in the late afternoon for a game or two of chess before dinner, splitting the games evenly so far.  The evening was filled with conversation.  Ray had never met anyone as well read and knowledgeable in every subject he brought up.  It was refreshing.  Confusing, but exciting at the same time to find someone who could keep up with him.  She was exactly what he needed.

This evening Dom had watched him pace while they debated the philosophical ramifications of time travel.  Finally, she walked over and sat down on the rug in front of the fireplace, angling toward the medium-sized blaze.  She pointed to the space in front of her.  "Sit," she ordered.

"What?" he asked, coming to a halt for the first time in over an hour.

"Sit.  Here."

"Why?"

"Because you're driving me nuts prowling all over the place.  If you'll sit down, I'll rub some of that energy out."

Ray hesitated.  There had been no sexual tension between the two of them and he wanted to keep it that way.  She was one of the most beautiful women he had ever met, in all ways, and the feelings he'd denied himself for so long could easily be awakened by her.  He couldn't face that.  Not now.  Not yet.  He cared, that was all he could afford.

"Come on.  I won't bite," she said.

He grinned.

"My God, the man smiled!  And his face didn't break!"

Ray shook his head and sat down where she directed.  Strong fingers began working his muscles, skillfully relaxing him.

"Take your shirt off and lie down," she told him.  He complied without a thought.  The heat from the fire kept him warm as she worked on his bare back, starting at the base of his spine and working her way up, easing the tension out.

Ray could feel the energy surrounding him balance and by the time she reached his head, he was unable to raise his arms or legs, the relaxation so complete.  Not since he'd been in the Orient last had he felt like this.

She helped him roll over and then set to work on his chest, shoulders and arms.  Unable to keep his eyes open, he sighed heavily and allowed the waves of pleasure to rock slowly through him.

"Where'd you learn this?" he slurred as she started on his face.

"Oh, here and there."

"Hmm."

"You find me in the computer yet?"

"Not yet."  He said it before he could think fast enough to call it back.  Damn!  He opened his eyes.  "Who are you?"

"Why, Ray," she said softly, smiling as her eyebrows climbed in a manner that reminded him of an old friend, "I'm you."

The shiver that ran down his back overwhelmed the warmth of the snapping pine fire.  "What are you?"

Her gray eyes held no laughter as she answered.  "A woman, with no ties and few friends."

He reached up and pulled her to him.  She responded, lying down on her side, resting her head on his shoulder, one arm resting across his bare chest – careful not to brush the healing wound, the other curled under her.  They lay in silence, the shared company of kindred spirits enough for them both.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Ray typed steadily, KARL still refusing to cooperate at any level on his inquiry into Dom's identity.  She glanced momentarily at the screen when she carried the mug of coffee in and left it on the computer table, wondering how long it would take him to notice it.

It was twenty minutes before she heard the stifled yelp followed closely by a bellowed, "Dom!"

She walked back to the room and leaned against the door frame, her other hand resting on her hip.  "What?"

"Did you just come in here?"

"No, it was about twenty minutes ago.  Why?  The coffee cold?"

He looked down at the cup.  "Uh, yeah."

"I'll get some fresh," she told him, taking the cup and turning to leave.

"Okay!  I give up," he said, standing and punctuating the comment with flying gestures.  "I admit defeat.  Who the hell are you?"

The strange silver-gray eyes regarded equally shadowed brown, then she smiled.  "I told you."

"No, you didn't.  You said you were me, but you're not.  You don't have a black '65 Stingray for barter only, do you?"

A grin.  "No."

"Then who do you work for?"

"A special government group, but one I chose to work for."  She headed off for the kitchen, Ray on her heels.

"You're with the Company?"

"Nothing so simple."

"The Firm?"

She shook her head.

"The Phoenix Foundation?"

Another negative.

"Foundation for Law and Government?  OSI?  The Agency—?"

"Ray, I've had occasion to work for several of those groups, and some others you haven't even tried yet, but I don't belong to any of them.  In the past, yes, I was exclusive with a couple of them, but not now."

Ray reappraised her, this time looking for the necessary hum of readiness, the unconscious echo of death that he and others like him could not avoid.  It was harder to see, but it was there, the faint traces only detectable by someone else similarly afflicted.

"You chose to work for someone?"

"Yes," she replied.  "Why don't we just stick to the schedule; we can talk while we take a ride later."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

"Actually, I'm surprised it took you a week before you asked about it," Dom said a couple hours later as she pulled the cinch tight on the western saddle.  The roan gelding snorted and tossed his head.

"You still haven't answered my question."

