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No More Swedish Meatballs Pt. 03

Christmas melted into New Years along with the snow which had kept them happily occupied for almost two weeks. New Years Eve dawned with grey ominous clouds, but it was too warm to snow. "I guess it means school on Monday Lizzy said soberly to Kristen. Most of the sparkle of the season had disappeared with the snow.

"Yeah, winter," Kristen said sourly. Winter was the most hated part of the year. "I wonder what happened to that fake cop," Kristen said while she and Lizzy were getting ready for the Phillip's New Years Eve party.

"Mr. Phillips probably killed him and dumped him into the river," Lizzy said dramatically. "I can't believe you and Rita went into the city alone. You're lucky dad didn't kill you for that stunt."

"Might as well have. I'm grounded for a month. It just better not snow. I'm not staying in if there's sledding." Kristen had been given a blistering lecture by Karl on Christmas Day about her and Rita's "unthinking, reckless" trip into the city. He'd told Rita's parents about the trip and they weren't aloud to see each other except a school for the term of their commitment. Secretly Kristen thought she'd gotten off pretty easy. Thank God I'm too big for a spanking.

The glue of a common enemy stuck and, as a result of the Christmas Eve events the Hansen family had drawn even closer together. Years later upon reflection it seemed to Karl that the world's spin began to speed up after that Christmas. Before he knew it Ned was off to college leaving Rita behind with tears in her eyes. Then Lizzy entered nursing school and the Hansen mansion was almost empty. Kristen had her choice of bedrooms now. In only two more years Kristen would be flying out of the nest.

And memories of Evelyn were like ashes in the wind when the holidays came around. No one would say her name. It wasn't as if she never existed. It was like a superstition; trouble would come if your thoughts turned to Evelyn. But she was always there in the back of everyone's mind.

One day, for no particular reason, Karl showed Kristen the little room he had constructed on the sly in the basement after the eventful Christmas Eve. It nestled behind a set of bookshelves Karl built. It was a masterful job of concealment and the best carpentry work he'd ever done.

He made the room into a comfortable study and spent many hours there working on projects from work. There was a safe hidden under the massive desk in the back of the room. That's where he kept his important papers and bits and pieces of things he was working on. He kept office work in it which he'd bring out and puzzle over during weekends and holidays. He never talked about his work now that Ned was away at school.

Kristen didn't think about her father's work. She was caught up in her own life. She was a precocious teenager who had grown into her looks early. She had Nordic skin, soft and creamy in the winter and golden tan in the summertime. Her eyes were green and her hair was the color of butterscotch candy. She always thought of herself as average – average height, average weight, average hair color, average face. But in truth she was stunning. Her skin glowed and her eyes sparkled and her laughter drew people to her.


Time flew and a new decade began. Kristen started hanging around with a bunch of kids who put together a band. She had a great voice and ear for harmony. She became the band's lead singer and played at parties and dances around the area. Karl didn't mind. He thought it was good, clean fun. He dismissed most of what he read about teenagers going wild on drugs and sex and rock and roll. Kristen was a level headed, intelligent sixteen year old who brought home good grades. If she cut an occasional class or faked being sick a little too often it was counter balanced by how well she was doing in science and math.

So Kristen learned to skate by. If everything was pretty on the surface she was good to go. She breezed through her classes, did her homework in study hall and rushed off to the band the second the bell rang. She wasn't close to anyone. Rita was a lost cause – stuck in basketball practices and mooning over the football quarterback -- feelings for Ned long ago forgotten.

Kristen's band would play their ratty music for hours. The members would toke up a few joints to enhance their creativity and off they would fly on another questionable musical tangent.

It was late June of Kristen's junior year. She should have been at school but she faked a cold and stayed home. She hated school anyway. It was boring. And lying on the dumpy old couch watching TV games shows was better entertainment. That's what she was looking for. Entertainment. At that point in her life that's all she was looking for. 16 years old. And no boyfriend.

And her dad was always so secretive locked up in his office working late at night. That is on the nights he came home from work. On many nights word would come that "daddy's a little tied up at the office tonight." This day was a sweet gift. Just her "sick" on the couch and dad working in the den. It had never happened before.

It was always the sound of a motorcycle engine that took her back to her memories of the day she met Ryan. Oh God, sweet Ryan. He was so beautiful that day. So full of light, of life. He stepped into the room like a messenger from heaven and Kristen was so intent on "The Match Game" or whatever the hell it was on television that half hour she almost missed him. Almost.

She was lying flat out on her stomach with a couch cushion under her chin, wearing bell bottom blue jeans and some kind of pastel T shirt, wiggling her feet in the air and guessing the answers when he walked into the room. "Wrong," she said. "Shit. I'd 'of got that one right you ninny. Why the hell'd you marry him?" she said in disgust to the flickering television tube.

She jumped when he laughed. That's how they met. "Oh hi, who the heck are you?" she demanded of the man behind the laugh. Ryan was young then. Still part boy. A golden boy.

Kristen was embarrassed. She was caught off guard. There she was all sprawled out on the couch watching a no-brainer on TV when the man of her dreams walked into her life.

"Hi," Ryan said, :"I'm Ryan Peters, I'm looking for...." He paused and smiled, a little uncertain whether he was where he should be

Kristen was staring at him with mouth agape. He was so good looking. He had it all. At least that's what it looked like from her perspective on the couch. The late afternoon light was streaming in behind him, which added to the effect. He was basked in golden light. Perfect. That's how she always remembered him.

Ryan was a man of light. He was six foot two and a half, long and lean, with golden hair and sunny blue eyes that crinkled at the corners in later years just like the Hollywood stars they molded after him. He could have sold breakfast cereal.

"I'm sorry, I should have knocked. I could hear the TV so I knew someone was home. I ...." His voice trailed off as he watched Kristen try to go from little girl to teenage femme fatal in about eight seconds. She's a plucky one he thought. But dangerous.

Something connected between them. Kind of a zing in the air between them. They both felt it.

"That's okay." Kristen collected herself quickly. "You must be looking for my dad. He's working at home today. I'm Kristen, Hi." She reached out to shake his hand, hoping she looked older than she did. At that moment in time she wanted to look like Marilyn Monroe, drop dead gorgeous and with tits.

As he touched her hand there was a jolt. The sound of wind rushed in Kristen's ears and something deep inside her said I KNOW YOU. Kristen looked into Ryan's eyes, puzzled. I recognize you, something whispered. It was as if something turned in her mind. Things that had always seemed blurry were suddenly clear.

Ryan felt it too. Maybe more so. He dropped her hand almost like it had turned into something else. IT'S YOU. something said in his mind. "What?" Ryan said sharply. Then he took a good, long look at Kristen. Something deep inside of him recognized Kristen in a way Ryan never even recognized himself. The good part of him. That was Kristen, to him.

"My father's close by. I'll go get him. Why don't you have a seat, make yourself comfortable?"

"Okay," Ryan parked himself in the Lazy Boy across from the couch.

Kristen passed through the living room and the swinging doors leading to the kitchen. She called downstairs, "Dad, you have a visitor."

No response. Kristen went downstairs and knocked on the door to Karl's den. "Dad, there's someone here to see you."

Karl was lost in a project he'd brought home from work. He looked up, surprised. "Who is it?" he asked as Kristen opened the door.

""I don't know. Some guy."

"Some guy like a sales person?" Karl asked.

"I don't know."

"Oh. Tell him I'll be there in a minute. I have a couple of things to do before I can come up."


Kristen was pleased. She'd have him to herself for a few minutes. She took the basement stairs two at a time in her hurry to return to the living room.

"My father will be here in a few minutes," she announced. Can I get you anything? A drink. A whiskey? Or maybe a gin and tonic." Kristen was struggling to appear sophisticated. "They're so refreshing this time of year."

Ryan almost burst out laughing at Kristen's attempt to appear older and worldly. She's a cute little filly, he thought. All legs and eyes. He felt himself falling for her. It's ridiculous, he thought. She's a child and you're a grown man. But they weren't really that far apart in age. Only eight years. Eight years was a huge gap at that time of life but almost infinitesimal in later years.

Ryan let himself take measure of the precocious teenager in front of him. He didn't realize the impact his overt assessment of her attributes would have on her.

Kristen felt her heart lurch when Ryan took that good long look at her. She tried hard not to blush and did an admirable job keeping her composure.

"I'd love a gin and tonic," Ryan said grinning at her with his broad white smile.

"You would? Okay, great, gin and tonic coming up. I'll make a pitcher so you and dad can relax. Sure is hot today isn't It.?" Kristen felt like a babbling fool.

"Yeah. Very hot," Ryan agreed. The outside temperature had little to do with the heat in the living room at that moment.

Kristen's face was bright red by the time she pulled herself away and headed for the kitchen. She mixed a batch of gin and tonics using the measurements she'd seen her mother use. Two parts tonic and one part gin plus a lot of ice. She mixed the drinks in the old crystal pitcher they never used anymore. She poured herself a sample to be sure she'd got it right. The drink brought even more color to her face. To cool herself down she set about making finger sandwiches. She was almost through with her task when Karl came upstairs.

"He's in the living room. I've made some refreshments," Kristen said.

Karl looked at his daughter. "Are you alright? You look a little flushed."

"I'm fine. I'll bring this stuff out in a minute."

Karl shrugged and went on into the living room. Kristen made a bee-line to the powder room to dash water on her face and put a little tooth paste on her tongue. She didn't want her father to know she'd sampled the drinks.

Karl entered the living room expecting to find a sales person. His brow went down in a V shaped showing his puzzlement at finding an agent in his living room. For clearly that's what Ryan was.

Ryan wasn't received with the same warmth by the father as he had been by Kristen. Ryan could see traces of Kristen in Karl's face and comportment. He stood and offered Karl his hand. "Hi, I'm Ryan Peters. I take it you're Karl Hansen?"

Karl took the proffered hand reluctantly. "That's right. What can I do for you?"

Ryan took measure of Karl. "So you're the problem solver I've heard so much about. Karl had shrunk into himself over the past four years. His hair and mustache had silvered and he'd become somewhat stooped. But he was still very fit from yard work and carpentry.

"Do you have a problem that needs solving?" he asked suspiciously.

Kristen entered the room with a tray containing the drinks and snacks. She'd decided to play hostess hoping to find out who Ryan was and what he wanted with her father. "Don't mind me," she said as she poured a couple of drinks from the pitcher. Karl gave her a look which said 'this is none of your business.'

Kristen got the message. "I'll be on the side porch if you need me." Rats, she thought, I really want to know what's going on. I'm not a child she simmered. But in truth she just wanted to be near Ryan. Who is he?"

Ryan picked up his drink and took a long pull. That kid really knows how to fix a drink, he thought as the fiery liquid coursed through his blood stream.

Karl took a sip and almost choked. I'm going to have to teach her how to mix drinks. What'd she do, pour the whole bottle of gin in here?" I take it you're from the company," he said after he caught his breath. "Look, I told them I need to work on this project alone at home. They said okay. It's coming along but it's going to take a little more time. It will be done when it's done. That's all I have to say."

Ryan looked Karl in the eye. "I'm not here about your project."

"So, what's this about?" Karl asked.

"Why don't we take a walk? I'm not sure this room is secure."

"What do you mean?"

"Humor me," Ryan said cryptically.

"I don't know who you are. Why should I trust you?"

"You trust Jim Phillips, don't you?"

"Okay, let's take a walk. Kristen," Karl yelled towards the side porch, "Mr. Peters and I are going out for a few minutes." He led the way to the front door.

They walked out into the warm June sunlight. It was late afternoon. The sun was making its way westward and there was a hint of evening in the air. They headed up the hill towards the O'Leary's house and the sharp decline that had provided so many wonderful hours of winter fun. Karl wished it was winter and he was walking with his kids for an evening of sledding. He hated the spy games. They'd given him nothing but trouble over the years. He sensed something was up and was not at all happy about it.

"So, what brings you here?" Karl said to get the conversation started.

Ryan took a deep breath. It was important that Karl really listen and accept what he was about to hear.

"I work for a group called the Guardians. I'm here to tell you that your work is in danger."

"Guardians," Karl said skeptically. "What do you guard?"

We follow the Company and another gang you came into contact with a few years ago. The Cabal., Quietly."

"You monitor both groups. Why? And why the cloak and dagger stuff? The Company's on the up and up. They've kept me clear of the Cabal all these years."

"The Cabal and the Company are two sides of a coin. They're fighting each other at present but both are working towards the same goal. As far as they're concerned it's just a matter of which one will sit at the head of the table at the end of the battle."

"And what goal might they be after?" Karl asked with a hint of a sneer in his voice.

"The construction of a 'New World Order.'" Ryan said heavily. "An order where white supremacists rule. They've been working towards this end for longer than you can imagine. They were given a hard hit when Hitler fell, but they're like a hydra. One head was cut off and two new ones appeared."

Karl felt like he'd been kicked in the stomach. He'd run across the term before. Neo Nazi's, white supremacists, fascists. A skunk by any name smelled foul.

"So I'm supposed to take your word for it. What do you want from me? Are you asking me to change allegiance based on your word. Hell, I don't know you from Adam. For all I know the Cabal sent you."

"I'm not from the Cabal." The two men stopped walking. Ryan looked Karl in the eye. He was surprisingly self-composed for such a young man. "You've been badly burned. I know that. Evelyn and Max used you badly. But you trust Jim and you can trust me."

"How do I know I can trust you?"

"Here," Ryan handed Karl a letter. It was from Jim. Karl knew his handwriting. The letter explained a lot of what Ryan had been telling him."

"So why didn't Jim just come out and tell me this?" Karl wanted to know.

"He can't. He's buried too deeply. Things are changing. A lot is happening very quickly. We need to get you out of the Company."

"What do you mean?"

Ryan pulled a thick envelope out of his jean jacket. "Look, you're working on some very sensitive projects. Projects the Cabal and the Company are fighting over. A couple of scientists have already disappeared. Here," he handed Karl a thick package. "This explains everything."

They had come to a path at the bottom of the hill leading into the woods. "Read this. I'll let you come to your own conclusions."

"So I'm going to disappear? Just like that? What about Kristen? And Ned and Elizabeth?"

"Actually, what we'd like to do is stage your death. Your kids will be a lot safer than they are now."

"What do you mean," Karl asked, his chest tight with fear."

"They're pawns now. If you're dead the Cabal and the Company will lose interest in them."

"Is this really necessary?" Karl asked, desperate for a way out. "I mean, I've been working for the Company for so long…."

"Jim's been our access to your work. Every day you stay with the Company he's endangered."

"Christ. So what will happen to my kids? Kristen's only 16. What happens to her?"

"We'll take good care of her. She's smart. She's ready for college. We have a place for her. The others will stay where they are. They'll be protected. You have my promise."

"I don't know. I need time to digest all this – and read this" – he gave the envelope a shake. "I can't give you an answer tonight."

"You have to. Time is running out."

Their walk through the woods ended at the old Boy Scout cabin where Kristen and Rita used to play. Karl took a look around and found an old picnic table to sit on. "It's going to take me a while to go through all this. I don't want you hovering over me while if read this stuff. Go back to the house. I'll join you in a while.

Ryan sighed. "Alright. How 'bout if I take Kristen out to dinner? I don't want to sit around staring at the furniture. And I don't want to drink any more of those gin and tonics. Where'd she get that recipe, anyway?" he said with a laugh.

Karl joined in the laughter. "She must have watched her mother fixing drinks. Evelyn likes a good stiff drink." He didn't want to trust Ryan with his daughter. But he didn't like the thought of Ryan having unhindered access to his home either. Dinner was probably a good idea. "Okay. Take her out to dinner but if anything happens to her…."

"Don't worry. Maybe you should write her a note. Let her know it's okay for me to take her out." He offered Karl a pen. Karl tore off part of the envelope and scribbled a short note telling Kristen it was alright for her to go out to dinner with Ryan.

Karl handed Ryan the note. "Take good care of her. I don't want her hurt."

"Don't worry, I'm good with kids."

Karl was relieved to hear Ryan call Kristen a kid. He'd seen the impact the young man had on Kristen and didn't like it. Karl wanted to keep her a kid for a few more years. Hell, he thought, if things are as Peters says I won't get to see her grow up. God I hate this. I'd like to grab her and make a run for Canada. But that wouldn't resolve anything. Karl felt like he was a thousand years old. He opened the envelope and started reading. He didn't even hear Ryan leave, so immersed he was in the information contained in the package. He almost broke down when he got to the part about Evelyn's death. He wondered how they got their information. Jesus. Wheels, within wheels, within wheels. I thought I knew Jim. And Hurst – I thought he was a stand up sort of guy.
The package changed his life forever. Karl's blood ran cold as he read the material contained in the package. The two organizations were much more powerful than anything he'd imagined. They were developing technology which, if misused, could destroy humanity. They'd been around for ages and believed they would achieve their destiny - a New World Order around the middle of the next century. There was no room in the new world for the people of the developing nations. They would bankrupt Russia with the bogus cold war weapons race, rape the Middle East, and plunder Africa and South America in order to achieve a "natural balance" between the environment and the economy. The Company and the Cabal were one and the same. Its inner circle was made up of wealthy, privileged and educated men with a very skewed belief system.

Karl learned that Guardians like Ryan had been fighting the Cabal for centuries. Jim had become a guardian when he accidentally discovered the Company was the Cabal's tentacle in the government. For years he'd been making slight alterations in Karl's work for the Company in order to slow them down and passing the accurate data to the Guardians. There were other groups of resistance. The Guardians were trying to unite the resistance groups but it was a difficult task. And now the world was entering the information age. It was happening much faster than the Guardians had expected. Scientists like Karl were unlocking secrets so fast the Guardians feared that the earth's natural balance would be destroyed. They decided to reveal themselves to a select few in order to pull them out of the two groups' hands. They hoped to gather enough talent to alter the disastrous course plotted out by the Cabal and the Company.

Unfortunately the Guardian's plan had been unearthed recently. The Guardians had to move fast. They needed Karl but they knew the Company would not let him go easily. Thus, the Guardians had a plan to stage Karl's death and take him to a safe location where he and other scientists could work safely.

Karl wasn't sure he liked that last part. What guarantee do I have that the Guardians aren't as bad as the Company and the Cabal. Seems to me like everyone has delusions of grandeur. What the hell am I supposed to do with this information? Karl suddenly realized what a risk Ryan had taken getting this material to him. They must really be desperate to come out in the open. I hope Kristen's safe, he thought worriedly. Then he realized Ryan had taken Kristen to dinner so she wouldn't be home to witness Karl's staged death. The thought angered him. He felt manipulated and badly used.

Karl wasn't sure if he trusted the Guardians. But he did trust Jim. And the plan was for Ryan to take Kristen to Jim. After all the years and all the Christmases, Karl knew in his heart Jim would never hurt Kristen. Christ, she was like a daughter to him. So at least I know Kristen's safe. But I'll be damned if I'm going to let them play puppet master with my life. I'm not going to let them come here and take me away.

Karl thought long and hard before deciding on a plan. I need more information – some independent verification of this. To do this, Karl realized he'd have to disappear for a while. What about my research? He didn't dare leave it in the Company's hands. I'll go get it from the office. Then I'll hide all of it away so neither side can get it. It won't be easy to disappear. But that's what I'm going to have to do he thought sadly.

Karl continued his musing as he walked back to the house. When he got there he hid his papers. Then he headed down to the Company. The plant was open 24 hours a day to its scientists. Karl had no problem getting a hold of his research. He checked his watch on his way out of the building. I've got to hurry. He made a reckless dash back up to Paoli. He was relieved to find the house empty when he got home. He quickly added the rest of the research to the fire proof safe in his secret office. Kristen's the only one who knows about the room and she won't tell anyone. He finally felt secure after he closed the door to his office for the last time.

After leaving his office he went through the camping gear he had stashed in the basement. He took everything except the large family tent. He took Ned's old Boy Scout pup tent instead. Upstairs he packed one suit and as much sportswear as he could fit into his suitcase. After he finished packing he hauled the suitcase downstairs and went to the kitchen to pack a box of food. He was as meticulous in his endeavor as he had ever been in planning a family camping trip.

It was getting late. He packed up the car and said a silent farewell to the home he'd grown to love so dearly. He decided to head east. He'd drive as far as he could before getting sleepy. Then he'd find a campground. He thought he should keep moving – at least for the first few days.


After Ryan left Karl in the woods he walked back through the woods enjoying a brief respite from his work. Dappled sunlight shone through the leaves as he walked westward out of the forest. He tried to relax and enjoy the peaceful sound of evening falling. He wasn't happy about the job he'd been assigned. But this was a crucial time and Karl's work was important. I'll take the kid out for a nice dinner, anyway. He hated the thought of what would happen while they enjoyed their meal. He was sure Karl was on board. Staging a man's death was rotten, especially when kids were involved.

Kristen was on the front porch when he got back to the house. "Where's my father?" she asked anxiously.

"He's at the Boy Scout cabin. He has some work to do there."

"What do you mean? He can work at home. Why didn't he come back with you? What did you do to him?" she asked suspiciously.

"Honest, he's fine. He stayed behind because I gave him some papers to go through away from prying eyes."

"There are no prying eyes here."

"So you say. Here, I have a note from him. I'm supposed to take you out to dinner. Here." He handed Kristen the note.

Kristen read the note. It was legitimate. "Does he know you came here on a motor cycle?" she asked skeptically. "He'd kill me if he knew I was riding on one."

"He knows. Trust me."

"Why should I trust you?" she asked.

"Your father trusts me."

Kristen gave Ryan a penetrating gaze. She liked what she saw and decided to trust him. "Wait a minute. I've got to get my purse." She ran inside and flew up the stairs. She decided to wear a dress, so she changed quickly and ran a brush through her hair. Then she grabbed her purse and was ready to ride. "Okay. Lets go," she said, trying to act nonchalant.

Ryan looked at her approvingly as he walked over to his motor cycle. "Come on," he said as he straddled the bike.

Kristen jumped off the porch and sauntered over to the bike, acting with more aplomb than she felt. Ryan handed her his helmet. "Put that on," he said.

"What about you. Don't you have to wear one?"

"My head's harder than granite. I don't need one."

"Oh." She put the helmet on feeling foolish and excited. "Where are we going?" she asked.

"I don't know. What kind of food do you like?"

Kristen thought for a moment. She wanted to have the longest ride possible. She wasn't really dressed for a fancy restaurant, but who cared? "There's a nice place in Exton. The Ship Inn."

"How far is it?"

"About ten miles."

Ryan laughed. "What if you don't like the ride?"

"I'll manage," Kristen replied, her heart in her throat. She climbed on the motor bike like she was born to it. She couldn't believe her luck as she wrapped her arms around Ryan's broad chest. I died and this is heaven, she thought with glee. She jumped when Ryan kick started the engine once, twice, three times and it growled to life.

Ryan felt her breasts crushed against his back. The closeness was startling. A shaft of desire shot through him as he eased the bike backwards, around and then out of the driveway. Christ, he thought. What's wrong with me? She's just a kid. His heart beat picked up as she tightened her grip around his waist.

"Which way to the restaurant?" he asked when they got to the stop sign at the top of the street.

"Go over the railroad bridge and turn right at route 30. It's a straight shot west on 30.

The sun was poised on the horizon like a great, red eyeball as the bike picked up speed on route 30. The wind, still warm from the sunny late spring day wind whipped at Kristen's hair which flowed loose under her helmet. She felt Ryan's strong muscles under his shirt. It was wonderful.

She rode stiffly for a few moments wondering if she should lean into the curves or against them. But she caught on quickly as they picked up speed. The bike smoothed out the rolling hills as the tires ate up the miles between Paoli and Exton.

The ride seemed to last forever. This is what it's like to fly, Kristen thought happily as they breezed into the restaurant's parking lot. I wish this night would never end. She was completely besotted with Ryan. Her legs were like rubber when she slid off the motor cycle. Ryan steadied her with one hand as he set the bike to rest. "Enjoy the ride?" he asked.

"Fantastic. Why don't we just keep going?" she asked. "I hear California's nice this time of year."

Ryan laughed. She was a natural. I'll make this dinner special for her he decided. "I'd love to, but I'm afraid you'd get saddle sore and tired of me before we even hit Ohio."

"Oh, I don't know about that. Try me."

"Some other time," he promised. "I'm starving. This looks like a pretty nice place. Do you suppose they'll let us road warriors eat here. Maybe we should go to the diner on the other side of the street." He pointed to a crumby looking White Castle advertising ten hamburgers for a dollar.

"Of course they'll let us in. Give me a minute to repair my hair," Kristen ordered. She pulled a brush out of her purse and pulled and tugged at her tangled mop. Ryan watched her, bewitched by the beauty of her hair in the fading spring sunshine. Kristen had a glow about her. She's a real beauty, he thought. Too bad she's going to hate me at the end of tonight. He knew she'd always associate this evening with loss. I wish I could tell her what's going on. God damn it I hate this job sometimes. I wish I could just be a horny teenager.

Kristen caught Ryan's intense stare. "What? Have I grown a horn on my forehead?" she asked laughing in the twilight.

"No." Ryan said, shaking his head. "You look lovely."

Kristen blushed at the complement. "Thank you, kind sir. I hope I'm lovely enough that they let us into this restaurant. I have a hankering for some really good fish."

Ryan took her arm and ushered her to the front door of the restaurant. The maitre 'd looked at them askance for a moment. "Do you have a reservation?" he asked with a snobbish turn of his nose.

Ryan looked at him hard. Then glanced at the almost empty dining room. He pulled out a five dollar bill. "Yes," he said archly. "I have a reservation. That table over there by the window has my name on it, doesn't it darling?" he said to Kristen, who blushed bright red.

"Yes, I think you're right," Kristen replied. "But I'm not sure we want to eat here. The dining room's almost empty. Maybe the food isn't as good as your editor said it is."

Ryan shook his head. "You're right. This must not be the right place. I'll have to find another restaurant to critique."

The maitre 'd bent over backwards after that to convince them to stay. He didn't want to be responsible for loosing the chance at a restaurant review. He didn't know what newspaper or magazine they were from but free publicity was free publicity.

Ryan and Kristen were given the best table in the house. The waiter fawned over them. They were hard put not to break into gales of laughter at his antics.

Kristen had never been to a really fancy restaurant before. She tried her best to look sophisticated. Ryan thought she was adorable. Ryan was torn when the wine steward came over. He didn't want to get his charge drunk. Kristen however surprised him by selecting an excellent vintage. It was pure luck but Ryan didn't know that.

The wine was served as they considered the menu. Ryan did the honors, sampling the wine and nodding his approval. Kristen took a small sip and smiled broadly. She'd selected an uncomplicated but savory white. "It tastes like a summer breeze" she said happily.

Ryan smiled. "Go slow with that," he cautioned as he watched Kristen take a second, much larger sip.

"This' so much fun. What should we order?" she asked excitedly.

The waiter came over with a basket of bread and explained the specials. Roast duckling didn't appeal to Kristen. She wanted something light but memorable.

"Pan fried, fresh brook trout. Oh. That sounds great."

Ryan was glad he had a full wallet. "I'll have the filet mignon," he said.

"Oh." The waiter said. "Then you'll have to have the burgundy. On the house, of course."

"Of course," Ryan said, wondering how to get out of it. "But maybe we should just stick with the white."

The waiter was aghast at the idea. "You can't possibly savor your meal without a proper wine for the palate." Spoken like a true food snob.

"Of course, you're right." He laughed as he drained his glass of white wine. He looked at Kristen. She'd finished her first glass and was reaching for the bottle.

"Slow down, little one," he said in an unwittingly seductive voice. "The night is young." And so are you he added. Too damn young. "Have some bread," he suggested in a low tone.

Kristen's pulse raced. Just the way he called her 'little one' set her blood to boil. She felt like a woman, and lifted her glass offering up a silent toast. She didn't know how provocative she looked – her hair all a-tumble and her young face flushed with wine and pleasure.

Ryan buttered a heel of pumpernickel bread and offered it to Kristen expecting her to take it with her hand. Instead she grabbed it between her pearly white teeth, almost taking a bite out of his hand. "Oh, that's good," she sighed. Ecstasy she thought. Could a night get any better than this?

Ryan laughed pensively. What an enchanting creature she is. The burgundy wine arrived with their salads. Kristen was well into her second glass of wine. "Don't get soused on me, Kristen," he said warningly. I don't want you falling off the back of my bike."

"I wouldn't."

Ryan wasn't sure if she meant she wouldn't get drunk or she wouldn't fall off the bike. "You might," he said sagely. And what would I tell your father if I bring you home drunk?"

"So don't bring me home," Kristen suggested, talking with her mouth full of bread. "Drive me to California. That's where I'm going to college. I should check it out, don't you think? This is the perfect opportunity for me to check out Berkeley."

"Huh uh. No way. I've got to get you home safe and sound."

The waiter brought their salads. Ryan poured himself a full glass of wine. He wished he could get drunk. Then he'd take Kristen up on her suggestion that they drive to California. He'd forget all about the Company and the Cabal and Karl and everything else that was so screwed up. God Lord, this little girl has really gotten under my skin!

They savored their salads. Ryan thought it was too bad he wasn't a food critic. He'd give the place four stars so far. Except for the snotty service. The waiter has his nose so far up in the air he'll drown in a rain storm Ryan thought.

They were about halfway through the bottle of white wine when the main courses arrived. The trout was fried to perfection and its accompaniments were exquisite. Kristen forgot about the wine and dove into the food. She hadn't eaten since breakfast. "Ah, this is wonderful. We'll have to give them an excellent write up," she said as she paused to make room for more food.

Ryan agreed. His steak was tender enough to cut with a butter knife. "First class," he said to the hovering waiter. "Our complements to the chef." He poured a glass of burgundy. To hell with it, he thought. I'm going to make the best of this evening. God, I wish she was just two years older. What a couple we'd make. He was suffering – his cock was at full mast. He tried every trick he knew of to cool himself off. He thought about glaciers, snow storms. Nothing worked. He was smitten and besotted with desire for Kristen.

Kristen could feel his heat. She was unprepared for the intensity of her passion for this golden man. How can I convince him I'm not a child? He feels it. I know he does. He's sweating and it's not at all hot in here. Kristen poured herself another glass of wine. I'm going to get myself drunk and seduce him. He's halfway there already. Kristen squirmed in her seat. She was so hot.

The waiter beamed at the couple. Young love. What a handsome pair. She's a little young for him though. I should have carded her. Oh well. They'll give us a great review and business will pick up.

They ate in silence, both lost in thought and desire.

Ryan started to feel guilty towards the end of the meal. I wonder if Karl has made up his mind. Maybe I should warn Kristen about what's about to happen. No. Ultimately she's got to think Karl's dead. She'll be too vulnerable if she knows he's alive. I have to stick with the plan. He felt like a monster.

Kristen noticed the change in the atmosphere. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing, I'm sorry. Sometimes work intrudes."

"Work, huh. What is it you do? Do you work for the Company? Or are you a spy. Like…." She stopped in mid sentence. She'd almost blurted out the fact her mother was a spy. That's it. I've had too much wine.

"Excuse me," she said in a rush. "I've got to go to the restroom." All of a sudden she felt sick to her stomach. Too much wine. Oh God I feel sick. She almost tipped over her chair in her hurry to get to the ladies room. She barely made it to the stall. Everything came up. All the food and all the wine. She felt miserable and horribly embarrassed. At least I didn't loose it in front of Ryan. God, what an idiot I am. But after a few minutes she felt much better. She dowsed her face with cold water, smoothed her hair and rinsed her mouth thoroughly from the spigot. She was grateful there'd been no one in the bathroom to witness her misery. She smiled bravely at her reflection on her way out the door.

Ryan looked at her questioningly when she returned to the table. "Are you alright?"

"Just fine," she said bravely.

"Would you like some more wine" he asked, having guessed what transpired in the ladies room.

"Uh, no. I don't think so. Maybe some tea, if they have any."

"How about desert?"

"No. Thanks. I'm pretty full. You go ahead if you want. Just tea. Please."

Ryan laughed. "Are you sure you're alright? You were pretty green for a minute there."

"Oh God," Kristen said, mortified that he knew she'd lost her dinner. "I'm so embarrassed. That's never happened to me before."

"I should hope not. You don't drink two thirds of a bottle of wine every day do you?"

"No. I never. Well, once," she admitted. "With Rita. In a snow storm. But this is the first time I ever really got drunk."

"Who's Rita?" Ryan asked, wanting to know more about Kristen. He was thirsty for information.

"My best friend. Well, she used to be my best friend. Before she became too 'adult' for me. Ned was crazy over her too, for a while. Until he went off to college. I guess he got a girl friend right away. That's when Rita stopped talking to me entirely. Some friend, huh?"
"People change."

"Yeah, but you don't just cut someone out of your life. Not someone you've known forever." Kristen had almost forgotten how badly Rita's perfidy hurt.

"You try not to, anyway," Ryan responded. "Sometimes things happen that are beyond your control," he said, thinking about what was probably happening at Kristen's house right about now.

The waiter, who had been hovering for a while, came over offering desert and coffee.

"Do you have tea?" Kristen asked.

"Yes, of course," the water responded. "And for you sir? Brandy with your coffee?"

"No. Nothing for me, thanks. I'll take the check when you bring the tea."

"Very good, sir.

Ryan poured himself a final glass of burgundy, not wanting to let the bottle go to waste. He knew his limit. Three glasses of wine barely fazed him.

The waiter brought the tea and the check. Ryan savored the last few minutes of peace, knowing the rest of the night was likely to be a nightmare. He knew Karl understood what was at stake and was pretty sure he'd go along with the faked death even knowing how much it would hurt his children. Ryan looked at his watch. Almost nine. He wondered how far along his people were by now. Had Karl been spirited away already? Where would they take him. Somewhere very safe – of that he was certain. Poor Kristen. This is going to be very hard on her. I wish it didn't have to be like this. I wish I didn't feel like this! Ryan didn't like being vulnerable.

They sat in a companionable silence while Kristen sipped her tea. It's like we've know each other for years, Kristen thought happily, drinking slowly, savoring the time together. But something's up. I know it. Ryan didn't just happen along and why was dad so easy going about my going out with him?

"So, mystery man," Kristen said as seductively as she knew how, "are you going to tell me what's up with my father?"

"What do you mean?" Ryan said tightly. I underestimated her, he realized.

"Come on. I wasn't born yesterday. I know about my father's work. You brought him something important. You didn't come out here to baby sit. Or did you?" Kristen was suddenly suspicious.

"I wouldn't exactly call this baby sitting." Ryan tried to side-step the issue. "Are you done with your tea? We should be getting back. I don't want your father to think I've abducted you." He put a few bills into the folder without really looking at the tab and started to stand.

"No. I'm not quite done yet," Kristen said stubbornly. "I want to know what's going on."

"There's nothing going on," Ryan lied. "Come on, kid, it's time to hit the road." He waved at the waiter who had been lurking close by and handed over the check. The waiter opened the folder and beamed when he saw his gratuity.

"Thank you, sir. I hope you enjoyed your meal. We'll look forward to reading your review. What paper did you say you were with?"


"I didn't say. You'll see the write-up soon," he lied. "Let's go Kristen," he urged his charge.

"Alright. I'm coming. But I'm serious. You're not a very good liar."

Ryan was nonplussed. He considered himself a masterful liar. What should I tell her? The truth? It would put her in danger. But on the other hand if she's suspicious now she probably won't buy the cover story anyway. He decided to throw caution to the wind.

"Let's take a walk," he suggested with a sigh.

Kristen knew she'd won the battle. She gave Ryan a sweet smile as she stood. "I knew I could trust you," she said.

"Let's hope the trust doesn't do more harm than good," Ryan replied cryptically as they exited the restaurant. They headed out across the dimly lit parking lot. There was a foot path along the side of Route 30 wide enough for two to walk abreast. Ryan set a fast pace. Kristen had to dance a bit to keep up with him. "You can't tell anyone what I'm about to tell you. Do you understand? And I shouldn't be telling you -- but you're so damn suspicious, you'd probably make a lot of trouble if I don't"

"You got that right."

Ryan told Kristen the whole story as they walked through the darkness along side of route 30. From time to time cars lit the pathway, then zoomed past to wherever they were going. The air was still but there was a bit of thunder off in the distance. A storm was brewing. It wouldn't hit for a while yet.

Kristen listened, shocked and dismayed, but a bit excited by what she was hearing. Ryan explained why it was necessary to stage Karl's death.

"Can I tell Ned and Lizzy?" she asked, feeling forlorn.

"No. It would put them in danger. It's bad enough that you know."

"Can I see him before…? Can I say goodbye?"

"No. It's probably already done. I can give him a message," Ryan offered.

"That'd be good. I think he'll feel better if he knows I know."

"I guess," Ryan said doubtfully. "Do you think you can handle your part in this play? I should be bringing you back about now to learn about the 'accident.'"

I guess. But what's going to happen to me?"

The plan had been to park her at the Phillip's for the time being. But under the circumstance now, he didn't think it would be a good idea. She'd have to play the mourning daughter role with everyone except Jim. That won't work. I'll have to come up with an alternative. "Don't worry. I'll take care of you."

"You weren't going to at first, were you?" Kristen asked.

"You're too smart for your own good," Ryan said with a sigh. "No. You were going to go the Phillips' for a few weeks until we settled you in college."

"College? I'm only sixteen. And I can't stay at the Phillips'. I'd have to mope around about dear departed dad."

"I know. That won't work. Same thing with your siblings. "But I may have an idea.

"Oh great. Just don't stick me in some orphanage. And how am I supposed to start college? I haven't even finished high school.

"We have a place for you in an accelerated program. In a school in Ohio. Antioch College."

"Never heard of it," she said grumpily. "And what if I don't want to go? Did you think about that?" Kristen asked angrily. "You had it all planned out. Jesus, don't you guys get tired of messing with people's lives?"

Ryan looked at Kristen helplessly. "I don't know what to say. We had a plan mapped out. I guess we didn't consider your feelings. We assumed you'd go along with it. What other choice do you have?"

"I could go to Hurst," Kristen said acidly. "I could ask him to sponsor me."

"No you wouldn't. We wouldn't let you anywhere near that son of a bitch."

"Why's he so bad and your group so good? I don't get it. You all sound alike. All of you, playing games with people's lives, plotting and planning a future. Who's to say which future is better? Maybe the Cabal and the company are right and you're wrong."

"You don't think that, do you? White supremacy? Domination of the planet? Is that what you want for the world?"

"No," Kristen said with a sigh. "It's just…. I don't know who to trust."

"You trust your father."

"Yeah, I guess."

"So, if when we get back to your house things are as I said they would be will you trust me?"

"Do I have any choice?"

"Yeah. When we get to your house you could jump off my bike and go to the police with my story. Or you could go to the press. It's in your hands now. Christ," Ryan said tiredly, "What a can of worms. I should never have told you."

"Oh no," Kristen was abashed, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I know I can trust you. You told me the truth. That's what's important."

"Okay," Ryan said, relieved. "So, are we going to do this?"

"Yeah. Lets do it."

They'd walked about a mile during their debate. Now they turned around and headed back towards the restaurant. They let the evening's silence fall on them like a cloak. Their earlier desire was spent during their argument. Now they basked in the afterglow. It was almost as if they had become lovers. They were a team. They both felt the change in the relationship.

On the way back to Paoli, Ryan drove fiercely, but with care. He didn't want them to become a roadside statistic. Especially not tonight. What am I going to do about Kristen? He had a sudden inspiration. Leslie! Yeah, that's a great idea. He turned the bike and headed into Paoli looking for a phone booth. He stopped at the Old Trail Tavern – the only place open at that hour. "Wait here," he instructed Kristen. I have to make a phone call.

Leslie was his step-sister. She lived in Germantown – a part of Philadelphia. It was perfect. He'd been out of touch with her for a while but their relationship was such that when they connected they simply picked up the thread of their friendship and moved on. She knew a bit about his occupation. She never asked for details.