"I'm just an agent.  What more is there to say?"

"You're not 'just an agent.'"  He waited while she led a matching blue roan gelding from his stall and brushed him down.  "Are you inactive?"

"No, active."

Ray watched her saddle the second horse.  "You're not like Gabrielle?"

"No.  She worked exclusively for the Firm.  I've bounced around a little, that's all.  It helped round out my training.  Since late '83 I've been with the group I work for now."

"Okay," he said.  If she didn't want to tell him who she worked for, he wasn't going to press her on it.  I need a friend, not a contact.

"You ready?"

"I haven't been riding in ages."

"They won't mind," she grinned, then wagged her eyebrows, adding, "Too much."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

A soft buzz echoed over the hum of the breeze outside the barn, whiffing through the pines.  She looked up, expertly locating the direction.

"Trouble," she said.  "Maybe your friends?"

The noise drew nearer, then faded to nothing.

"They're on foot now," Ray said.

"Not too smart.  Either they really want you, or they didn't check out the area very well.  Sounds carries like crazy, and they're still a good twenty minutes away.  The dogs are going to have a field day."

"They'll neutralize the dogs."

"I know," she replied sadly.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

They rode through the shadows of the tree line.  The Grovers' dogs had set up a ruckus, but were rapidly silenced.  If the buzz of the snowmobiles hadn't already alerted them, it would have sounded like the dogs had seen and brought down a rabbit.

Ray scanned the snow-covered meadow.  They were difficult to spot in white ski outfits, moving smoothly through the powder, but they were there.

"To the southwest," she said, catching sight of them as well.  "I saw five."

"Five," he confirmed.  "They're headed for the house."

"Looks like."

"Is there someplace you can go?"

Dom gave him a sour frown.  "I can take care of myself, Ray.  This is my home, remember.  Let's go get rid of our uninvited guests."

He caught the reins before she could move off.  "You don't understand.  This man means business.  He won't think twice about killing you, and it won't be—"

"I'm no wallflower to be protected, Ray."

He studied her face.  The gray eyes had hardened.  She was a professional; he could see it, but the old feelings of guilt and responsibility were hard to fight.  Still, if it was The Man, and he knew it was, he'd need the help.  He wasn't up to fighting alone.

"Okay," he said.  "Any ideas?"

"They think they're going to surprise us.  Why not let them?  We'll improvise as we go along."

He couldn't stop the grin.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Several lights on the phony remote control for the TV blinked.  She nodded, and pointed to each of the four compass directions.  They were coming in from all directions.  She held up four fingers.  Number five was holding back.

That would be The Man, directing the attack, he thought, nodding.

She pressed a button on the unit, then touched her ear and pointed outside.  They were listening in on them as well.

"You want some more coffee?" she asked casually.

"Sure, thanks."

Rising, she walked into the kitchen and opened the cupboard.  Removing two coffee cups, she set them on the counter and then opened a second drawer in the counter and removed her Browning – a silencer attached and tucked it in the front of her jeans.  A Beretta also sat in the drawer and she removed it as well.

Pouring the coffee, she added three sugar cubes to hers and carried the cups and the gun back to the living room.  "Here you go," she said, handing Ray the cup and then the Beretta.

"Thank you."

Another red light on the remote blinked on.  She pointed to the phone and shook her head.  They had cut the line.  "So, you feel up to a game of Risk?"

"Sounds interesting.  I don't think I've played."

"Come on, then.  I'll show you."

They rose and she led him back to her bedroom.  Reaching under the bed she pulled out an aluminum case and opened it.  "Here you go, why don't you read the rules and set up the board," she told him.

Ray reached into the open case and removed a gas canister and checked the label.  State of the art, he thought.  Nice.  Three filter masks and mini-supplies also sat in the case.  He took one out.  Lifting the top portion of the case away, she smiled down at the modified Uzis waiting below.  Ray raised an eyebrow and she shrugged with a small smile.

"Looks like an interesting game," he said.

The remote she'd carried in flashed from green, then yellow, and a moment later, red.  They were in the house.

Ray and Dom each placed one of the masks over their mouths, and she pulled the tab off one of the canisters.  A clear vaporous cloud filled the room, slipping out under the door.  A second row of lights turned red on the remote.  She shook her head and shrugged.  They must be wearing masks as well.  Whoever they were, they were careful.

Checking her watch, Dom slipped the mask off, saying, "Okay, now that you've read the rules and set up the board, are you ready to get beat?"