He strode into the Tavern and found the phone booth. Please be home, he willed the telephone line. Pick up, Leslie. He was just about to give up when she picked up the phone on the eight ring.

"Leslie, hi. It's Ryan."

"Ryan?" Leslie's contralto voice came across clearly over the telephone line. "As in my long lost little step brother? Hey, how are you? Long time no hear."

"Yeah. Sorry about that. I got busy. How are you, sweetheart?"

"I'm fine. What's with the "sweetheart business" sweetheart?

"What do you mean?"

"Whenever you call me sweetheart you're after something."

"How do you do it, Leslie? You read me like a book" he said with a laugh.

"It's the witch in me," Leslie replied. She did love her errant step-brother. He was so full of adventure. They were both working for the same end by way of separate paths. She worked in the spiritual realm; his work was more down to earth. They worked well together when their paths crossed.

"Listen, I have a favor to ask of you. A big one."

"I'm listening," Leslie said with a smile in her voice.

"I have a sixteen year old girl in need of a safe harbor. For a few weeks. Until I can set her up in school. It's complicated," he said in a rush. He explained the situation. "I was hoping she could bunk in with you until I get things settled."

"Oh, Christ, Ryan, a kid? A teenager. I don't know. I'm not very good with kids."

"Sure you are. You were great with me."

"Yeah," Leslie conceded, "But you're my little brother. And we're not that far apart in age. Only eight years."

"She's a really nice, bright kid, old for her age and not short on talent."


"Yeah. It runs in her family. She's loosing her father tonight." He played on his sister's soft heart.

"I know. Poor kid," Leslie said reluctantly. "But couldn't she stay with her brother or sister?"

"I don't think that would be a good idea. She'd be too tempted to tell them that Karl's alive. Besides, with her talent... You'd be a great person to help her learn to channel it."

"That's true." Leslie brightened "Alright. You can bring her over. We'll meet. If we get along and she wants to stay, I'll put her up in one of the extra bedrooms. How long do you want me to keep her?"

"Until I get her enrolled in school. Six, maybe eight weeks. Maybe less. It depends on admissions at Antioch."

"Ah. So that's where you're sending her. Do you think she can handle it? She's pretty young."

"I think she can. She a surprising kid."

"You sound pretty attached to her. Are your intentions honorable?" Leslie teased.

"Yes. For now. But there's something special between me and Kristen. We both felt it."

Leslie was silent.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to rob the cradle. I'll just have to be patient. Wait for her to grow up a bit."

Leslie laughed. "You're willing to wait? You must be smitten. I can't wait to meet her. When can I expect you?"

"We have to stop off at her house to get a few things. Give us an hour, hour and a half. Thanks sis.

"De nada. I'll see you soon."

Ryan left the Tavern and rejoined Kristen pleased and relieved to have resolved the issue of Kristen's housing for the time being. He told Kristen about the plan.

"Your sister, huh? Does she look like you?"

"She's my step-sister.

"Were you're parent's divorced?"

"Yeah." Ryan said as he mounted his motor cycle. "Come on, climb aboard. We gotta get going. Leslie's waiting."

Kristen attached herself to Ryan's back, Ryan kick started the motor bike and pointed it towards the Hanson home. They weren't surprised to find it vacant when they arrived. They assumed things went as planned and Karl was safely in the Guardian's hands.

Kristen made her way to her room thinking how odd it was that she would never be coming back here to live. She felt a strong pang of sorrow. She'd had a great childhood here despite all the domestic problems. No more Christmas Eves, she realized. No more Swedish meatballs.

She thought about Christmases past as she sorted through her things. She found her stash of pot and hid it inside a pair of socks. She realized she could only take a small bag. It would be awkward riding the motorcycle with a suitcase on her lap.

She gave Ryan a wan smile when she saw him waiting for her at the foot of the steps. She ran her hand down the railing as she walked wondering how many times she'd slid down the banister as a child.

Germantown was a small urban community on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Ryan drove carefully en route down 202 North, and then picked up speed on the Schuchyll Expressway. Kristen tightened her grip on Ryan. She felt like she was being driven into midnight or nothing. It was completely dark out and the lights just zipped by. She pretended she was on a rocket ship heading to another galaxy. The lights were star systems flashing by. She felt so free! She refused to allow any worries or fears slip into the magic ride. She didn't think about her father being spirited away by secret agents or the loss of her family home. She was glad they'd stopped by the house. She would always carry the childhood vision of her white house surrounded by lawn and spring flowers. She wondered what Rita would think of this adventure. An adventure more real and terrifying than any she and her childhood friend had ever dreamed up on days gone by.

Ryan slowed the bike and eased off the expressway at the Germantown exit. He took the hills and turns of the city streets at a moderate pace. Leslie's house was in a neighborhood which had seen better days. She bought it for a song five years ago because it was said to be haunted. The house had been on the market for ten years, and was in sorry disrepair when she snatched it up. She nurtured it and restored it room by room and now it was quite livable. Leslie didn't mind the late night moans and groans. They added flavor. She was a little worried, however, about how her guest would take to the midnight visitors. Well maybe the girl wouldn't notice them. They didn't come out when Ryan visited.

Leslie turned the porch light on and made up the little room in the back of the second floor after she got off the phone with Ryan. The room was cozy and close to the bathroom. She had a feeling the girl would need something cozy. It's hard to loose a parent. Well, she hadn't exactly lost a parent, but she was losing everything familiar. Damn spy games. Rotten thing to put a kid through. Sixteen is such a rough age. Ryan sounded smitten by her. Well, he's not much older than she is. Not really. Although God knows he's been through more than most 24 year olds.

Kristen was more than ready to get off the bike by the time they pulled up in front of Leslie's house. She felt like she'd been riding a horse. Her legs were wobbly and she almost fell when she slid off the back of the motor cycle.

"Nice place," she said eyeing the big old grey elephant of a house. "Is this where you grew up?"

"No. Leslie bought it about five years ago. It was supposed to be haunted and no one seemed to want it. So she bought it cheap and renovated it. I haven't been here in a long time. I'm looking forward to seeing what she's done with it."

"Leslie's your step-sister."

"Uh huh."

"Mother's side or father?" Kristen wanted to know everything there was to know about Ryan.

"Fathers side," he said as they stepped onto the front porch.

"What'd he do? Leave her mother and marry yours?"

"Something like that. You're awfully inquisitive," Ryan said, not wanting to reveal a part of himself that still hurt when he let it. He opened the door and ushered her inside.

"Leslie, we're here," he called.

"I'm in the kitchen," Leslie called back from the far end of the house. "Come on in and make yourselves at home."

Ryan led the way down the long hall into the kitchen which was the heart of the house. It was smart of Leslie to greet them where there was warmth Ryan thought. It would put Kristen, who was probably tired and nervous and wired from the events of the evening, at ease.

Leslie stood up from the large oak table to greet her guests. She gave Ryan a big hug. "God it's good to see you. Where have you been keeping yourself?" she asked not expecting an answer. Then she turned her attention to Kristen. She stuck out her right hand. "Hi. I'm Leslie. And you're Kristen."

"Last time I checked," Kristen said. She took the proffered hand cautiously. She wanted to take her time getting to know Leslie. She didn't want to be rude but she didn't want to just plunge into friendly familiarity.

Leslie backed off. She sensed that Kristen was pretty close to overloaded. Well. She's been through a lot and there's more to come.

"Are you guys hungry? I could fix a late dinner," she suggested.

"No," Ryan said. "We just finished dinner about an hour and a half ago. It was pretty good, wasn't it, Kristen?"

"Yeah. Great. But we didn't get dessert."

"Do you like ice cream? I have some in the freezer."

"I'm not really in the mood."

Kristen was feeling grumpy. She wanted to make a scene. Ryan was dumping her here for God knows how long and she didn't bring enough clothes. She wondered what was going to happen to Felix and all of her things at home. She was worried about whether she could pull off pretending Karl was dead. All of a sudden she wanted to burst into tears but that would make her look like a baby. And the last thing she wanted was for Ryan to think she was a baby.

Somehow Ryan was attuned to Kristen. He looked over at her and saw her struggling with tears.

"You know," he said, "I'm pretty well tuckered out. Is it all right if I spend the night?" he asked his sister. "I know you have an extra room or two."

Kristen heaved a silent sigh of relief. She hadn't wanted to be dumped off here never to see Ryan again.

"Of course," Leslie said. "You're welcome here anytime. Stay as long as you want." She stretched her long body and faked a yawn. "I'm beat. Kristen, your room's the little one at the end of the hall on the second floor. It's next to the bathroom. Good night kids." I hope you know what you're getting into little brother, she thought to herself. Leslie left them to their own devices and headed up to bed.

Ryan looked at Kristen. So pretty and so young. And so sad. He ached for her. He reached out, meaning only to brush a stray lock of hair off her face. She took his hand and leaned into his arms with a sigh. "Ryan – Ryan. I want…."

"No," he said raggedly. It would be so easy. But it's not right. She's just a kid.

"I'm not a kid," Kristen said, seeing his hesitation and reading his thoughts. "I want this." She put his hand on her breast, and took a quick breath when she felt his cock begin to harden against her thigh.

Kristen took the initiative and kissed him. He melted into the kiss. Then his hands were everywhere. God, I want her so badly. But it's not right. She's too young. He tried to back off but Kristen pressed hard, using her innate talent of persuasion and he was lost.
"We shouldn't be doing this," Ryan whispered into her ear.

"Yes we should. It's alright. Come on." she urged. She had no experience and very little knowledge of what went on under the sheets. She was simply following her instincts and hormones. She pressed her knee against his erection. He pulled her dress up over her head. He was in a heated rush. Her skin was like silk, her mouth, hot, wet. He slipped his finger into her underpants and felt her wetness. It was impossible. He couldn't stop.

She cried out when he touched her clitoris. She started to come immediately. He slipped his thumb into her vagina while he played with her clit. He felt the little membrane break and realized he'd taken her womanhood. He pulled back, feeling guilty.

Kristen cried out. She felt a deep shaft of pleasure along with the stab of pain. "No. Don't stop. I want you."

"But you've never…."

"I don't care. You have to."

He picked her up in his arms and carried her upstairs to the room Leslie had prepared for her. "Are you sure? I'll stop if you want," he said as he set her down on the bed.

"Oh God, no. Don't stop. Please."

"Open your knees" he instructed.

She complied.

He bent his head to her mound, playing her clit with his tongue and gently opening her vagina. He wanted to make it good for her. He didn't want it to hurt.

She came again. It was time. He straddled her and pulled her legs up over his shoulders. Then, in one long hard stroke he entered her. She cried out with pleasure. "Yes, more, more, more," she called out as she came in a rush. He plunged into her sweet youth. It was ecstasy. He didn't hold out very long. He called out her name "Kristen!" and pulled out of her at the last second before he came. It was agony not to pour himself into her but he hadn't lost all reason. He didn't have a condom so it was the best he could do.

It was over all too soon. Kristen didn't want to move. Ever again. She wanted to stay like this forever. He felt, oh so good. It felt right. Nothing she'd read or imagined came close to this feeling of perfection with an emphasis on the purrr. She giggled. She felt like a contented cat. Her whole body was tingling with pleasure.

"Oh yes," she sighed. "Let's do it again." She wiggled and put her hand around his shaft. It thickened and hardened instantly.

"You're a witch," he whispered into her ear. He entered her slowly this time, and rocked back and forth, in and out. "I'm going to take my time with you now." He eased himself up on his elbows and looked Kristen in the eye. "You're so beautiful. I shouldn't be doing this. You're just a kid."

"Am I?" Kristen said. "I don't think so. Not any more. You made me a woman. Ah, that's good. Keep going," she urged him on with sighs and whispers. He picked up the pace. She moved under him like she'd known him forever. She felt the pressure of another orgasm building. She moved just so and exploded into fragments of light and he came thundering after her, but again, pulling out at the last second

"Ah, no!" Kristen sighed. "Why'd you do that?" she asked as he spurted onto her belly"

"You don't want any little surprises nine months from now, do you?"

"Ohhh. No. I didn't think…."

He kissed her nose. "You're so innocent," he marveled.

That's magic Kristen thought. Pure and simple magic.

They lay together spent.

Ryan waited for his conscience to kick in with recriminations. What they'd done just seemed so right. But now what? he wondered. He lay on his side with Kristen snuggled up next to him and he felt like he'd found a piece of heaven. What am I going to do about this? he thought desperately. She's just a kid. I can't run off and marry her. Or can I? Karl'll hang me out to dry if he finds out about this. But, God damn it, I'm not going to leave Kristen in the lurch.

Kristen was sound asleep. She's so cute, Ryan thought. Like a little kitten. He eased himself out from her embrace and sat up. He looked around the room. Clothes were everywhere. I'd better straighten things up here and head to my bedroom. Leslie will skewer me.

Ryan slipped off the bed and dressed before leaving the room. He had a lot of thinking to do. He decided to find a drink and a quiet spot to consider his dilemma. He could move like a shadow when he wanted to. It was part of his training. He made his way downstairs to the library. He was surprised by the strength of his feelings for Kristen.

Ryan found Leslie's bar and poured himself a double scotch.

He didn't bother with ice. Kristen wasn't part of 'their' plan. He sipped his drink angrily as he let his mind ponder his problem. Damn the plan, he thought angrily. It's the plots and counter plots, the intrigue and mystery -- the smoke and mirrors that get us into all this mess.

'Politics' is the dirty word that got by the censor, he thought angrily. I should just grab her, drive down to whatever state will allow it, and marry her. But would that be fair to her? She's got a whole life ahead of her. She's going to college in a few weeks. She deserves better than a fly by night agent who'd never be home at five o'clock for dinner. She's got to have a chance to meet some normal guys who can give her the house and the kids and the car and the cat. I can't just swoop in and take her away. Even if that's what she thinks she wants. She has to have a chance for a normal life.

But I'm not going to disappear on her. I'll just keep on with my work – wherever it may take me – and check in on her from time to time. Antioch's a good place for her. She'll have a chance to study and meet some guys. He hated the thought of Kristen meeting other men. But she's not my property, sport. And I've got a lot of jobs coming up.

Ryan's glass was empty. He didn't remember drinking the double shot. He didn't feel any effect from the liquor. He poured another double. Damned if I'm going to get any sleep tonight. He sat and thought until the sky began to lighten. Then he crawled off towards his bedroom. He realized he was drunk when he was passing the bathroom. You're going to hurt later if you don't do something, he told himself. So he made a pit stop. He found some aspirin in the medicine cabinet and swallowed four pills with about a half gallon of water. The best defense is a good offense he told himself, having suffered several hangovers in the past. He found his way to his bedroom and sacked out without even taking off his clothes.

Leslie was a morning person. She was awake and heard Ryan stumbling around before he crashed. I wonder what's on his mind she thought as she yawned and stretched, getting ready for the new day. I bet it's about Kristen. She's a nice kid. A bit young. I hope he doesn't get himself into trouble.

Leslie had an internal trouble gauge. Whenever trouble was on the way her feet started to hurt. So far her feet were fine. Maybe I worry too much.

Leslie was very fond of her step brother. She was eight years older than him and felt as maternal towards him as she would ever feel towards anyone. She knew kids weren't in the picture for her. Not this time around. So I play Mother Goose for Kristen and Ryan. That's not such a bad role. She wasn't aware of what had happened between Ryan and Kristen after she went to bed last night.

Leslie did her gardening in the early morning hours. She was up and around long before most "normal" people. On spring days like today she would take her tea out to the back porch to watch the sun rise. She loved the dark, quiet moments right before the sun started to lighten the sky when the world paused before ushering in the morning. Then there's a slight glow as the world spins. A line of light appears.

She could tell what kind of day it will be by the tone of the line on the morning horizon. That's where she attained her magic. She could feel the pull of the earth and the energy of the sun as she sat gathering herself for the new day.

So Mother Earth, she thought to herself, what have you got in store for me today? It was a beautiful morning. She loved June. Everything seemed to be on balance in June. The trees were at their greenest, the grass grew riotously free. The roses were at their peak. Bees were seduced by honeysuckle and ants camped out inside peonies. The floral scent in the air was a narcotic.

That's why Leslie bought the house. The ghosts could come and go as they pleased. She didn't mind them at all. But the garden in her back yard was her lover, her friend, her wellspring. She couldn't remember a time when her hands didn't ache to plunge into sod or dirt or sand or whatever soil was under foot. It had driven her mother crazy and driven her father away. Leslie hadn't known or really cared when she was a child. She just had to have her hand, her feet, her soul in the earth.

And then there was Ryan. Leslie was thirteen and he was five when they met. Her mother, Lucy, had bounced around from bed to bed after Leslie's father left, until she took up with Ryan's father. Then she dug her heels in. She realized she wasn't getting any younger and her teenage daughter would soon out shine her. She grabbed what she could and hung on for dear life.

Ryan's father was a cold man. Leslie could never figure out why he hooked up with Lucy. Maybe it was because she was so bright and shiny, like a copper penny. He acquired her. They dressed up and went out a lot. But he treated her badly when no one was around. Leslie figured he thought she'd be a good mother for Ryan. Poor little Ryan didn't have an available mother or a father. Leslie was captivated by him. He was such a good little boy. And beautiful. Not handsome – beautiful. His skin had a golden glow. His hair was the color of melted butter. He had solemn, deep sapphire eyes that never cried and seemed to see everything.

Ryan was a watcher. He watched everything with his huge, blue eyes. Measuring. Never judging. Just watching. It was like he was waiting for something. Or someone.

Leslie took Ryan under her wing and became the mother he was lacking. She read stories to him at bedtime and taught him the alphabet so he wouldn't appear stupid when school started. He took to reading like a fish to water. When he started kindergarten it was Leslie who packed his lunch and took him by the hand to school to make sure he got to the right class. The adults were too busy with whatever it was they were doing to pay attention to their children. So Leslie became mother to Ryan. They formed a bond that lasted several lifetimes.

So what's up with Ryan now? Leslie wondered as she sipped her tea. This girl, Kristen. She struggled with some jealousy but was able to set it aside. I should have used loose tea. I need a reading on this. Maybe the Tarot.

Leslie went inside to get her Tarot deck and returned to the porch. Let's see. Who is Kristen?

She cut the deck three times and pulled a card out at random. Leo. Sun. Strength. Well, that's auspicious.

Inner light and inner worth. What's her crossing card? Wand 3. Ambitious and adventurous disposition. Fierce anger. Hmm. She continued dealing the cards in her own arrangement and was well satisfied with the ultimate result. Strong, independent, well balanced with psi talent. She's a witch! Leslie concluded with delight. And she doesn't know it. I wonder what her talents are. This is going to be an interesting summer.

The witch with the Halloween connotations isn't what Leslie meant. Sorceress, enchantress, medicine woman…, whatever was more accurate. Most people deny that basic telepathic talents exist. But there they are, just when you least expect them.

And, as if by magic, when Leslie looked up from her musings, there, standing in the doorway entrance was Kristen, tousled and sleepy eyed, but glowing with youthful vigor. Leslie looked at her more closely. No, Leslie concluded quickly, Kristen was glowing much more sensually than she had the night before. Last night she'd been innocent. This morning she was a woman, well satisfied.

Well I'll be blessed, Ryan. She didn't quite know how to handle her sudden insight, Or what to think. She's an enchantress alright. I'll bet she had as much to do with it as he did. And right under my sleepy little nose. Well, what's done is done. They're both basically horny kids. If I know Ryan he made it good for her.

So that's why he was grumbling around so early. I'll bet he's doubled over with recriminations. What a dilemma! But this isn't just lust. At least from Ryan's side. Last night he said he'd wait for her to grow up a while. So much for that idea. I wonder what happened? Well, at least he's thinking about the future. Good. I hope she feels the same.

Leslie's musings took about 30 seconds. There was just enough of a pause from the time she noticed Kristen in the doorway to the time she managed to give a bright morning greeting for Kristen to realize the reason for the delayed reaction in Leslie's greeting.

"Good morning Kristen., Leslie said. Do you like tea or coffee?"

She knows Kristen thought. But how? Oh God, maybe I smell like sex. Or like Ryan. She didn't know there was a different aura about her this morning - at least to those who, like Leslie, see auras.

"Tea, please. What are those cards? They're lovely."

Leslie gave Kristen a smile. "These are Tarot cards. They're used sometimes by fortune tellers."

"Are you a fortune teller?" Kristen said dubiously.

"Sometimes. You've never seen a deck? Sit down. I'll show you." Leslie was tempted to sweep up the cards to conceal that the reading before her concerned Kristen. No. I want our relationship to start out with truthfulness and candor. I've got a lot to teach her and not much time. Leslie wasn't sure why she felt such urgency. Ryan said she'd be here for six to eight weeks. After that, college. I've got to ask Ryan if she's in any immediate danger.

Kristen sat down across from Leslie and looked at the layout more carefully. She had another intuitive flash and blurted out without thinking, "this is about me, isn't it? Is that how you knew…." She stopped and blushed at what she'd just revealed.

Lord, she's quick, Leslie thought. She smiled, feeling a little guilty. "Yes to your first question. No to the second."

"Then how…."

"You look different to me this morning. There's a certain glow about you. I could tell what happened between you and Ryan last night the minute I looked at you. It's a kind of gift I have. That and fortune telling."

They both laughed. And a friendship based on mutual respect was born.

"You don't—disapprove? Kristen said surprised. I mean, I'm sixteen and he's …. How old is he?"

"24," Leslie said."

"Oh," Kristen said relieved. "He's not that old." But she really didn't care how old he was. "There's a lot I don't know about him. Not yet anyway. He didn't take advantage of me. Actually," she laughed, " it was kind of the other way around.'

Leslie joined in the laugher. Kristen was so refreshing in her honesty. "Ryan may not be feeling very well when he wakes up. I heard him stumble to bed around six a.m. I think he had a few drinks under his belt."

"Really? Why?"

"I guess he had a lot to think about."

"You don't think he's sorry we…, you know." Kristen asked worriedly.

"Well, not sorry exactly. I know he cares for you. It's just that you're so young. He's probably knocking himself about for seducing you."

"But that's silly. I seduced him. He wanted to stop, but I…."

"Yes. But Ryan has a code of honor. It's very much a part of who he is and what he does. 'Taking advantage' of a sixteen year old girl in his care might give him some pangs of conscience," Leslie explained, thinking she's such a babe in the woods.

"But that's not what happened," Kristen said vehemently.

Leslie sighed. "I know. I'm just trying to help you get inside Ryan's head in case he acts strange when he gets up. Morning afters can be awkward. We're going to have to help Ryan through this if you want things to work out between you."

"What can I do?" Kristen was almost in tears. "I don't want anything to ruin this. It's so… perfect. I've never felt like this. Not even about Paul McCartney."

"Paul who?" Leslie asked.

"You know. The Beatles."

"Oh," Leslie said mystified. She liked the Beatles okay but couldn't understand the hero worship puppy love that had infected an entire population of pubescent girls. "Well. You're pretty empathic."

"What's that mean?" Kristen said, puzzled.

"You sense other's feelings"

Kristen was amazed. "How'd you know that? Did you read it in the cards?"

"Yes. And I'm also empathic. Empathy's essential to good fortune telling,"

"You mean it's not all in the stars or the tea leaves or what ever?"

"No. You can tell a lot about a person if you're an empath. It'll help you with Ryan if you trust your senses and be open with Ryan about your own feelings. You and he should be able to get through this. Don't let Ryan substitute his judgment for yours. His is less likely to be sound than yours right now. He hasn't had the advantage of my sage wisdom." Leslie laughed. "At least not yet. He's likely to give you the 'you have the right to a normal life with a normal family' routine. And to an extent he's right. You're still a teenager."

"But that's not what I want. I want to be with him. I don't want to get stashed away at some stuffy college to waste four years of my life."

"Kristen," Leslie warned. "You're going to have to be patient. Your father planned to send you to college, didn't' he?"

"Yes, but…."

"You need to get an education. And you need a permanent home."

"College isn't a home," Kristen said sullenly.

"I know. But it's the best option. You can't stay here. I wish you could. But there's the matter of your safety. We want you as far away from the Company and the Cabal as possible."

"Why can't I stay with Ryan?"

"That would hardly be conventional." Besides, Ryan's work sends him all over the world. He doesn't know from one week to the next where he's going to be. He's committed to his cause and I doubt if he's ready to settle down. He's still very young too, you know?"

As the morning wore on the two women talked at length about Kristen's future and her relationship with Ryan. They day was warming up so around noon they adjourned to the porch with sandwiches and lemonade and continued their discussion. Leslie told Kristen about Ryan's childhood and about the school they wanted to send her to. By mid-afternoon Kristen was convinced of the rationality of the plan for her to go to college and was even beginning to be a little excited at the prospect.

They were talking about slipping out to go clothes shopping for Kristen when Ryan made his appearance.


Ryan had fallen into a deep sleep the minute his head hit the pillow. He dreamed he and Kristen were on the run from…what? He woke in a cold sweat. Damn, I wish I could remember. His mouth tasted like a train wreck but he had managed to avoid the worst of a hangover. He'd expected to awaken with his conscience hurting like a sore tooth but instead had an unexpected feeling of well-being. I ought to feel guilty. The heck with it. I'm not sorry it happened. He yawned and stretched, and then looked at the clock. 2:30! Amazing. I hardly ever sleep this long uninterrupted. Just goes to show what good sex can do, he thought happily. What a minx that girl is. He became aroused again just thinking about her. His stomach rumbled. Worked up a heck of an appetite, too.

Ryan took a quick shower and shaved before making his way downstairs. As he walked through the living room he heard happy chatter coming from the porch. Good, he thought, they're getting along well. That'll make things easier. While he was in the shower he'd decided to talk to Kristen about having a normal teenage life. He hoped things wouldn't get awkward with her.
He smiled as he walked out onto the porch. "Got any food for the battle weary?" he asked.

The two women stopped talking and grinned sheepishly. Kristen jumped up, tipping over her glass of lemonade in her haste to greet Ryan. She walked over to him and kissed him on the lips.

Ryan was startled. "That was a guilty kiss. What were the two of you talking about, or need I ask?"

Kristen blushed crimson.

"You, of course," Leslie said with a smile. "Did you have a good sleep? You earned it," she said cryptically.

"You told her," Ryan accused Kristen, not knowing how to react.

"I didn't," Kristen responded. She could tell just by looking at me. I'm not a very good actress." She sounded young and nervous. Leslie was right. This is going to be awkward.

Ryan groaned inwardly. Leslie's going to have my hide later. But the thought didn't stop his heart from leaping at the sound of Kristen's voice. They looked into eachother's eyes.

Yes, the magic is still there they both thought relieved.

Leslie cleared her throat. "Sorry to interrupt this tender moment. You said you're hungry."

"I'm starved." He gave Kristen a heated glance. Kristen picked up the vibe and grinned.

How 'bout I fix you some lunch while the two of you talk?"

Ever the diplomat Ryan thought.

"That'd be great. Is there anymore lemonade? I'm dry as a desert."

"I wonder why," Leslie said archly. "I heard you stumble into bed at about six. Did you sleep well?

"Like a baby."

"That's good. "The lemonade's in the fridge. I'll bring you some. How does hamburger and a salad sound for lunch?"

"Great. But I don't want you to go to the trouble of cooking. I could just forage in the refrigerator, Ryan demurred.

"It's no trouble."

"Well, in that case, make it two burgers," Ryan said.

"Okay," Leslie said. "What do you want on them?"

"What have you got?"

"Oh, your basic – cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, relish…."

"Leave out the kitchen sink. I'll take everything else," Ryan said laughing. "Meanwhile, I've got to check in. Can I borrow your phone?"

"Sure. It's in the foyer."


Ryan was anxious to hear how things went last night. He wondered what sort of 'accident' they'd staged for Karl and when the news of his 'death' would come out. He dialed Jim Phillip's number at work.

Jim picked up on the first ring. He'd been pacing his office all day. Karl never made the call last night and was missing. So was Kristen. When Karl didn't show up at work Jim had looked for his research. It also was missing. He was relieved to hear Ryan's voice. "Ryan. Hi. What's going on? Is Karl with you/"

Ryan was perplexed. "What do you mean? I was just checking in to see how things went last night."

"Last night? Nothing happened last night. Karl never made the call. And now he and Kristen are missing."

Ryan was still a little dopy from sleep. It took him a minute to grasp what Jim was saying. "Kristen's not missing. She's with me at Leslie's. Sorry I didn't call last night. It slipped my mind. When and how is Karl's 'death' coming off?"

Jim was frustrated and angry. "You're not listening. We don't have Karl. He never called and he wasn't at home when they checked. He didn't show up for work. And his work is missing so that means he was here last night. I was hoping you'd know where he is. Thought maybe there was a change of plan and he was with you." He paused. "What's Kristen doing with you if you don't have Karl?"

Ryan was stunned. "Christ! Karl's missing? And his work? How'd that happen?"

"I don't know. I thought you were handling the matter."

"I was. But I took Kristen out to dinner. Karl needed some time to think things over. I didn't want to push him too hard and I wanted to divert Kristen. But she figured something was up and badgered me into telling her about the plan to fake Karl's death. So we decided it would be better for her to stay with Leslie for a while. Safer all around. Karl was gone when we stopped off to pick up some clothes and we assumed he was picked up. Hellfire. This is not good. Karl's out in the cold. He must have decided he didn't trust any of us." A grimmer possibility filtered into Ryan's mind. "Oh Christ. You don't think Max or someone from the Company….?"

"It's a possibility," Jim said grimly. "Damn it. How did this happen?"

"I'm sorry," Ryan said feeling guilty. His attraction to Kristen had clouded his judgment he decided. He should have stayed at the house while Karl read the Cabal material. "I knew he had reservations. He wanted to be left alone while he read the material. I never dreamed he'd take off. If that's what happened."

"We've got to find him. If they get him and his work…."

"Yeah," Ryan said heavily. "Look. I'm gonna talk to Kristen. Maybe she'll have an idea of where he would go if he wanted to disappear."

"What is it with you and Kristen? You're not…. She's just a kid. Keep your hands off of her. Do you hear me?"

Too late for that, Ryan thought ruefully. God, what a mess! Ryan dodged Jim's question. "Is there any way we can find out if the Cabal or the Company have Karl?"

"The Company doesn't have him," Jim said with exasperation in his voice. "I'd have heard by now if they did."

"So that leaves the Cabal or cold feet. Was his car at his house?"

"No. And it looks like he packed a bag. But that doesn't mean anything. They could have done that to throw us off track. God damn it. We should have been prepared for this."

"Let me go talk to Kristen. I'll call you back."

He placed the receiver into its cradle and started to go to the porch but stopped in mid-stride. He decided he needed a minute to collect his thoughts. What to do? he mused. What was I thinking? Christ, what a mess.

After he collected his thoughts he headed for the porch. Kristen and Leslie's animated chatter wafted through the hallway as he walked. They turned when the floor creaked as Ryan walked through the doorway.

They looked at him expectantly. He cleared his throat.

"Kristen, we need to talk."

Uh oh. Those were four of Kristen's least favorite words. They almost always spelled trouble. She hid her concern behind her smile. "Okay. What about?" Her heart was in her throat.

"Do you want me to leave?" Leslie asked diplomatically, assuming it was about their relationship.

Ryan hesitated, then nodded. He'd already told her too much he decided. It's not that I don't trust her. But she's better off if she knows as little as possible.

Leslie stood. She looked at Kristen. "I'll be in the garden if you need me."

Kristen smiled gamely. "Thanks."

When Leslie left if was like the sun went behind a cloud. Kristen shivered inwardly. I wonder what's wrong?

"What's wrong Ryan? If it's about last night…."

Ryan cut her off, not wanting to muddy the waters. "We'll have to talk about that later. There's a problem. It seems you father's missing. And so's his research."

"Missing?" Kristen was confused. That was the last thing she expected to have been on the agenda for this afternoon's conversation. "I don't understand."

"Neither does anyone else. He never called my team last night. They assumed there'd been a change in plan and that you guys were with me. But when they went by your place late last night his car was gone. He never showed up at work."

Cold fear gripped Kristen. "Oh God, something's happened to him."

"That or he decided he didn't trust anyone."

"That'd be just like him," Kristen said, somewhat relieved. "I'll bet he's hiding out until he decides what to do.

"Do you have any idea where he might be?" Ryan asked.

Kristen paused before answering. How well do I really know this man? Sure, we hit it off to say the least. And he had that letter from Dad, but what if it was coerced? All of a sudden she was very frightened. She hadn't even waited for her father to come home before running off with Ryan. What if it was all a bunch of lies?

Ryan could tell what was running through Kristen's mind by the look on her face. "I'd better let you talk to Mr. Phillips before you answer that. Okay."

Kristen was vastly relieved. "Yeah. I'd like that."

They made the call. Kristen talked with Jim at length. Neither one of them had much of an idea where Karl might be. They decided to stick with the original plan of having Kristen stay with Leslie for the time being. The Company was going to go ballistic when it realized Karl was gone and if the Cabal didn't have him they, too, would be looking for him -- and for Kristen as well for leverage. Jim would clue Kristen's siblings in on the QT as to what happened. He wasn't sure yet whether to hide them or leave them where they were. So many decisions to make and so little time! When they finished talking he asked to speak with Ryan.

Kristen turned over the phone. Ryan waited expectantly for Kristen to leave the room. Kristen didn't go. Ryan said "do me a favor and get me a cup of tea."

"Okay," Kristen said reluctantly, wanting to hear what Ryan and Jim talked about.

"Thanks," he said, and paused, waiting until she was out of the room to talk to Jim.

So that's how he's going to play it, Kristen thought angrily Cover himself with a cloak of responsible adult versus kid as if last night didn't happen. Well he's not going to get away with it. She fumed as she put the pot on to boil.

Leslie was in the garden, wondering what going on. She figured it couldn't be good the way Kristen was clattering around in the kitchen. She though about going in to see if she could help but decided to let the pair try to sort things out themselves.

Ryan was finishing his conversation with Jim when Kristen returned with the tea. She'd made a cup for herself. She figured this was as good a time as any to get things out in the open.

"Ryan, about last night…." She hesitated, remembering what she and Leslie had discussed earlier. This wasn't going to be easy.

"Kristen," Ryan sighed, "as wonderful as it was, it shouldn't have happened. I shouldn't have let it happen."

"That's crap and you know it," Kristen spat out. "You didn't let it happen. It was meant to happen. And if you recall, I forced the issue. I'm not a kid."

"You're sixteen years old. Underage. I could get in a lot of trouble for what I did," Ryan said trying to make Kristen see reason.

"What we did - together. It was mutual. And you're only 24. Eight years older than me. Don't act like you're forty."

"You've been talking to Leslie."

"That's right. And she made a heck of a lot more sense than you're making right now. You can't pretend it didn't happen. Or were you lying about your feelings for me?" Kristen said accusingly.

"No. Of course not. It's just… you have the right to your childhood."

"My childhood!" Kristen laughed bitterly. "I think my childhood ended yesterday when you walked in the door. My father's gone. I can't go home. You're the best thing that ever happened to me but you want to deny what's between us. You want to put me into a little mental box marked mistake and forget about me. Well I'm not going to let you away with it."

"That's not true," Ryan said heatedly.

"You're going to send me away to Ohio where you won't even have to think about me."

"That's not why…" Ryan began.

Kristen cut him off. She knew she was being capricious but didn't care. She knew school was the right answer for her once things settled down a bit. But Ryan's regrets and hand's off attitude hurt and she was going to make him pay for it.

"Sure it is. I'm not 'convenient.' You have your life and I don't fit in. Case closed."

Ryan placed his hands on Kristen's shoulders. She tried to shrug him off but he wouldn't let go. He made her look at him. "I'm not trying to 'get rid of you' Kristen," he said seriously. "I swear. Last night was … well I hope it was the beginning of something very special. But I can't do my job if I have to worry about your safety. So we're going to change your name and spirit you away for a while. To Antioch in Ohio. It's a great place. You'll like it and you'll meet a lot of interesting people close to your age."

"You mean boys," Kristen said sullenly.

"Boys, girls, gorillas, whatever. You deserve a normal adolescence."

"That's what you think I am – a horny adolescent." Kristen needed to vent her anger.

"You are an adolescent. That's a fact not an insult."

You didn't think of me as an adolescent last night," Kristen pointed out.

"I should have," Ryan retorted. "I had no business taking advantage of you like that."

"Go to hell," Kristen replied furiously, holding back tears. "You didn't take advantage of me. I started it, remember?"

"And I should have stopped it," Ryan said heavily.

"So it's going to be like that is it? Leslie warned me. You – you're a coward," she said accusingly, then burst into tears and ran from the porch.

"Kristen wait," Ryan called after her. "I didn't mean…."

But Kristen was already out of earshot.

Smooth work, ace, Ryan chastised himself. You alienated her and now she won't talk to me much less tell me where her dad might be. He cursed himself for an idiot. I don't understand teenagers. He stopped himself with a rueful laugh. Christ. I sound like I'm 48 not 24. When did I become such a stick in the mud? He tried to remember what it was like to be sixteen. It seemed like a thousand years ago. So much had happened in such a short time. The world was changing – spinning faster and faster. He wished he could take Kristen and jump off – or a least go to some place away from the intrigue , danger and corruption he faced every day. No. He wished he was going off to college with her. They would fall in love the right way.

Fall in love? That brought him up short. Is it possible I'm falling in love with a girl I've known less than 24 hours? God, it's so complicated, he sighed.


Kristen had wanted to run straight to Leslie but something held her back. I just met her last night. Sure, she's great, but she's his sister. I know where her allegiance lies. Suddenly Kristen longed for the simpler days when she and Rita went on make-believe adventures and had perfect romances with knights on white horses.

I thought he was my knight. Boy was I wrong. She started to discount all the good energy between them.

Kristen stood in the hallway for a minute trying to decide what to do. Her pride wouldn't let her go to Leslie. I wish Lizzy was here. She'd know what to do. Kristen had spent a good part of her adolescence so far watching in awe as Lizzy spun a web of charm around most of her male classmates. I just don't have that' kind of magic she thought sadly, little knowing the havoc she'd wrecked on Ryan's heart.

Kristen had her own natural charm but not Lizzy's ebullient charisma. In many ways Lizzy and Kristen were two sides of a coin. Kristen was an empath of high order. Lizzy was enchanting. She gathered friends like moths to light and filled them full of Lizzy, Lizzy, Lizzy until no one else was interesting.

Lizzy didn't use her charm maliciously. At least not very often. She wasn't even aware of what she was doing most of the time. Lizzy was like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very, very good. And so on. Lizzy had been a pretty good surrogate mother for Kristen much of the time. She could be loving and generous. Kristen remembered the times when they were very small that they would make up stories after lights out. Lizzy had a way of dispelling Kristen's fears and turning her tears into giggles under the covers.

I miss her, Kristen realized. And Rita. She wondered when she would see them again. What will Rita think when she realizes I've disappeared? Rita and Kristen had grown apart over the past couple of years. But a friendship like theirs was forever. Will she try to find me? I should call her – just to let her know I'm safe.

Kristen slipped into the living room and peered into the kitchen. Leslie was nowhere in sight. The telephone beckoned. Kristen picked up the receiver and dialed Rita's number. Luck was with her. Rita answered.

"Hi. It's Kristen," she whispered into the phone.

"Kristen! Where are you? People have been asking questions about you and your dad," Rita said excitedly.

"I can't tell you but I'm safe. It's an adventure, she said using their code word."

"When are you coming home?"

"Not for a while. But I'll be in touch. Don't tell anyone you've heard from me. It's important."

"It goes back to Max and your mom, doesn't it?" Rita was quick on the uptake.

"Yeah. I got to go. But Rita, I met him."

"Him who?" Rita said, puzzled.

"My knight," Kristen replied cryptically. "Gotta go."

"Lucky dog," Rita said as she hung up.

Kristen felt a little better. She decided to go bend Leslie's ear.