"We'll see about that," Ray replied, hefting the second weapon.  "We'll just see about that."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

The Man stood near the stables and monitored Ray's conversation with the woman.  Who was she?   He'd been unable to trace her when he located Ray at the house.  An agent perhaps?

"Sir?" came a voice over the earphone.

"Yes."

"He knows we're here.  He tried to gas us."

"Be careful.  They must be armed.  I want them alive."

"Yes, sir."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

The last row of lights went to red.  The invaders were outside the bedroom door.  Dom stood in the doorway to the bathroom.  Ray was pressed along the wall near the door.

"We know you're in there.  The gas didn't work.  If you come out now you won't be killed."

"You really expect us to believe that?" Ray called out.  He was trembling, sweat running down his spine and chest.  He blinked it out of his eyes.  Visions of the darkened room, bright examination light and the drugs crowded in on him – Sharon's screams, his own, The Man…  He blinked hard to force the apparitions away.

"No, Ray," The Man said into the microphone he wore as a headset, his voice emerging from the microphone one of the men wore.  "I would never be so foolish."

He pressed a switch to speak to the men in the house.  "Have them look outside, to the north."

"If you would.  Please, check outside, to the north.  I think you will find your reasons for surrendering."

Dom shrugged and moved carefully to the window that opened in that direction, careful not to cross in front of the glass – even the thick double panes for winter wouldn't stop a high powered shot.  Edging the curtain back with the barrel of the Uzi she cursed softly.

"What?" Ray asked.

"They have the Grovers, Rick, and those two teenagers with the dog sleds."

"Damn."

"Yeah."

"We will kill those people if you don't come out," came the voice from beyond the door.

"I'll come out," Ray said, addressing The Man directly.  "But let the woman go.  She doesn't have anything to do with this.  She was just a place to come to, to rest."

"She will join the others," the man beyond the door replied.

Dom nodded, already moving, replacing the case and the Uzi, and hiding the remote that might give away the sophistication of the security system in the house.  Ray edged to the door and opened it, the gun he held, ready in case they should try something.  Dom unthreaded the silencer, then tucked the Browning away in her bra.

"We're coming out," Ray said.

"You two will come with me," the man told them, taking Ray's Beretta.  They could not see his face, hidden behind the white ski mask.

"I'll go, just don't hurt the girl.  She's not a part of this."

Dom played the wide-eyed, frightened woman carefully.  She didn't want to appear too afraid – Ray wouldn't go to someone that fragile in an emergency.  At the same time, she had to appear out of her element, anxious and confused.  It worked.  The four men concentrated on Ray, frisking him carefully, while only giving her a haphazard once over.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

The Man watched as Ray and the woman were escorted out to join the rest of them at the barn.  Ray's dark brown eyes smoldered with hatred.

"Ray," The Man said.  "You led me a merry little chase."

"Spoil your vacation plans, did I?"  The bravado was half- real, half-necessary to keep the panic in check.

"Something like that."  The Man's eyes wandered over Dominique.  "And who is this lovely young woman?"

"Gabrielle," Ray said.

Dom smiled internally.  Brie would've appreciated the situation.

"Gabrielle," The Man said, rolling the symbols over his tongue in a way that made her stomach clinch slightly.  This man could be wholly cruel.  "You are quite beautiful, my dear."

Dom refused to comment.

"You have me," Ray said, unhappy with the sudden interest his nemesis was showing in Dom.  "Let these people go."

"In time, Ray, in time."  He nodded and two of the men escorted the other hostages inside the barn, leaving Ray and Dom alone with their captors.

"What're you going to do to us?" Dom asked, adding a quaver to her voice that drew even Ray's gaze.

"To you, my dear, nothing.  To him?"  He nodded at Ray.  "Well, we have some… unfinished business, shall we say, to take care of.  Don't we, Ray."

Dom saw the fear quake through Ray.  Whoever The Man was, he and Ray had had several run-ins – none of them pleasant.

The two men did not return from the barn.  A total of seven.  Dom watched them carefully.  Two holding the others in the barn… four ringing them and…

"Who are you?" she asked.

The Man smiled, long, thin teeth reminding her of an alligator's.  "I afraid I gave up my name a long time ago."

"We call him The Man," Ray said as though he were spitting out a foul substance.

The Man.  She'd seen that name in the files as she passed through.  He was an agent of sorts – fired and re-hired more times than any other active operative.  He served a useful purpose, but no one liked him.  No organization would keep him on the rolls.  She'd have to do a more thorough reading of his file after this.  Dom shivered.

"Cold?" he asked her.

She nodded.

He pointed to one of the four guards and he stepped forward, removing the white jacket he wore over the rest of his matching ski outfit.  She accepted the garment, shrugging it on and carefully removing the Browning from where she had placed it.  Damn good thing I took the time to spend a year with Tony, she thought, palming the weapon and silently thanking the magician.

Folding her arms across her chest, she gripped the weapon in the sleeve and waited.  The next move was up to Ray.

"Now, you and Gabrielle will come peacefully with us or those people in there will die."

"I said I would, but leave Brie out of this.  She isn't a part of what we do."

"Be that as it may, she intrigues me.  She will come along."

Ray looked at the black-haired woman, hoping she would read the situation as he planned on playing it.  "Let's go," he said softly.  I have to get her out of this.  No matter what else happens, I have to get her out.  I won't fuck up this time.

"After you," The Man said, motioning off toward the trees further down the property.

The pair started forward, one man falling in on either side of the agents, the other two behind.  As they neared the trees, Dom sensed Ray tense.  He was going to move when they reached the tree line.  The gleam of the waiting snowmobiles slid through the boughs.  She would be ready.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Ray waited until the first shadows fell on them and the two men walking on either side, then lunged.  The motion carried him into the right guard.  The base of his palm slammed into the man's chin.  Dom heard the vertebrae give way.  Ray's elbow followed, catching the man along the cheek, completing the blow.

"One," she said softly, moving even as he began.

A flash of confusion as to how she'd known when to move raced through Ray's mind.  She dropped and rolled to the left, firing the Browning.  The second guard fell.

"Two."

The pair behind them gripped their guns tighter, the broken shadows falling through the pines making it impossible for them to follow the action.  They stalked into the trees.

The Man pulled back, cursing under his breath.  She was an agent!  I'll get back to you, woman.  Whoever you are.  Whoever you work for.  I'll have my time with you.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Ray sensed the man's approach as he stood, immobile against the trunk of a large pine tree.  Wait, wait, he told himself.  Don't take any chances, wait…  He's getting closer… closer… wait…  Now!

Stepping out, Ray watched the surprise spring into the man's eyes.  Again the base of his palm lashed out, slamming into the man's chin, stunning.  A roundhouse kick followed, catching the white-clad guard just below the ear, snapping the neck.  He spun, searching frantically for Dom.

A bullet whirred by just above his shoulder and Ray dove for the cover of the large pine.  Birds rippled off the branches with the chatter of annoyed squawks.  When they were gone an eerie silence fell over the landscape.  He held his breath and waited.  Where was she?  Where was the shooter?  Where was The Man?

Silence.

"Ray?"

The whisper was so soft he almost missed it.  "Dom?"

She stepped out of a patch of thick shadow, covered in blood.

"Oh, my God."  Ray lunged over to her.

"That's four.  I'm okay," she said, grabbing his arms and giving him a slight shake.  "Make-up for the next performance."  She nodded over her shoulder toward the barn.  "Let's go."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

The Man entered the barn, eying the small group huddled in one of the empty stalls.  "They'll be coming.  Kill them."

The two men nodded.  The Man stalked through the structure, disappearing out the back.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Dom ran erratically through the knee deep snow.  She moaned and rubbed at the blood on the jacket, then rubbed her face, smearing the dark red across her cheeks.  The two guards watched, unsure what they should do.  The Man had said to kill them, but she looked like she was dying quite nicely on her own.

Clutching at her chest, Dom stopped, weaving from side to side, then collapsed facedown into the snow.  The men waited, but she didn't move again.

"I'll go check," one said, his partner nodding.

Dom wrinkled her face against the cold of the snow and forced herself to take several deep, calming breaths while the guards watched her.  The distant crunch of one of them coming toward her warned her to slow the breathing to shallow pants.  The layer of light power allowed her to suck in enough air to be comfortable.  He was almost there.

Using the toe of his ski boot, the guard turned her over.  Dom willed herself to remain as relaxed as possible, simulating unconsciousness.  He prodded her with the barrel of the Uzi he carried.  She waited.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Ray watched Dom's half-crazed run into the open pasture in front of the bar, praying the guards wouldn't shoot her on sight.  He watched her fall.  God, she made it look real!

He started to move.

One of the men left the barn.  He walked over to her, the gun ready.  Rolled her over with the toe of his boot… poked… knelt down.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Dom felt the air stir as the guard knelt beside her.  She forced herself to hold the last breath.  Wait… and… now!

Eyes opening, her fingers – clamped tightly into knife-hands – shot forward into the man's face, blinding him.  He cried out, dropping the gun as his hands flew to cover his damaged eyes.