The Company was furious when Karl disappeared. Fortunately Karl made a clean break and Jim wasn't implicated. His position with the Company was safe, or so he thought. He was worried sick about Karl. At least I know Kristen's safe. But where the hell is Karl? He put out tentative feelers with the only source he had in the Cabal and waited.

Two days passed and all he got from his connection was silence. If the Cabal had Karl they were keeping it close to the vest, which worried Jim. It meant they were afraid of a leak. Jim began to think his days as an agent were numbered. All he could think about was how Wanda and the kids would take it if he disappeared or had a fatal accident. It was time to get out he decided. There wasn't much keeping him in now that Karl was missing.

Jim contacted Ryan to let him know he wasn't as secure as he ought to be and was pulling out. Then he put in for some vacation time he had coming. He figured he ought to be able to make some new connections in the three weeks he had coming to him. No one would think it odd for him to take his family on a trip in June. Everyone took vacation in June. He hated to admit it but he was scared stiff.

His leave was granted a week after Karl disappeared. Jim was packing up his office the Friday before his vacation was to begin when a shadow fell across his desk. He looked up. Dave Hurst was standing in the doorway of his office.

Jim tensed.

"Heard you're takin' a vacation," Hurst said. His pale blue eyes were cold.

"Yeah," Jim said lamely. "Summertime, you know, the wife and kids have been hankering for a real holiday for a long time."

"With you going and Karl gone off…, I don't suppose you know where old Karl's got to do you?"

Jim shrugged. "Strange, isn't it. Guess he got a wild hair or something. Well…., you know those genius types can be kind of peculiar. They get an idea and poof – off they go. He didn't say anything to me before he left."

"You sure of that? Funny, huh? And his little girl's gone too. How old's she, 14? 15?"


"Up and disappeared, like they was abducted by aliens or something. Or maybe an angel from heaven," Hurst said meaningfully.

Uh oh. What does he know? Jim thought worriedly. He tried to look as relaxed as possible. He laughed. "You've been reading some science fiction. 'smore likely he just decided to go walkabout."

"That wouldn't be very responsible of him. And Karl always struck me as pretty responsible. We invested a lot in that boy. I'd hate to think that he's come to some harm. I think maybe you and I should spend some time, put our heads together and figure out where Karl's got to."

Jim kept a gun his bottom desk drawer. Locked, of course. Lot of fucking good it's gonna do me tonight, he thought disgustedly. "I'd like to be of help, but I'm out of ideas." He looked at his watch. "I've got to go. Wanda and I have plans for the evening. He stood up and put his jacket on.
"No. I'm afraid you're going to have to change your plans," Hurst said. "Maybe you should call home. Tell the missus you've got urgent business her at the office."

"Why would I want to do that?" Jim asked coldly. He calmly unlocked his desk drawer, reached in for his gun….

Hurst was a step ahead of him. In a flash he had his own weapon out and pointed at Jim's chest. "Take you hand out of the drawer, real slowly, and step away from your desk," he ordered.

Jim complied. "What's this all about, Dave? You gone nuts or something?" He smiled his most winning smile. "You don't need to pull a gun on me. If you want to talk about Karl, we'll talk about Karl. Give me an idea of how long we're going to be so I can tell my wife."

"Oh, it's gonna be a while." Hurst said. We're gonna take a little trip."

"Why would we want to do that?"

"Something my secretary, Kelly, said…."

"What do you mean?" Jim asked harshly.

"Secretaries are the soul of organization. They see things…, hear things. Sometimes they know more than they realize. Something she said made me realize how peculiar it was that Karl went missing. Just when the Company was planning to transfer him. We had another project for him. Damn. You sure had me fooled all these years. It's no wonder Karl's work somehow didn't add up. It was good, but not as good as it should have been. You've been altering it. Slowing it down. Maybe passing the originals over to your friends."

"What?" Jim laughed hollowly. "You think I'm working for the Cabal? You know how I feel about those….

"Don't play me for a fool," boy. I've been in this game longer than you can imagine. You're good. I have to give you credit. But you made a big mistake when you grabbed Karl. We need him and you're going to get him for us."

Jim laughed harshly, "I don't know what you think you know. But I don't have Karl. That I can guarantee you."

"You helped him disappear." Hurst had come to this conclusion after long and careful consideration of the facts available to him. "He didn't just walk off the job and into never never land. Not without help and a damn good reason.

"He had a reason alright. The Cabal was about to snatch him and Kristen. He found out and took off on his own.

"That's a load of crap. You did some double dealing. I don't know how you accomplished it but they're both gone. I want to know where."

"What makes you think I'd tell you if I knew, which I don't?" Jim said calmly. His mind was racing even as he spoke. Only his hands betrayed his nervousness. He'd picked up a ball point pen which he click, clicked every two seconds. He looked at the clock on his wall as he played with the pen and pondered his options."

"Oh you'll tell me what you know. First," Hurst said handing the telephone receiver to Jim, "you'd better talk to your wife. I'm sure she's anxious to hear from you."

"You bastard. What do you mean? You have a team down at my house? Fuck you!" Jim dialed his home number. Wanda picked up on the first ring.

"Wanda," Jim asked, "are you alright?"

"Yeah, I'm okay," Wanda said with a calmness she didn't feel. "But there's this guy here with a gun. He won't tell me what he wants. He just says it's a business matter that should be resolved quickly. What's going on? Are you in trouble at work?"

"You could say that."

Wanda could hear the stress in Jim's voice. For a horrible moment Wanda thought maybe Jim was into the mob for something but she quickly discarded that idea. The man in her house was too stiff and business like to be a mobster she decided. If it waddles and quacks like an agent it's probably an agent.

One of the many things Jim loved about Wanda was her level head. That and the fact they could almost read eachother's minds. Jim didn't know where Karl was but he had a pretty good idea where he himself would be if he were in Karl's shoes. Jim didn't want to divulge even that much information. As for Kristen – he knew who she was staying with. He didn't want that information in Hurst's hands. And if Hurst knows I'm a Guardian he's gonna wring me out to dry for information about the group. He had to warn Ryan somehow. He knew he couldn't hold out under questioning if Wanda or any of the kids were endangered. What a fucking pickle! God damn it, it's foul play to bring families into this mess. Hurst is a true bastard.

"Everything's okay, honey. The man's right. It's a simple matter. Don't worry. Hell, relax have a rock and rye and maybe call your mother. She wasn't feeling well the other night." There. I hope she got the message.

It took Wanda a second to catch on. She hated rye whisky. Rock and rye? Rye? Ryan! He wants me to call Ryan. Do I have his number? It must be around somewhere.

"I think I will have a drink," Wanda replied. "Rye's my favorite. Is the bottle in the library?"

Good girl! Jim though, relieved. "Yeah. You know, the usual place. I may be a little late getting home. I think there's a Mickey Rooney movie on tonight. Maybe you and your visitor would enjoy it. I'd better go. I love you."

Wanda was puzzled by the last remark. Their TV was on the blink. Jim knew it. He'd been tinkering around with it all day Sunday. Mickey Rooney? What does that have to do with anything?

Wanda decided to see how much freedom she had. She stretched her arms and then stood up from the easy chair next to the phone where she'd been sitting for over an hour since her "visitor" arrived. "If you don't mind, I have some housework to do," she told her guard. "Why don't you just make yourself comfortable while I go about my business? she asked.

"I'd have to follow you around," the man said, "and I'm not in the mood. Why don't you just sit still and be quiet."

That pissed Wanda off. "I have to call my mother. She's in a nursing home. She's not well and she's expecting me to call. The number's in the library. You can follow me if you like." Wanda addressed the man like a queen talking to a serf just to aggravate him. Then she stood and walked regally to the library.

It took her a little while to find Ryan's number. Long enough that the guard was starting to get suspicious.

"Seems like you'd keep better track of your mother's phone number," the guard said as he watched her sift through the messy office desk.

Wanda ignored him. Finally she found Ryan's number in one of Jim's notebooks. She walked back to the living room, followed by her guard, picked up the phone and dialed Ryan's number, praying he'd be there. She was happy to hear his relaxed, whiskey voice answer on the seventh ring. Lucky seven Wanda thought.

"Hi mom, it's Wanda," she said, knowing Ryan would be thoroughly baffled by the call. "How are you feeling today?"

"Wanda?" Ryan asked trying to connect the name to a person. Wanda. Oh, Wanda, Jim's wife. Something's up. Oh, hi, Wanda, what's up? Are you in some kind of trouble?"

"Yes," Wanda said tightly. "I'm sorry you're not feeling so well." Wanda looked covertly over at her guard who was paying careful attention to the conversation. "Maybe you'd feel better if you changed rooms. I know you like sunlight and the room you're in now is kind of dark." She was trying hard not to sound like a babbling idiot. Her heart was in her throat. She silently prayed Ryan would understand what she was trying to relay.

Ryan got the message. Kristen had to be moved. He assumed it meant Jim's cover was blown. "Yeah, a room change sounds like a good idea. Is Jim okay?"

"I don't know, Ma. We can't come today. We have Company."

"Will your company be staying long?" he asked. He was talking carefully, unsure if there was an extension on the telephone which might be monitored.

"No. My company has some business with Jim."

The guard was staring at Wanda. "Gotta go, Ma. I love you," she said hurriedly, and slammed down the phone. She knew the guard was ready to take the receiver from her.

"That was stupid," the guard growled. "Who'd you call?"

"My mother," Wanda insisted.

The guard shook his head in disgust. "Don't worry. They'll find out."

Tough shit, I got my message out. It doesn't matter now Wanda though with malicious glee. Bastards. Coming in here trying to intimidate me.

Wanda shrugged. I'm going to pour myself a drink. I'd offer you one but…. No, I wouldn't offer you one." She made herself a stiff whiskey sour from the bar they kept loaded for company and special occasions. As she poured she wondered what ever became of Evelyn. It was a poignant moment. She remembered all the New Years Eve parties they'd had over the years. They were never the same after Evelyn left. As the kids grew up and developed their own interests the parties became smaller and smaller. The Phillips hadn't bothered the last couple of years. They'd decided to leave the revelry to Guy Lombardo and New Yuck City.


Jim was pissed off. But there wasn't anything he could do about his situation. They had Wanda. Fortunately none of the kids were around. The older two were in away at school. His youngest was on the soft ball team and wouldn't be home until 6:00.

"So what happens now?" Jim asked Hurst.

"You come with me. Don't try to be a hero. Cooperate and nothing will happen to Wanda."

They left Jim's office and strode casually through the warren like office building where dozens of men spent their daylight hours sitting in little offices at desks with drawing boards or graph paper or just plain writing paper working on the puzzling new technology electronics, modern physics and math had brought to the world. It was like peeling an onion. Layer after layer of knowledge was emerging – all of it mysterious and much of it interconnecting. How to connect it all was the problem. So much information and so few minds that really understood it.

No one understood the ramifications opening the Pandora 's Box of technology would ultimately have on the planet. Computers were still practically science fiction. People scoffed at the idea that soon every home and office would have one.

These were America's glory days. Global war seemed to be a thing of the past, although the soviets kept pushing their borders. Israel and Egypt were at eachother's throats and the war in Southeast Asia had torn the US apart. Most Americans focused on the cold war, were scared to death of communism and believed fervently in the domino theory. But life was grand on the home front. Americans became consumers of anything that came off the conveyor belt. There were new fangled gadgets for everything. Everything invented was to make life simpler, better, richer, more enjoyable.

Americans loved their new gadgets and didn't care what made them work as long as they did what they were supposed to do. It was the beginning of the disposable society. Kleenex replaced handkerchiefs. Paper napkins replaced linen. McDonalds was already a deeply entrenched institution.

For the first time in history music became a global phenomenon. When the Beatles landed on American soil eight years earlier parents watched in fascinated horror as their teenagers become slightly insane over rock and roll. The entire country went from gramophones and black and white to stereo and Technicolor in the space of a couple of years. Politics came out of the cloak room. Entertainment became a national pastime and the whole country had the air of a carnival. It was all a result of the modern technology which was being uncovered and discovered by scientists like Karl and dumped willy-nilly into the hands of an infant nation of immigrants from every corner of the world.

And who could predict the impact of all of this on the world?

Behind the curtains crucial power struggles were enfolding. The Company and the Cabal were in a heated race for new technologies critical for world domination. Weaponry heretofore unimaginable was being developed. Medical research was breaking new ground daily. New information systems were cropping up everywhere. It was impossible to keep up.

That's why people like Karl were so important.

And Jim was damned if he was going to let either faction get their hands on him. He knew they would wring him out for information. Fortunately he had little to supply as to Karl's' whereabouts. The worst of it was his knowledge of the Guardian's infrastructure.


Ryan had gotten Wanda's message. Jim's cover was blown. Damn it. I was hoping Kristen could stay with Leslie until school started. Now I'm going to have to move her. She may not want to go anywhere with me as mad as she is. Hell.

Kristen and Ryan hadn't parted on good terms. Both were stubborn and convinced they were in the right. Ryan did want Kristen to go to Antioch and live a normal teenage life before making any decisions about how she felt about him. And Kristen had taken the opposite position just to be contrary. She knew deep down that Ryan was right about school. She'd always planned to go to college. But she didn't want it rammed down her throat. She wanted to choose where and when she went to college. So she'd dug in her heels before Ryan left Leslie's home earlier in the week and acted like a spoiled brat about her admission to Antioch.

"It's a great school," Ryan had urged. It's got a good reputation but it's not stuffy like the Ivy League colleges. Is that the kind of school you want to attend?"

"No," Kristen had responded. "I want to go to California – Berkeley. I don't want to be stuck in the boon docks of some small town in the middle of nowhere."

"Antioch's not like that. It's small but it's very liberal.

"What does that mean?"

Ryan sat down and tried to describe the school for Kristen but her ears were closed. She was hurting from Ryan's unwillingness to come to terms with their relationship. Damn it, we should be able to talk about it. He could at least have the courtesy of telling me it didn't mean anything to him. She wanted to scream at him and break something. Instead she gave him a very cold shoulder.

Leslie had fixed a fancy dinner with wine for all of them hoping to lighten the atmosphere so the two could talk. It saddened her to see two people who were obviously infatuated with each other behaving so stupidly. She knew she'd just make matters worse if she tried to intervene. She could read both their faces like a book. So she kept up a chipper patter of meaningless conversation during the meal and kept filling the wine glasses. The meal dragged on and on.

Finally, at about eight o'clock that evening Leslie announced she was getting a headache and needed to go to bed. She kissed Kristen on the cheek and whispered "talk to him," in her ear. She tousled Ryan's hair as she brushed past him on her way upstairs.

The silence after Leslie left was deafening. Their barriers were down as a result of the wine. Kristen wished Ryan would sweep her up in his arms as he'd done the night before. Ryan was entranced by the early evening light which was flooding the room and turning Kristen into a luscious siren with sunset hair and emerald eyes. He wanted her so badly it hurt.

Kristen sensed his need. But she was still stinging from the way he'd treated her that day. Now that it's night and he's got some wine in him he's ready to forget all about his damn morals. Well that's just too damn bad.

Kristen sighed. She stretched and faked a yawn. "I'm tired. Must be the wine. I think I'll call it a night. Are you leaving tonight?' she asked, praying silently that he'd say no.

"Yeah," he said grumpily. "I'd better get back to business. Oh, but Kristen, there's one last thing….'

"Yes?" Kristen asked, her heart in her throat.

"Please tell me if you know where your father might be. Or his research. We really need to find him."

"No," Kristen said coldly, holding back a threatening flood of tears. "Dad doesn't talk to me about his work. I can't help you." She stiffened her back and walked out of the room.

Ryan ran his hand over his face and through his hair. Jesus, I've really screwed things up with her. How am I going to fix this? Maybe if I leave her alone for a few days she'll cool off.

So Ryan took off on his bike and tried to put Kristen out of his mind for the time being.


Wanda's phone call brought it all back to him.

Ah Christ. I'm going to have to patch things up with her. Then he realized he was looking forward to seeing her sunny face. But what about Jim and Wanda? He had some hard thinking to do. He'd have to bring in some help if he was to extricate them from the claws of the Company. And where are they, anyway?

Ryan started pacing the floor of the small, ramshackle apartment which was his current home. He hadn't had time to put down roots since he'd become a guardian three years ago. Well, truth be told, he'd never really had roots. Except for those years with Leslie.

Ryan owned very few things since he moved around so much. But what he had he treasured. The apartment was run down but spotless. Ryan was almost compulsive about his living quarters. He dealt with so much ugliness in his chosen profession. His home was his sanctuary. Where ever he was sent he made a place and surrounded himself with the things he loved.

He was an avid antique collector. He had a few, very old, well selected pieces in his apartment. He preferred the lighter woods for his furnishings – ash, pine, maple, oak. He mixed and matched items he found at flea markets and garage sales. He had an old pine trundle bed with down filled coverings from Bavaria. He had a beautiful Blauplunkt stereo hi fi with a short wave radio and a dry bar in his living room. His eclectic selection of record albums were housed in a custom-made trunk that doubled as a bench for added seating. Not that he entertained very often. Somehow he kept acquiring books. It was hard to move fast when you had a valuable book collection, but Ryan couldn't resist exploring the dusty old book shops he found wherever he traveled. And invariably he'd find some little gem of a book at an absurdly low price so, heck, what's one more book? He had an impressive book collection so of course he had to have the best bookshelves.

He didn't have a television. He couldn't understand the nation's fascination with the little round tube that spouted so much idiocy. The rest of the new technology was great but he often wished the idiot box had never been invented.

He turned the Hi Fi on for company while he paced and pondered the Phillips question. Are Jim and Wanda together? If so, where are they? He thought about that. No. Jim would be at work. Wanda must be at home under lock and key to encourage Jim to cooperate. Jesus. Ryan knew Jim wouldn't be able to hold out under questioning if Wanda and the kids were in danger. Hell. How much does Jim know? Well, he knows about Leslie. Does he know where she lives? Ryan wasn't sure. Would he be able to help the Cabal find Karl? Probably. But the worst thing was that Jim had knowledge of the Guardians' infrastructure. Damn it, this is a mess. We should have pulled Jim out of the Company the minute Karl went missing. Ryan kicked himself for his shortsightedness. It had endangered everyone. Well, it was time to do some damage control. Hopefully they could retrieve Jim before too much damage was done. He made several hurried phone calls. The last one was to Leslie. He updated her and warned her he'd be moving Kristen as soon as her new ID came through.

"Oh, Hell, Ryan," Leslie said. "She and I were just starting to…. Is it really necessary? Couldn't you just put some surveillance on us to keep us safe? Kristen's just getting used to the idea of school in the fall. She won't take well to the idea she has to stay in another strange place until them. And, she's starting to get over her anger at you. This will bring it all to a head again. It might make the breach irreparable." Leslie paused a moment. "If you're set on moving her you're going to have to come here and tell her face to face. I won't be the go between and I won't let you tell her over the phone and then drop the ball like you did last week," Leslie finished angrily. She thought Ryan had handled things badly between him and Kristen. Patting her on the head and treating her like a kid was the worst thing he could have done. She knew they both had strong feelings for each other. Ryan had thoughtlessly put an unnecessary age barrier between them.
"What do mean, drop the ball?" Ryan asked defensively.

"Come on Ryan. You know what I'm talking about. Do I have to spell it out for you?"

"Why don't you?" Ryan said tightly. His back was up.

"Leaving Kristen with the 'I'm old enough to have known better' routine didn't play very well."

"Well, what else could I have done?" Ryan snapped

"You could have been honest about your feelings," Leslie said with a touch of ice in her voice.

"How could I? I didn't 'honestly' know how I felt."

"That's bull. You knew before anything happened between you that you were stuck on her."

"Did I say that?" Ryan said angrily."

"Yes, actually you did. You said you'd wait for her to grow up. That was quite a declaration coming from you, with your track record little brother."

That brought Ryan up short. "I did say that, didn't I? Hell. I don't know, Leslie. I'm all twisted around. I didn't expect to fall for a high school student."

"You're going to ruin everything if you keep putting her into that package."