Dom grabbed the man's white jacket as the first crack from the second guard's gun rang out.  She jerked her victim forward, the body shuddering as the shot hit him.  Dom rolled away in time to avoid the corpse collapsing on her.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Ray stopped, pressing against the barn wall when the first shot rang out.  Dom!

He took a deep breath, quickly edging down the building.  The barrel of the weapon protruded from the wide door.  He reached up, thankful the heat-guard protected his hands, and yanked the weapon forward.  The guard stumbled out and Ray brought his elbow down on the back of the man's neck.  He fell to his knees.

Wrenching the man's M-16 free, Ray didn't hesitate, swinging the weapon around and shooting the man in the chest.

Dom walked up to join him, her eyes scanning the area, alert for trouble.

"That's six.  Where's The Man?"

"Barn," Ray said, gripping the weapon and edging into the structure.  The sounds of the women softly sobbing echoed in the cold air.

Together they checked the building over, finding no trace of the agent.

"He's gone," Dom said, crouching next to a track leading out into the snow at the back of the barn.

"He'll be back.  Maybe not today, but he'll be back.  He won't quit until he's killed me."

"Why?" Dom asked.

"He trained me.  He made me… what I am."

"I don't believe that," she said.  "There's more to you than that."

Ray looked up from where he'd been staring at the vague imprint in the dirt, the point of the toe having just edged into the snow.  "It's true.  When he lost control over me…" Ray trailed off.  "He won't quit until he has me back, or I'm dead.  But, I can't go back."

"Let's get these people out of here and we'll talk."

"Dom, I don't want to get into it.  It's my problem."

"Fine, but you've made me a part of it, and I might have a way to help you."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

They sat in front of the fire, sipping on Dom's homemade coco-concoction, lightly laced with kalhula.

"…and this organization gives you a free rein?"

Dom nodded.  "That was part of my agreement with them.  They watch the movers, shakers and other watchers, even the other watchers, watching the watchers, watching watchers, watching other agencies.  Don't you love the clear organization of governmental bureaucracy?  It's no wonder they call it 'shadow government.'  They also clean up the messes other organizations leave behind while 'pursuing national security' or 'institutional priorities.'"

"And you think they'd take me under their umbrella?"

"I think so."

"It won't stop The Man."

"Perhaps not, but I'm going to take that particular subject up with Callahan when I see him next."

Ray studied her.  He believed her and what she'd told him about the group she was working for.  Maybe they could help.  It couldn't hurt to have her on his side.  Besides, he admitted to himself, it might mean a chance to see her again.

"I won't work for anyone.  I do favors."

"I know.  They might want more control than you're willing to give, but if they do go along, you'll have a layer of insulation that you don't have now.  You're well covered, Ray, but this could make it more air-tight."

"Thank you."

"No problem.  I'll show you around some new hallways in KARL.  He'll help you, and you can always leave a message with him for me."

Ray nodded.  "I appreciate that."

"Is that a good-bye?"

"I shouldn't stay here any longer."

"Why?  You need a vacation.  Stay.  Rest.  I'll leave if you're uncomfortable.  The Man won't come back here.  He's off somewhere, planning his next attempt."

"It's not that.  I need to stay, I know that.  I need to rest.  I just don't…"  He trailed off.

"You don't want to care?"

He met her gaze.  "No, I do…  But I can't."

"Ray, there's nothing wrong with caring.  And there's no reason why we can't be friends.  I could use a friend, someone who understands.  Can't you?"

"Yes."

"I like you, Ray.  I trust you.  I wouldn't mind spending time with you… when I can."

He grinned, looking away with a rose brush dusting across his cheeks.

"So, let's just be who we are and see what happens.  When it's time for you to go, you go.  I know what you are, and what you have to do."

"It's hard to keep walking away.  There have been times--"

"I know.  But, like Popeye would say, 'we are who we are.'  If we tried to stop, we'd be miserable in a week!  Probably sooner – no matter who we stopped for.  I was married for a while.  John understood.  He let me be who I was.  And it got him killed.  The way you work, when you walk away it's for good – once the favor's paid.  It doesn't have to be that way for us.  We'll walk away to do what we have to, but, if you need me, I'll be there to help."

Ray nodded.  "I'm here, too.  If you need me."

"Okay, it's settled then."

"What?"

"We'll be friends.  We'll help each other if we need it, post silly messages with KARL when we're bored, and send Christmas cards…  Deal?"

"Deal."

She leaned forward, her lips lightly brushing his forehead.  "Friends."

"Friends," he said, reaching out to enfold her in a hug.  God, it was good to have a friend.

 

The End