"There isn't anything to ruin. She's a kid under my care. I can't get involved. Heck, what would I do with her if I did get involved? Drag her around the world while I take care of business? Or maybe I should sign her up for spy lessons and she can join me in the struggle," he suggested acerbically. "I can't do that to her. Besides, she's a teenager. She has a right to have fun, get an education, and meet guys closer to her own age. She should have the house and the car and the kids, or at least the option."

"I'm not saying you should carry her off. But you didn't treat her like an equal and you owed that to her after spending the night with her. You should have talked about these things, not made up her mind for her. You treated her like a child.

"She is a child," Ryan said stubbornly.

"Now you're the one who's acting childish. What are you scared of, anyway?"

"I'm not afraid…."

"Bull. You're shaking in your boots, and you're not being honest with yourself. You don't want to let anyone in. Am I the only one who's touched your heart in your short life?"

One thing about Leslie Ryan thought ruefully, she really knew how to cut through to the sheaf.

"Oh hell, Leslie. You make me sound like such a cad. I don't want to hurt Kristen. I don't know if I have what it takes to make her happy."

"You don't have to make any earth shattering decisions right away, you know. All you have to do is open up to her. Let her in. I'll bet she'll be happy just knowing you care enough to worry about all these things. You can't build a relationship if you don't share what's going on in your head."

Ryan sighed. "I guess you're right. I'll talk to her." Having made the decision he felt better than he had in a while. He hadn't realized how much their fight had been weighing on him.

"Come for dinner tonight," Leslie suggested.

"I'll try. I have a few things to take care of first." Like figuring out what to do about Wanda and Jim, Ryan thought unhappily.


"What do you want from me?" Jim asked Hurst tightly. "I don't know where Karl is and I'm nowhere near the kind of scientist you're looking for."

"I think you know a lot. You've been Karl's best friend for years. You know how he thinks. And if you can't lead me directly to Karl, chances are you know where Kristen is. Karl wouldn't have left Kristen out in the cold. If I can bring her in Karl will follow."

"You're wrong. I don't have any information for you." Jim looked around the office for anything he could use as a weapon.

"I'm not about to take your word for that," Hurst said gruffly. "Come out slowly from behind your desk. We're going to take a walk together to the parking lot."

The two men made their way through the hallway and out the side door. "So what are you going to do with me after you empty my brain?" Jim asked as they walked.

It was a typical work day. Everyone was in their offices. The hall was deserted. Hurst and Jim made it to Hurst's black Lincoln unimpeded.

"Where are you taking me?"

"You'll find out soon enough," Hurst said as he opened the passenger side door. He shoved Jim into the passenger's seat and then knocked him out by hitting him on the side of the head with his gun. Then he opened the glove compartment and pulled out a ball of twine which he used to tie Jim's hands.

Hurst got into the cranked the engine and headed out of the parking lot and turned left onto the country road leading to route 202 south. He figured he make it to Bethesda by sundown.


Ryan was torn. He didn't know whether to go to Jim's house in aid of Wanda or head to Jim's office. What he really wanted to do was to go straight to Leslie's house and snatch up Kristen. But he figured time was on his side as far as Kristen was concerned. Hurst couldn't have gotten enough information to find her yet. As he mulled things over he realized Hurst would already be on the move with Jim. So Ryan got on his bike and headed towards Jim's home hoping to help Wanda. On his way he stopped at a phone booth and called for back up.

He pretty much counted on Wanda's guard being sloppy. After all the guard let Wanda get a phone call through. But he didn't want to place Wanda in more danger than necessary. As he drove he tried to come up with the best way to take out Wanda's visitor, assuming it was just one visitor. He'd never been inside the Phillip's house so he wasn't sure what he was up against.

It took forty-five minutes to get to the house. A peripheral assessment of the house and grounds showed that Wanda's visitor was working alone. Wanda was tied up in the kitchen where her captor was enjoying an early dinner.

What a pig Ryan thought disgustedly as he watched the man through the kitchen window. The man was leaving a trail of food on his shirt. The guard was overweight and sloppy. He was of medium height with blond hair and blue eyes and a spare tire around his waste which spoke of soft living. If that's the best they have to offer their brave new world is going to be a flop, he thought with malicious pleasure. It shouldn't be too hard to take him out. I have the advantage of youth and surprise. Now, how to get into the house without making any noise. Guess I'll try the obvious first. He walked around to the front door, put his hand on the knob. Unbelievable, it's not locked he thought with glee. The idiot's so complacent he didn't bother to lock the door.

An orange tabby cat ran up from behind Ryan and scooted through the door as Ryan opened it. The cat made a bee line for the kitchen.

Ryan drew his weapon as he eased himself into the house. He paused in the foyer to allow his eyes to adjust to the change in light. A minute passed. Ryan stalked down the hallway towards the kitchen.

Wanda's eyes grew large when the cat appeared in the kitchen. She'd let him out shortly before her guard arrived. Someone's here she thought. I wonder if it's friend or foe. She readied herself for the unexpected. She'd been working and worrying the bindings on her hands and was close to having her right hand free. She made a final effort and her hands were free.

The guard was startled by the cat's entrance. "Where'd you come from puss?" he asked, reaching down.

Ryan stepped into the room, gun in hand. "Stand up real slow," he said to the guard, "and put your hands over your head."

"Shit," the guard swore. He was well trained and moved fast for a man of his girth. Instead of standing he turned and dove across the room grabbing onto Wanda for cover. He went for his own gun but Ryan body blocked him and the gun went flying across the room.

Ryan had underestimated the guard's fitness. Ryan had youth and skill on his side but the guard outweighed him by at least 50 pounds. Ryan took a few hard hits. Wanda managed to free herself while Ryan and the guard grappled with each other. Her feet were asleep so she stumbled and almost fell when she stood. She made it across the kitchen and grabbed the guard's gun.

Ryan and the guard were struggling with Ryan's gun. Just as the guard was about to pull it free Wanda knocked the man as hard as she could over the head with his gun. He fell flat on his face, pinning Ryan to the floor.

"Good going, Wanda," Ryan said as he pushed the man off him. He rubbed his sore knuckles ruefully.

"I guess you got my message. Thanks for coming so quickly," Wanda replied. She picked up one of the ropes she'd been tied with. "We should tie him up before he wakes up. Do you want to do the honors?"

"Yeah. I was a boy scout. I'm pretty good with knots," he said as he set about the task.

Reaction to the events of the past few hours suddenly set in for Wanda. She started to tremble. "What the hell's going on Ryan?" she asked tremulously. What's happened to Jim?" She started to cry. Silent tears flowed down her cheeks. "Are you going to be able to catch up with him?"

Ryan looked at her helplessly. "I don't know sweetheart. We've got a team working on it but it's not going to be easy. I have to call for someone to pick up our friend here. Why don't you make some tea? We can talk after I get off the phone. Okay?"

"Okay," she said, sniffling a bit.

Ryan made his call from the phone in the living room. Afterward he returned to the kitchen to talk to Wanda. He decided she deserved to know everything. It wouldn't be easy for her to know what Jim was in for but he couldn't see any way to sugar coat the truth.

"What's of most concern is Jim's knowledge of the Guardians' infrastructure. I don't know if they're smart enough to know what questions to ask. But with the technology used these days for interrogation they'll be able to extract whatever information Jim has if they know what they're looking for."

"Oh God, are they going to torture him?"

"I don't think they'll have to. There are drugs that make most people susceptible to questioning. "

Now that Wanda was safe he was getting antsy to get Kristen to safety. "I don't know what else to tell you Wanda. I wish I could ride off on a white horse and get Jim back for you. But I can't. We don't know where Jim is but we know where there are safe houses within a day's drive. We have people on it. We'll do the best we can."

"God damn it. That's not good enough," Wanda said angrily.

"It's the best I can do," Ryan replied.

The whistling tea kettle interrupted their conversation. Wanda went to the stove and poured hot water into the two cups she put out a few minutes earlier.

"So what do I tell my kids? Sorry, Dad's been abducted by evil white supremacists? You'll probably never see him again? Mark is going to be home at 6:00. What'll I tell him when he asks me about my day? 'Oh, nothing interesting. I was just held up by a gun toting neo-Nazi and by the way they have your father."

"I don't know Wanda. It's your call. Jim knew the risks when he went undercover. He made a choice. He's a courageous man. Don't denigrate him."

"And don't you talk to me like he's dead already. You get him back. Do you hear me? Just get him back."

Ryan sighed. "We'll do everything in our power to save him. That's all I can promise you."

Wanda handed Ryan a tea cup. She wanted to throw the hot water into Ryan's face. "What do you take with your tea?" she asked through gritted teeth.

"Milk and sugar."

Wanda reached into the refrigerator for the milk carton and brought it and the sugar bowl to the table. Then she returned to the stove and stood sipping tea and fighting tears.

"Wanda," Ryan said gently as he poured milk and sugar into his tea cup, "why don't you sit and try to calm down. You've been through a lot today. You have to pull yourself together. At least for Mark's sake. Look," he said, "Do you have a piece pf paper and pencil? I'll give you a number where I can be reached. I'll keep you informed about our efforts to find Jim. Okay?"

Wanda opened her junk drawer and pulled out a tablet of paper and a ball point pen. "Keep me informed. Like my husband kept me informed all these years" she said bitterly as she handed them to him. Ryan scribbled a number on the first page of the tablet.

"Identify yourself when you call this number. Leave a message and I'll get back to you right away." Ryan said as he slurped his tea.

Wanda ran out of steam. She sat down heavily at the table. "I just don't know how I'm going to get through this," she said sadly.

"Don't give up hope." Ryan winced inwardly at the platitude.

The doorbell chimed and they both jumped. "That'll be the clean up crew," He looked over at Wanda's 'visitor' who was still unconscious. "You really decked him," he said, his voice warm with approval.

"I'll get the door," Wanda said.

"No. Stay put. I'll get it."

Ryan opened the front door for three agents dressed as plumbers. Their van was parked at the curb. Ryan directed the men to the kitchen. Two of the men picked up the man, carted him to the van and were gone within 5 minutes. The third was assigned to stay with Wanda and Mark.

"Well, that's done," Ryan said. "And now I've got to go. I have to find a place to stash Kristen until I can set her up at school."

"Jesus, what a mess. Do you really think they'll go after her?"

"Yes, I do," Ryan said.

"What about Lizzy and Ned?"

"They'll be given new identities and transferred to new schools."

"Hell. So what do you think happened to Karl?" Wanda asked. "Does the Cabal have him?"

"I don't think so. It looks more like he just took off."

"What the hell was he thinking? What's wrong with him? Didn't he consider the consequences?"

"No. I don't think he did. He was angry and scared. He's been pushed and pulled a lot between the Cabal and the Company. He didn't know who to trust when he learned about the Guardians. It's really my fault," Ryan admitted ruefully. "I should have stayed with him."

"And if he refused to go with you what would you have done? Kidnap him?"

"No. I guess not. I don't know what I'd have done if he'd refused. I should have had a plan. Damn it all," Ryan swore in exasperation, "I just don't know how to be diplomatic."

"Well maybe Karl will come around. He might just have needed some time and space to mull things over. Maybe he'll be in touch."

"I hope so. I hope he's holed up somewhere unpredictable. I have a feeling Jim knows most of Karl's favorite places. I doubt if Karl took into account the possibility of Jim or his kids being snatched. Hell, you probably know Karl's places too. Do you have any ideas as to where he might be?"

"Honestly, no. I don't have a clue." Wanda paused a moment to think. "Maybe one of the family campgrounds he used to take the kids to. But he could be anywhere. Tell you what. I'll make a list of the places I know Karl's been to over the past few years. He's a very resourceful man. He's going to be hard to find."

"And he has his research with him," Ryan said with frustration in his voice. "Or maybe he stashed it somewhere. Kristen might know. That's why I've got to get to her and get her to safety."

That and the fact I can't stop thinking about her and the night we shared. I really blew it with her afterwards. I've got a lot of bridges to mend with that girl.

"Well, I wish you luck. Thanks again for coming to my rescue. So go on and get Kristen to a safe place. Give her my love. She's like a daughter to me. All those Christmases we shared! Did she tell you about them?"

"No. I barely know her. We haven't had a chance to exchange childhood memories."

"Oh. Somehow I got the sense that you and she were…. But no. Of course you just met her."

"That's right. But she's quite a girl, isn't she?" Ryan commented as he stood to take his leave. "Take care, Wanda. I'll be in touch about Jim." As he walked down the hall and out the front door he pondered the fact that Wanda picked up on his feelings for Kristen. Christ, I'm wearing my heart on my sleeve over the girl.

It was a hot, sticky afternoon. Ryan looked forward to the drive to Germantown to cool himself off. He loved driving. He drove as fast as he thought he could get away with on his way to his sister's house. When the odometer crept up towards seventy he'd slow it down, thankful there were no cops around. One more speeding ticket and he'd have his license revoked. It was getting on towards evening when Ryan arrived at Leslie's home. He rang the doorbell and waited. After a couple of minutes he rang again. Kristen opened the door. She couldn't help giving him a bright welcoming smile. It was just so darn good to see him. Then she remembered she was angry with him and scowled.

"So. Look who's turned up," she said with a frown. Leslie hadn't warned her that Ryan was coming. She was completely discombobulated by his sudden appearance. "I thought you were long gone."

"It's nice to see you, too," Ryan said with a wry grin. Good Lord, she's fetching. She looks so good. Kristen was wearing very short cut off blue jeans and a halter top. The outfit left little to the imagination. Ryan couldn't stop himself from raking her with his eyes.

Kristen didn't miss a beat, although her heart was in her throat. "What are you doing here old man?" Kristen asked meanly. "I thought you were out doing your spy thing. Saving the world and all."

"Give it a rest, Kristen," Ryan said heavily as he walked into the foyer. "I'm sorry I hurt you. But we've got to set aside our feelings for a while. We need to talk."

"You're damn right we do."

"I don't mean about 'us," Ryan said with a sigh. "Come into the living room with me. I have to fill you in on what's been going on over the past week."

"Damn it, Ryan," Kristen said hotly as they passed through the hallway, "ever since we were together you've avoided talking about 'us.' With you it's always about the Cabal or the Company or your blasted Order. You're hiding behind your 'duty' and 'what's right,' and I've had enough of it. If you're not willing to talk about 'us' I'm not willing to talk to you at all." Kristen was furious and near to tears. And through her tirade she felt the magnetic pull towards Ryan so strongly that half of her wanted to just leap into his arms.

Ryan felt the pull as well. Dear God, I feel like I've been bewitched. He wanted her so badly the ache in his groin and his soul was almost unbearable. But I've got to keep my head. I've screwed things up enough as it is.

"Alright," he said. "Let's talk about us."

"Are we really going to talk about our feelings?" Kristen said in an angry rush, "or are you just going to give me the line that 'you should have been more responsible and that I'm too young to know what I want and there's a whole world out there waiting for me?'"

Ryan was at a loss for words. "Well, it's true…." he blurted out.

"No it isn't. It's bull. Look me in the eye and tell me that our sleeping together was a mistake. If you can do that, well maybe I'll accept that I was just a one night stand for you."

"Jesus, Kristen," Ryan sputtered. "I'm not going to…."

"I mean it." Kristen grabbed Ryan's wrist and peered intently into his eyes. She used all of her power to make him see and feel the strength of the bond that had already formed between them. "Say it," she urged, "or give it up."

Ryan was caught like a beetle in amber. He couldn't form the words. He knew their coupling wasn't a mistake and that they were firmly bound together for good or ill.

Kristen's eyes were ages old pools of green fire. Ryan became lost in their light. Something deep inside of him melted as they stood there, eyes locked. "I can't say it," he said. "I'm totally lost in you. I was the moment I met you. It's like you're a part of me I never knew I was missing until I found you."

Kristen made a sound which was half-laugh, half sob as she melted into him. Joining him was like slipping on a long-lost, much loved garment, or coming home after a long, hard voyage.
"So what do we do now?" Kristen asked in a low, sultry voice.

Her voice sent shivers down Ryan's back. He knew he had to have her. The intensity of his need was beyond comprehension.

"Now I take you upstairs and show you with my body what's already in my heart."

"Oh. That sounds lovely," Kristen sighed. "I missed you so much. I was going crazy thinking you weren't coming back," she said as they made their way to the bedroom Leslie had given her.

"I always planned to come back. I just wanted to be sure you had other options than me. I still do.

"Shut up," Kristen said lightly. "I know my own mind." She started to undress as soon as they entered the room which was flooded with burnished light from the late afternoon sun. Ryan watched, ensorcelled by her grace and beauty as she dropped her garments.

Then Kristen stood naked and watched while Ryan disrobed. He was golden in the sunlight. His cock was long and proud. Kristen kneeled and kissed it, getting a taste that was utterly male. Ryan brought her to her feet. They kissed and caressed each other, slowly, lovingly, taking time to bring both to a height. Ryan stopped long enough to pull a condom out of his discarded jeans.

He was wild for her by the time the protection was in place. Kristen was aching for Ryan to drive his staff into her. They tumbled onto the bed. Their lovemaking was fierce and stormy. It barely slaked their thirst for each other. Afterwards Ryan wanted to start all over again without pause. But the world interfered.


Leslie had left the house shortly after she spoke to Ryan on the telephone. She thought it would be best to leave the two of them alone to sort things out. So she ran some errands and did some shopping. She stopped for a late afternoon snack at a nearby restaurant. She pondered Kristen's situation as she sipped white wine and devoured a quarter pound of spiced shrimp.

Leslie figured Ryan was planning to stash Kristen at a safe house until she was given a new identity and entered College. But Leslie wasn't ready to give Kristen up. She had a much better idea. It would cost the Guardians a little money but it beat the hell out of closeting an active 16 year old in a stuffy old house completely lacking entertainment.

Leslie had an aunt in Spain who she'd always planned to visit but somehow never gotten around to it. They met 5 years ago when Leslie's mother died. Aunt Clara was ten years older than Leslie's mother and had married a Spaniard when she was 18. The Spaniard died young, leaving Clara with a villa on the Spanish Mediterranean, near the French border. She hadn't had much contact with her sister over the years but felt compelled to come to the funeral. She and Leslie found themselves a kin to each other. Their psi talents resonated. Leslie was given an open invitation to visit but she'd never taken her aunt up on the offer. This seemed to be as good a time as any. Spain was supposed to be lovely in the summer.

Yes, Leslie thought as she finished her repast, a summer vacation in Spain is just the ticket for me and Kristen. She looked at her watch. Have I given them enough time to sort things out? she wondered. Well, I did offer Ryan dinner, so I may as well head home. She flagged the waiter and paid her bill.

Leslie noted Ryan's bike parked on her block as she pulled into a parking space a few doors down from her house. I hope they've worked something out.

The house was surprisingly quiet when Leslie walked in the door. "Hello, is anyone home?" she called. There was no response. Maybe they went for a walk. She didn't think to look for them upstairs, I guess I'll start dinner, though I'm not ready to eat.


Ryan and Kristen heard Leslie come in so they untangled themselves and dressed reluctantly. "Leslie's going to have my hide over this," Ryan said ruefully as he zipped up his jeans.

"No she won't," Kristen responded. She pulled a brush out of her purse and started to repair her hair. "She's in our camp. She wants us to work things out. She wants me to go to school and meet new people, but she knows how strong our bond is. She's given me all sorts of advice about how to handle this. She's really great."

"You've had a lot of discussions about me, have you?"

"Of course. You're Leslie's favorite topic of conversation."

Ryan groaned. "Well, I'm glad I keep her interested. Who else does she talk to about me?" He was a little concerned about being the subject of gossip.

"No one. She wouldn't…"

"Well that's a relief. Are you ready to go downstairs?"

"Yeah, I'm ready."

Leslie was frying chicken and singing to the radio when Ryan and Kristen came downstairs. They startled the hell out of her when they waltzed into the kitchen together. "Hey sis," Ryan said with a grin. "What's on the menu tonight?"

Leslie brandished the hot, greasy spatula. "I should whip you for sneaking up on me like that," she said with a laugh. "What have the two of you been up to? Or need I ask? I hope you're being responsible," she said pointedly to Ryan.

"Yes mother," Ryan replied.

"Mother! I'll mother you."

"You're too young to be a mother," Kristen interjected. "That chicken smells wonderful. What can I do to help with dinner? I'm starved."

"Worked up an appetite, did you? You can do the salad. The makings are in the 'fridge. Ryan, you can set the table."

The three worked in companionable silence putting together the meal. Over dinner Ryan broached the subject of Kristen's move. He told her about the events of the day. As Ryan talked Kristen grew solemn. She was angry and scared. She didn't want to leave Leslie's house. She was just getting settled.

"This isn't fair," she cried. Do you really think they'll come after me? Aren't they more interested in finding Dad? And what about Lizzy and Ned? Are they safe?"

"I think they'll use anyone he can to get to your Dad. Lizzy and Ned have been given new identities. We're going to do the same with you."

"Hell, I don't want to give up my identity. And I don't want to leave here. Where am I going to go now?"

Ryan started to answer but Leslie cut in. "I have an idea." She told Ryan and Kristen about her aunt. "Do you think it's possible? Would the Guardians be willing to send us to Spain?"

"I like the idea. I'll run it by the committee. But in the meantime Kristen has to go to a safe house."

"Do I have to go tonight?"

"No. Tomorrow's soon enough. They haven't had time yet to extract information from Jim."

"Oh God, poor Mr. Phillips," Kristen said sadly. "What do you think's happening to him? Are your guys going to be able to find him?"

"I don't know. I hope so."

"Well," Kristen said cheering up, "at least we have tonight. Oh, and Ryan," she said looking guilty. "The other day you asked if Dad had any hiding places…."

"What?" Ryan said excitedly.

Kristen told Ryan about Karl's secret room.

"Oh, sweetheart. Why didn't you tell me about this last week?" Ryan said. I might have…."

"You weren't exactly in the mood to listen to me. And anyway, I was mad at you. It wouldn't have made a difference. It least I don't think…. Oh God," suddenly Kristen was mortified, "if I'd told you maybe Mr. Phillips wouldn't be in the mess he's in."

"No, Ryan said quickly. "I think Jim was in trouble no matter what. It's just…. You're sure Jim doesn't know about the room? He's got to have been in your basement dozens of times. Jim and your dad worked together."

"But not on the same projects. And Dad was so proud of his secret. He didn't even show it to me for more than a year. It's amazing. Wait 'til you see it. Can we go now?" Kristen was pumped up with excitement.

"No this minute, no," Ryan laughed. "We've got to have a plan. Your house is gonna be under close watch." He was stymied for the moment.

"I have an idea," Kristen said slowly, thinking hard. "We'll have to create a diversion."

"What kind of diversion?" Leslie asked, wanting to be a part of the planning.

"A fire," Kristen said, excitedly. "I'll call Rita. She'n I almost set the blue spruce in our side yard on fire when we were about 7 years old lighting matches under the tree. That tree'll go up like fireworks with no danger to anyone."

"Except Rita," Leslie pointed out dubiously. "That'd be pretty tricky. And how's she gonna get into the yard without being seen?"

"A little smoke and mirrors. Magic. She and her 'boyfriend'll park and neck on the street near the side yard. Rita'll slip out the passenger side door while her boyfriend keeps up appearances with a dummy or something. Then she'll set the fire. Once it's going she'll scoot on home and call the fire department. Between the 'neckers' and the fire and the fire department there'll be plenty of confusion. We'll be waiting and slip in through the basement bulkhead door at the back of the house. It's brilliant!"

Leslie and Ryan looked at each other and shook their heads. "It's too risky," Ryan said.

"No. It's a piece of cake. You've done riskier things a hundred times."

I'm not worried about me."

"I know. You're worried about us 'sweet innocent little girls.' Well, I could tell you about some things Rita and I pulled off before we even had tits that would turn your hair white. You should have been with us on mischief night a few years back. And Rita got away from that bastard who tried to snatch dad last Christmas. She almost bit his hand off."

"What!" Ryan and Leslie exploded with laughter and continued laughing as Kristen described the Christmas incident.

Leslie stared to come around. "I'd have to come along to be sure you girls don't get into trouble."

"Oh, no." Ryan said, shaking his head in dismay. Not you, too."

"I think it might work" Leslie said. "We should at least explore it as an option. I might even join in the fun," Leslie said.

"What would you do, hypothetically?"

Leslie gave Ryan a sweet smile. "Hypothetically you could point me towards the surveillance car. I'd help make sure they're not focusing on the house at the right moment."

"And how would you accomplish that?" Ryan said skeptically.

"They're men aren't they? I might give them something to look at – come running into the street wearing a skimpy nightgown worrying about the fire."

"You wouldn't," Ryan said, breaking into laughter.

"I would. Between Rita, me and the fire department it'd be a three ring circus." She saw Ryan's dark scowl. "Hypothetically."

Kristen was laughing in glee at the thought. "Rita's gonna love this. Besides – it's imperative that Rita meet the two of you."

"Oh it is?" Ryan said, raising an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Well, seems like you two are going to be honorary members of the family so you have to meet."

"We'll find some other way to meet up. Some other time when it's safe."

"It's never going to be safe for me to go back to the house," Kristen said stubbornly. "You're talking about sticking me in a safe house and changing my identity. I might never see Rita again. And besides how else are we going to get into the house? I don't see you coming up with any bright ideas."

Ryan opened his mouth to say something, then shut it. He looked helplessly at Leslie, who shrugged.

"She's got a point there, brother."

"Oh for Christ sakes." Ryan knew he was beaten. At least for the moment. He decided he'd better focus on the tactical aspects of this hair brained scheme. "Rita may be up for it but I doubt if you'll be able to get parental approval," he said, throwing out the best, final objection he could come up with.

"We don't have to tell them."

Leslie stepped in on Ryan's side this time. "Huh uh, Kristen. It's not going to happen if there isn't full disclosure."

"So we'll have to figure out a way to sell it to her parents," Kristen said, not willing to give up on the idea. "What if Rita's older brother acts as her 'boyfriend' for the necking scene? He's 22. He was a volunteer fireman for two years after high school."

This suggestion made Ryan see the proposal in a better light. It also made him look at Kristen with new respect. She's dauntless he thought admiringly. "Now that's an idea I can live with. It would be good to have an extra man as backup."

The idea took fire and the three spent another hour brainstorming and perfecting the plan. Ryan thought long and hard about how much to tell the O'Learys. He asked Kristen a few incisive questions about their politics which Kristen wasn't quite sure how to answer. "They're basically good, honest, working class Irish Catholics. Rita's mother came over from Ireland when she was…, oh my God, my age now.

Ryan laughed. "I think they'll get into the sprit of things. They may even come up with a couple of tricks of their own."

"When should we do it?" Kristen asked.

"The sooner the better," Ryan said. What do you think, Leslie?"

We should check the weather and the stars. Overcast would be best. Leslie stood up and walked over to the back door. Night had fallen while they were making their plan. She peered up at the sky. "Good," she said. "The moon's well past full. Let's try for tomorrow night. It's not too late to call Rita now is it?"

"Are you kidding? It's not even 9:00. Rita's a night owl."

"Okay. How are we going to handle the call?" Ryan started thinking out loud. "How much does Rita know already?"

"She knows all about mom and Max and the Cabal. She doesn't know anything about dad's work of course. I called her when I first got here to tell her I was alright. She said someone was asking questions about my disappearance. All she knows is that is has to do with mom and dad. She doesn't know anything new. I knew you wouldn't want me calling her" she said looking at Ryan with a guilty expression on her face, "so I didn't tell her about anything she didn't know already."

Ryan sighed. "You're right. I wouldn't have wanted you to call her but under the circumstances it's probably for the best that you did."

Leslie nodded in agreement.

"So, why don't you call her now and fill her in on what's been happening. Sound her out on our little plot. Don't push her if she doesn't want to do it," he warned her.

"Are you kidding?" Kristen said. "She'll think this is the best adventure ever!"

They adjourned to the living room to make the call. Rita's sister, Arlene, answered the phone on the third ring. Kristen hung on the line nervously for a few minutes while Arlene went to look for Rita. Finally, Rita's chirpy voice came over the line.

"Hi Rita, it's Kristen."

"Kristen! Rita said happily. I was beginning to think you fell off the planet. Where are you? Are you okay? What's going on? I think there are people watching your house. I've been keeping an eye on it since you called. Who are they? Are you in some kind of trouble?" Like usual Rita was chattering away a mile a minute.

"I'm fine. But there's trouble big time!" Kristen responded. She went on to explain what let up to her disappearance.

"Sound's like you landed on you feet, alright," Rita said with a hint of envy in her voice. "You're dad's missing? That's a drag. Where do you think he went?"

"I don't know. Here's the thing. Dad got very security conscious after Mom took off. He built a secret room in the basement."

"No shit! You never told me," Rita said reproachfully.

"Dad would have killed me if I told anyone about it. I couldn't tell you. Not after what Mom did."

"Yeah, I guess," Rita said grudgingly. "So what do you want me to do? Go in there and see if your dad left a message? I could pretend I was looking for Felix and…."

Kristen started to laugh. "I knew you'd come up with something like that. But it would be too dangerous. We have a plan. But you've got to get your parent's okay and we're gonna need Tom's help." Kristen laid out the plan, pausing to listen to Rita's questions and suggestions. Rita was as enthusiastic as Kristen thought she would be. She was reluctant to tell her parents.

"But Rita. Just think. Your mom was our age when she left home to come to America. She has to have had an adventurous spirit. Let Leslie talk to her. If we get her on board your dad will go along with it. Especially since Tom will be with you in the car."

Rita agreed and went to get her mother. Mrs. O'Leary was surprisingly easy to convince after she heard about the Christmas incident involving Rita. The idea of a grown man pulling a gun on her daughter got her Irish up. She said she'd have a word with her husband about it, and put Rita back on the phone. Leslie signed off and handed the phone over to Kristen who was waiting impatiently to return to her conversation with Rita.

"I'm going to go do the dishes," Leslie said, needing an outlet for her pent up energy.

Rita was really tickled by her mother's response to their plan. "When she says she'll have a word with dad, it usually means she's going to get her way."

"Do you think your dad's going to need a lot of convincing?" Kristen asked.

"I don't know. I never expected my mom to come around so fast. I'm gonna hang up. I want to listen in on their conversation."

"Okay. I wish I could be a fly on the wall in your house. Call me back tonight. I don't care how late it is."

"'kay, bye."

Ryan had enjoyed listening to Kristen chattering with her childhood friend. He could just imagine the kinds of mischief the two of them had dreamed up together over the years. His feelings for this half-grown femme fatale were strengthening and deepening as hour by hour. He realized there was no turning back for him as far as she was concerned. He shook his head ruefully, sucker-punched by cupid he thought when she hung up the phone and turned to give him a brilliant smile.

"What?" Kristen asked seeing the look on his face.

"Nothing. I just find you enchanting, is all.

Kristen blushed with pleasure. She was all keyed up and full of nervous energy from the evening's events. As was Ryan. The super-charged atmosphere quickly turned into sexual arousal.

It was tempting to take her to bed while they waited for the verdict from the O'Learys. Kristen saw the look n his eye and laughed. "That would hardly be polite," she pointed out. "Besides, Rita could call back any minute. It would be awfully embarrassing if she called and we were in the middle of…. You know."

"It was just a passing thought," Ryan said agreeably. "A tempting one. But for once, you're the voice of reason."

"I think I'll make myself a drink," Ryan said. "Something to cool me off. I'd offer you one but you're under age."

"I have a better idea," Kristen said with a wicked smile. "Want to get stoned? I have a little pot…."

Ryan's mouth dropped open. "You're kidding. Jesus. And I was worried about corrupting you. All along it's you doing the corrupting. How long have you been smoking pot?"

"I'll take that as a yes," Kristen said, sidestepping the question."

"We'd better get Leslie in on this. She's so damned insistent on going on this "adventure" with us. She may as well join in the fun."

"Now you're talking. Have you ever gotten stoned with her before?"

"No. I don't even know if she's tried it. She may decide to call the police on us," Ryan said jokingly.

"Not Leslie. I'll bet she's got a stash of her own. You're the straight one in this household."

"Oh, is that so?"

"Uh huh. Go ahead, ask her."

"Leslie," Ryan called into the kitchen, "are you done with the dishes?"

"Yeah, just about."

"Come out here. We need you to settle a bet."

Leslie had the kitchen organized and was just finishing wiping up the counters. She rinsed out the sponge and dried her hands on her slacks.

"A bet, huh?" she said as she entered the living room. "What's it about?"

"Ask her," Kristen urged, with laughter in her voice.

"Huh un. It's your idea. You ask her."
Leslie watched the pair banter back and forth like a couple of school children. Kristen's really good for him. I haven't seen him so relaxed since he was little.

Kristen looked at Leslie with a mock serious expression on her face. "Do you want to get stoned?"

Leslie looked shocked for a second. It was the last thing she expected the two of them to come up with. But then again, she'd gotten quite a glimpse of Kristen's adventurous spirit over the past week. She started to chuckle. "This little girl is going to lead you down the path to perdition, if you're not careful Ryan. Sure, why not. Let's get smoke some weed. I take it you have some Kristen. Or do you want me to go out to the garden and pick some?"

"Leslie!" Ryan was stunned.

Leslie burst out laughing. "Oh God. You believed me."

Kristen joined in the laughter and the two of them laughed 'til they cried. Ryan shook his head, bemused. "You two are incorrigible. I ought to turn you into the law. No. You'd just talk your way out of it. You should be spanked." Ryan wasn't sure which of the two deserved what.

Kristen was still giggling as she skipped up the stairs to get her stash.

As she left the room Leslie and Ryan started to speak at once.

"I didn't know you…." Ryan sputtered.

"I always thought you were so serious," Leslie said in amazement. "I never imagined…."

They both started to chuckle and were still laughing when Kristen rejoined them in the living room. She held out a bag which contained about a half-ounce of pungent green herb. She also had a small pipe and some wooden kitchen matches. "Fresh from Mexico" she said. "Maybe I should save these matches for tomorrow night. Leslie, do you have any?"

"Yeah. I'll get some. And some candles."

Kristen set about to pack the pipe. "You're quite the little expert at that," Ryan said trying to look disapproving but failing.

Ryan was no stranger to the drug culture. It was 1971. The "Age of Aquarius. High school kids from Albany to Kalamazoo had been tuned in and turned on to pot and psychedelic drugs for almost a decade. Ryan had come of age during the height of the era of sex, drugs and rock and roll. He turned 18 in 1965, just in time for Viet Nam. He'd avoided the draft by staying in school. Like thousands of kids he'd applied to Berkeley, North Eastern, Antioch, and a number of other progressive colleges. He decided on North Eastern where he majored in political science and spent some time protesting the war. He became a conscientious objector in 1967 which was his first step on the path that led him to the Guardians.

He'd been sickened by the War Machine which led so many men of his age into the unwinnable quagmire of death and destruction. But he couldn't stomach socialist knee jerk liberalism and thought the radical dissidents were almost as bad as the people they were protesting against. So he stayed away from the Yippies and the SDS. He became disenchanted with 'the Movement' and began experimenting with pot and LSD. He started a downward spiral and might have made a mess of his life but one of his teachers picked up on his intuitive understanding of the hypocritical underbelly of American politics. Xavier Gerand, a well noted sociology professor was a guardian and became Ryan's mentor. He also taught martial arts and got Ryan into Tai Chi, Eastern Philosophy, and "The Art of War," Ryan was thirsty for knowledge and felt like he'd finally found an approach to life that made sense. He was inducted him into the Guardians in his senior year. By the time he graduated his mind and body were well tuned for the work ahead.

He got a job with the Red Cross after graduation which sent him to Viet Nam where he got some hands on experience infiltrating the CIA which was deeply involved with the Company's dirty work in Southeast Asia. He caught pneumonia in the winter of 1970 and was shipped to Seoul to recover. He lost the job at the Red Cross and ended up in Hong Cong where he got a taste of the international banking industry. He'd just gotten back to the states when he was assigned to the scientist project.

"How long have you been smoking pot?" Ryan asked.

"About a year. I got into this band that plays after school. I'm their singer. I'm great at improvising harmonies. Make yourself useful," she said imperiously. "Find some music will you. Beatles would be my choice. If you're lucky I might sing for you."

"Your wish is my command," Ryan said making a little mock bow towards Kristen as he walked over to peruse Leslie's album collection. He found Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and spent a few minutes fiddling with Leslie's stereo system. The familiar music filled the room bringing a smile to Kristen's face.

Leslie returned. They lit the candles and turned the lights down low. Kristen handed the pipe to Leslie. "I'll let you do the honors," she said and started to sing 'I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in…."

Leslie took the pipe and flicked her Bic. The sweet, distinctive smell of marijuana soon filled the room. The scented candles gave the room a restful orange glow. They passed the pipe, each taking in a long, hot toke and holding it in for a bit and then exhaling and pausing to give their lungs a rest. After the pipe went around twice Kristen started to hum and harmonize with the music. The energy in the room, which had been almost manic a few moments ago became soft and mellow. Kristen refilled the pipe while Leslie and Ryan chatted about the past.

"I thought you'd kill me if you knew I smoked pot when I was in college," Ryan said. "I never thought you'd indulge."

"Why not?" Leslie asked, somewhat affronted. "Was I such an old witch to you that you thought I couldn't let my hair down?"

"Oh, no. Nothing like that," Ryan demurred. "You were always great with me. But you were pretty much a mother figure and mothers don't smoke pot."

"This mother does," Leslie said, starting to giggle. "This is pretty good weed. Where'd you get it?" She asked Kristen.

"From one of the guys in my band."

"A boyfriend?" Ryan asked, suddenly jealous. He hated the thought of Kristen being involved with some stoned-out musician.

"No," Kristen replied. "Well, kind of for a few months. We're just friends now. He got into some kind of heavy stuff and I backed off. He thinks he's a wheeler-dealer, but he's really going to get into trouble one of these days. He's just a kid and he takes too much acid. If he ever has kids they'll probably have three heads or something." She started to giggle at the thought.

"That's terrible," Leslie laughed. Then she sobered for a moment. "Did you do a lot of tripping with him?"

"Not a lot. A little bit goes a very long way with me. One time I was sure I was reading peoples minds and I got very paranoid. I didn't like what they were thinking. We were at this party and everyone was tripping. One of the girls mixed it with too much wine and really went loopy. They guys were all thinking about what sexual acts they could perform on her. I got her out of there real fast. I made Joey take us to my house and I smuggled her in. I called her parents and told them I was having a slumber party. I spent the rest of the night talking her down. It's a good thing Lizzy was away at college. She would have blown the whistle on me. Hey," Kristen said. "Can we call Lizzy and Ned? I really miss them."

"I'm not sure where they are right now," Ryan said uncomfortably. "With all that's been happening…. Remember? We talked about it. They're safe and they know where you are."

"Oh. That's okay then. I wonder where dad is," she said mournfully. "I hope he's okay."

Ryan put his arms around Kristen and Leslie got up to put on another album. Strains of "White Bird" by It's a Beautiful Day filled the room.

"Oh. I love this album," Kristen said cheered. Leslie and Kristen started singing. They were starting to mellow out again and jumped when the telephone rang.

"That's gotta be the O'Leary's," Kristen said.

Leslie pulled herself up off the floor and ran for the phone. She picked up the receiver. It was Mr. O'Leary. He had a few questions and wanted to talk to Ryan. He wasn't as enthusiastic as his wife about their plan. He wanted to know exactly what they might be up against.

Leslie and Kristen got an attack of the munchies and headed for the kitchen. They eavesdropped as they sat eating ice cream with spoons out of the container. They looked at each other worriedly as Ryan did his best to convince Rita's father of both the importance and the relative safety of their proposition. He won O'Leary over with the promise that Rita's brother would be Rita's make believe boyfriend. Then Tom got on the phone and the final plans were made. Tom was as enthusiastic as Rita and thought the whole thing would be a lark especially since he had a lot of buddies at the fire department. He liked the thought of putting one over on them. Tom and Rita were instructed to take turns watching the Hansen house tomorrow to get a fix on the surveillance. Rita was sure she'd already pinpointed a phony telephone repair van. Tom and Rita would joint Kristen, Leslie and Ryan at the Burger King on Lincoln Highway in Paoli at nine thirty. Tom and Rita would use Leslie's car to go "parking" so the car wouldn't be identified. They'd leave the Burger King at 9:45 to be in place a little before ten. A few minutes later Kristen and Ryan would slip through the neighborhood on foot and find a hiding place in the woods which connected the two streets of the cul de sac about a block away to wait for the fire.

Leslie started to feel left out. Then she had an idea. "Wouldn't it be better if I necked with Tom, and Rita hid in the back seat while we drive up? There'd be less of chance of her being spotted when she slips out of the car."

"You're right," Kristen agreed. "And Tom will like it a lot better than pretending to neck with his little sister. Yuck." Kristen started to get the giggles again. "You'll have fun, too. Tom's hunky."

"He is? How old did you say he was?"


"Well, at least I won't be breaking any laws," she said pointedly, giving Ryan a cheeky look. "Unlike some people."

Ryan glared at her and continued his conversation with Tom. Then Rita got on the phone and they started discussing her role. At 10:00 she'd slip out of the car under cover of dark and into the Hansen's yard. There was a lot of vegetation so she would have a lot of cover on her way to the blue spruce. She'd have her supplies in the little back pack she used for her school books. Rita knew how to build a fire. There was a thick carpet of dry pine needles under the tree branches which would catch fire quickly. She'd add corrugated card board and some ply wood for good measure. A little lighter fluid and a couple of matches. The tree would be blazing in no time.

"Let me talk to Rita for a minute," Kristen said, grabbing the phone from Ryan. "Make sure to get the heck out of there fast," Kristen ordered Rita. "Don't stick around to make sure it really catches. I'll kill you if you get hurt. Or caught."

"I won't get caught," Rita said confidently. "How many time have we played hide and seek after dark in your yard? It'll be just like that."

Kristen laughed. "Remember the time we snuck out of the basement in the middle of the night and went to the train station?"

"Yeah. We teased that drunk and he chased us with his car all the way back to your house. We hid in the bushes for an hour after he left. I was so scared I wet myself."

"Make sure you go to the bathroom before you leave tomorrow," Kristen advised.

"Hell, I was only 9 then. I'm not going to pee myself."

"I know. I was just kidding. I'm gonna put Ryan back on the line. See you tomorrow night."

Ryan took the receiver and continued discussing the plan. After Rita set the fire she was to run through the back yards to the neighbors two doors down and call the fire department. From there she was to take the back way to the Burger King. The fire department was just on the other side of the railroad bridge. They'd be able to respond in a matter of minutes so Kristen and Ryan would have to move fast. Once they saw the blaze they'd make their way to the cellar door and check out Karl's secret room and the safe. They'd be in and out in a matter of minutes and take the short cut to the O'Leary's, through the woods between the houses. Tom would take off when he saw the fire and drive back towards Paoli. Once they were out of the neighborhood Leslie would drop him off and he'd stroll up to the Hansen's and join his buddies. He'd be able to keep an eye out for trouble. He knew what to do if anything went wrong. Leslie would drive to the Burger King to wait for Kristen and Ryan. She didn't like that part. She didn't want to be left out of the action but she might be noticed if she drove to the O'Leary's especially if the surveillance team became suspicious.

It's a good plan, Ryan thought after they finished the phone call. It's a dangerous plan and I'm using kids, his conscience nagged. He looked at Kristen worriedly. "I'm still not sure we should do this. I'll never forgive myself if anything goes wrong."

"Nothing will go wrong. Rita and I ducked the police every Mischief Night for six years. We spent hours playing spy games after dark every summer. The neighborhood was made for espionage. You'll feel better when you've seen the lay out," she reassured him. "Mr. O'Leary wouldn't have given the go ahead if he thought there was any risk. He's a real worry wart."

Leslie let out a great yawn. The pot had worn off and she was sleepy. She got up from the couch and stretched. "I'm tuckered out. Don't stay up too late you guys. And don't forget to blow out the candles."

"I'm kind of wired," Ryan said. I think I'll take a run. Do you want to go with me?" he asked Kristen.

"No. I think I'll just sit on the porch and watch the stars for a while. It's a nice night."

Ryan went upstairs to change into shorts and Kristen blew out the candles and wandered out into the moon light. She took the pipe with her and had a couple more tokes to smooth things out. She had a lot to think about.

It was peaceful out on the porch. The stars were out and the air was fresh with the scent of newly cut grass, moist earth and roses. The melancholy sound of a freight train in the distance soothed Kristen's frayed nerves. It was one of her favorite sounds. A childhood lullaby. Kristen had always felt connected to the railroad which was so close to the house where she grew up. As she sat starring at the sky she thought about times when she and the neighborhood gang played in the school yard and on the bluff overlooking the tracks in Paoli. In later years she and Joey had occasionally hung out around the tracks. There were little huts along side the tracks to protect passengers from the weather as they waited for the longer cross country trains which used to run through Paoli. The huts were rarely used. They'd climb up on their roof out of sight of the station master. It was a nice, safe place to get high and neck and get away from the world for a while.

What a strange twist my life has taken. I wonder where I'll be this time next year. This may be the last time I see the O'Learys for a while. Kristen started to feel lonely and a little sorry for herself. Then she remembered the connection she felt to Ryan and Leslie. It's like I've always known them. And Ryan! So complicated. Part tough guy, part little boy. And then he turns around and tries to act like my father. How can he think I want a 'stable home' and kids and a cat. Not likely! I'm gonna make him let me join the Guardians. I want to find Dad and then spend some time getting to know Ryan. I'll go to school like everyone wants but I'm damned if I'm going to be put into a suburban housewife mold. I've never really wanted that.


Ryan slipped out of the house quietly and started to jog at a slow, even pace. As he warmed up he pushed himself harder. He wanted to be sure he was in fighting form for tomorrow night. The night air was warm and sultry. He was sweating heavily within a few blocks but his wind was good. The neighborhood was hilly and the run was challenging. He paced himself well, letting the tension ease out of his shoulders and neck as he ran. There was little traffic on the street. He watched his shadow jog beside him waiting for the runners' high to kick in. He ran all the way down to the river – about two miles he figured. Then he took to the foot path for a while. He got lost in thought and auto pilot kicked in. He ran like a strong and powerful machine. He felt like he could go on for hours. He turned back after another two miles along the riverside taking long, firm strides back towards Leslie's home. Eight miles was nothing. He'd trained for marathons in college and at 24 he was in prime condition.

Kristen was asleep in her chair on the porch when he got back to the house, curled up and snoring lightly like a contented kitten. So young and untroubled. I wish I could sleep like that, Ryan thought. He watched her as he did some tai chi to cool down. He decided to indulge in a glass of cold, white wine after he finished. When he came back from the kitchen he sat in the chair next to Kristen and looked out at the night, willing himself not to think about tomorrow. What am I going to do with you Kristen? he wondered. There's no denying the connection we have. And I know you won't let me stash you somewhere safe so you can have a normal life. I guess I'd better start thinking about training. But not yet. You're so young. He didn't want her to see the ugliness of the world. He wanted things to be fun and easy for her. But he knew Kristen would never take the easy way out. She was like him – willful and pigheaded. He had a sudden flash of precognition. You and I are going to have quite a time together he realized.


Jim hadn't had an easy time of it. He woke up with a headache from the blow Hurst gave him when he got into the car. His hands were tied and he was car sick. The situation was just plain crappy. He tried to stifle a groan. Hurst heard him.

"So you're awake. Welcome back to the world," Hurst said

"Go to hell," Jim replied. "This is stupid. I don't know anything."

"You don't expect me to take your word for it do you? Why don't you just sit back and relax?"

"Yeah, sure, I'll relax. Enjoy the drive and anticipate a pleasant little chat with your goons.

"Shut up."

"Yeah, you're a real piece of work. Do you really buy all that 'New World Order' garbage? What are they offering you when they take over? A piece of the rock? How many people do you have to step on to get it Hurst?"

Hurst laughed. "You're so stupid. You just don't realize. The new order is already a done deal. We're just settling in. In a couple of decades it's going to unfold like flawless linen. We'll be everywhere.

"If that's true, why are you so desperate to find Karl and the other scientists who've slipped through your sticky little fingers?"

"They're a minor glitch. We need them to stay on schedule. But if we don't get them, we'll find others that can grasp the technology."

"What is it that you're looking for anyway? That's what I've never been able to figure out. Is it information technology? Weaponry? A space race? Alternative fuels? What is it you're after?"

"You can't begin to comprehend the enormity of what we're about," Hurst sneered.

"Sure I can. We've been dogging your heels for centuries. Every time you think you have the world sewn up something happens and it slips through your fingertips. It happened to the Third Reich and it's happening now with your scientists. You're losing it." It felt good to pelt Hurst with venomous words. It was all he had left.
"No we're not. We're stronger than we've ever been."

God, it's true, Jim thought miserably. And now they've got me. I know too damned much about the Guardians and maybe enough to give Karl over to the Company. Jim wished he was dead. He hunkered down and tried to sleep. He was going to need a lot of strength in the next few hours. The pounding in his head kept him awake. He sighed and switched position. He decided to watch the scenery. As he looked out the passenger window he happened to glance in the side mirror. He noticed a battered little Pinto behind them. That looks like Kelly's car! Jim thought. Is it possible? He felt a small surge of hope.


Kelly knew she'd blown it when she saw Hurst's flat, fishy eyes light up. She'd known for a long time that Jim wasn't just working for the Company. Hurst hadn't thought to ask her about Karl until today. She'd pled ignorance but something she said tipped Hurst off about Jim. She wasn't sure what it was. Hurst was so damned insightful. It's almost like he's a mind reader, she thought with a shiver. After Hurst left her and headed towards Jim's office, Kelly picked up her purse and followed along behind. She didn't know what was going on but she was scared for Jim. She cared a lot more for the big lug than she ever let on. Now she was getting older she realized she'd been a fool to let him get away. All her pretty plans for landing a high level executive had pretty much gone up in smoke. She'd sat at her desk as the years past working for Hurst, the son of a bitch, and watched Jim marry and have kid after kid. Kids that might have been hers. She'd let their affair drag on to preserve the memory of the best relationship she'd ever had.

Like many good secretaries Kelly was an observer and information gatherer. She knew there was something going on behind the scenes at the Company. She'd heard bits and pieces about Evelyn's disappearance a few years back. Then Jim and Karl went off to Princeton. Hurst had patted her butt and ogled her for too damn long. So she'd gone to Jim when she heard that Hurst was going to reassign Karl. Then Karl disappeared. She'd been damn glad to see the look of annoyance on Hurst's face when he got that news. She hoped Karl was okay. She was glad she wasn't in Karl's shoes – or Jim's for that matter.

She watched, appalled, from outside Jim's office as Hurst pulled a gun on Jim. Shit. Now what? She wasn't a courageous woman. Carrying on an affair with Jim was the most daring thing she'd ever done. She didn't want to see him hurt. She ducked around a corner and waited.

She trailed Hurst and Jim out of the building. She saw that Hurst was heading for his car. Her car, a battered little Gremlin, was parked a few rows behind Hurst's Lincoln. She made a dash for it. She prayed that Hurst wouldn't watch to see if he was followed.

Kelly was a good driver. She had no trouble following Hurst as he left the Company lot and headed towards 202 South. She checked her gas gauge. 3/4 full. Thank God! she thought as she pressed down on the accelerator. I wonder where they're going?

It was a hot afternoon. The Gremlin wasn't air conditioned. Perspiration beaded up on Kelly's forehead and trickled into her eyes, blinding her momentarily until she managed to yank a Kleenex out of the glove box. Her whole body was drenched with sweat from fear as well as heat. She tried to maintain a discrete distance from Hurst's black Lincoln as they sped up and down and around the hills of South Eastern Pennsylvania. It was stop and go with the red lights as the two cars made their way out of Great Valley heading towards West Chester and God knows where. Kelly had to run a few lights to keep up but luck was with her and no cops were on her tail. She didn't know what she would do if she was pulled over. The cops would never believe she was following a gun-toting ape who had kidnapped her lover. Christ. For all I know the cops would be on Hurst's side. The Company has connections in strange places. Kelly had a healthy respect for the power the Company wielded. She'd seen it in operation often enough.

The drive seemed endless. Where the hell is he going? she wondered as she looked at her watch. Four o'clock already. Uh oh, traffic's going to pick up, she realized as they passed through Delaware and entered Maryland. At this rate we're going to hit Baltimore at rush hour. I hope I can keep up with him. Where the hell is he going, anyway? Maybe I should give it up. What am I going to do when he stops the car? she wondered miserably. Well, at least I have my mace with me. As she drove she tried to think of a plan. I'll have surprise on my side. I'll have to act fast, whatever I do. Good thing he's out of shape. One thing Kelly prided herself on was her physical fitness. She'd been mugged and badly beaten up about five years ago. The first thing she did after she got out of the hospital was sign up for self-defense classes. She'd found them to be a great way to let off steam and stay in shape so she kept up with and was really very good at Karate.


Jim had watched the Gremlin in the side mirror for about an hour. He was pretty sure it was following them. It's gotta be Kelly. I wonder what she's up to? He tried to stay alert but after a while the motion and the hushed engine sounds lulled Jim to sleep.

Kelly knew she'd only get one chance at Hurst. She'd been thinking long and hard about what to do when Hurst stopped and got out of the car. Just as Kelly expected, Hurst was off guard when he drove up the driveway and stopped the car. She followed him in fast. When he stepped out of the car she side swiped him neatly and knocked him down. She jumped out of the car with her mace in her hand. She sprayed his eyes, blinding him as he tried to rise from the ground. He screamed in agony. She kicked him in the head, knocking him unconscious.

Jim awoke slightly disoriented when the car pulled up in front of the mansion the Company was using as a safe house. The next thing he knew the car was bashed in and Hurst was down for the count. "Way to go Kelly!" Jim said, awed by her attack. "Get me out of here."

Kelly stepped over Hurst, who was still unconscious and climbed into the Lincoln. "Hey there," she said with a broad smile. "Guess you and I are going to be looking for new jobs." She spent a few moments struggling with the bindings on Jim's wrists. Once he was free they stepped over Hurst's inert body and slipped into Kelly's car.

"Those self-defense classes of yours really paid off," Jim said. "Thanks. How'd you know…?"

"It was my fault your Hurst found out about you, I'm not sure what I said when Hurst was questioning me but his fishy little eyes suddenly lit up and he headed off towards your office. I followed him. I didn't want you to get hurt" she said as she started the engine and pointed the car towards the highway. "Who do you really work for anyway? You want to fill me in? I've known you were up to something for a long time. Now I think I'm entitled to an explanation."

Jim began explaining as they started their journey back towards Pennsylvania. Kelly kept a careful eye in the rear view mirror to be sure Hurst hadn't followed them. After about a half hour Jim asked Kelly to stop at a gas station so he could phone home. He wanted to check in and be sure Wanda was okay. He was vastly relieved to hear about Wanda's rescue.

"She's alright," he said happily. Then he gave Kelly a guilty look. "I'm sorry. I know this isn't easy for you."

"Oh, hell, Jim. After all we've been through…. I don't know. I was crazy to let you go all those years ago. But I made my bed. You've got a good life with Wanda. I know that. The fact that I got you out of a jam doesn't mean you owe me anything. All we have now is history."

"And friendship. We'll always have that," Jim said.

"True. So what do you think you'll do now?" Kelly asked. "You can't go back to the Company."

"I don't know. I'll have to give it some thought. What about you?"

"I don't know. I'm not too worried. Good secretaries are always in demand. Who knows? Maybe I'll find my perfect executive at the next place. I probably should have moved on a long time ago. But the Company was comfortable. And you were there. I shouldn't have let it get in my way."

"Some lucky CEO is going to fall at your feet some day, Kelly. You've earned it," Jim said.

"You don't always get what you earn, you know. Life's not like that. Things just happen. There's no cosmic bank account out there," Kelly said acerbically. "If there were, the Hurst's of the world would be eating out of garbage cans instead of raking in big bucks."

"That's the truth. And people like you would be rolling in diamonds and cruising the Mediterranean with their knights in shining armor."

"The armor would rust," Kelly said cynically.

"You know what I mean."

"Yeah. Thanks."

They drove in companionable silence for a while. The setting sun was at their back and the sky went from blue to orange and red and then purple as dusk fell. The traffic through Wilmington was heavy and it was slow going for a while. Jim fiddled with the radio passing over the news in favor of some slow jazz. It was fully dark by the time Kelly pulled into Jim's driveway.

"Why don't you come in and meet Wanda?" Jim asked.

"I don't think that would be a good idea" Kelly said. "Just kiss me one more time like you mean it. It's time we both moved on. I'm thinking of moving to California. I have a sister in L.A."

Jim kissed Kelly heartily. "You're the best. Thank you, Kelly. I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't…."

"Go on in to your wife. She's waiting for you. Good bye Jim," Kelly said with tears in her eyes.

Wanda was beside herself with relief when Jim walked in the door. "Thank God, Jim. I was terrified. What happened to you? I want the full story."

"Yeah dad," their youngest son, Mark said. "Why do we have an armed guard? What's going on?"

Mark listened, fascinated as Jim and Wanda exchanged stories about their day.

"So you picked up on my reference to Ryan Peters," Jim said when he heard about Wanda's rescue. "Thank God. I didn't know what else to do. Hurst had a gun to my head."

"But I didn't get what you meant by the Mickey Rooney comment,"

"That's simple, Mom," Mark said. "Dad wanted you to slip your guard a Mickey."

"What's a Mickey?"

"Gosh, Mom, you're so out of touch. Dad wanted you to drug his drink."

"Oh. I'd have never thought of that. So your secretary really saved the day, didn't she?" Wanda said. "Why didn't she come in when she dropped you off? I'd have liked to meet her. Thank her for saving you."

"She's not my secretary," Jim said uncomfortably."

"Oh, right. She's Hurst's. What's she going to do now?" Wanda asked. "She can't go back to the Company tomorrow. 'Hi boss. Sorry I maced you and knocked you out. What do you want in your coffee?'"

"I don't know," Jim replied. "But she's got talent and experience. She'll find something."

"You'll give her a job reference, won't you? You owe her."

"Yeah. I'll do what I can." He looked at his watch. "I'd better call Ryan before it gets too late. Let him know I'm safe."

"I don't think he's home," Wanda said. "He gave me this number before he left."

Jim dialed the number. It was busy. "I'll have to try again later."

"Why don't you wait 'til morning?" Wanda suggested. "You look done in. Let's go to bed."


Karl didn't have much of a plan when he left the house the week before. He was just plain mad as a hornet. He felt pushed and pulled in every direction and badly used. Christ, he thought each group is worse than the next. First it's Evelyn and Max and the Goddamned Cabal. Then it's the freaking Company. What's next? Everyone thinks they own me. I'm bloody sick of it, he fumed. My life's not my own. Why don't they all just leave me the fuck alone? All I ever wanted was to make a living and raise my damn kids. I didn't want any of this geo-political hocus pocus. Why me? He was feeling abused and sorry for himself when he drove off.

He didn't even know where he was going when he started driving. He drove down to the Valley and got on Route 202 South, taking the same route Hurst was to take with Jim a few days later. As he drove he mulled over the information Ryan provided. So Evelyn's dead. A bullet in the head. Christ, she didn't deserve that. All she ever really wanted was a bit of adventure. What a cold son of a bitch Max turned out to be. God. They're all alike. Everyone wants to run the world but no one has a shred of humanity left by the time they get their power. Children starve and teenagers shoot each other in a jungle thousands of miles from home while the goddamned puppet masters jockey for superiority in a fucking office in New York or Washington without getting their hands dirty or bloody. They oughta' have to ferret out the Viet Cong themselves, or explain to a kid why money for guns is more important than a decent meal and good medical care. The world's just too damned screwy.

So what the hell am I going to do now? he wondered as he drove past Wilmington and through Baltimore. I wish I could just start over; get a job working with my hands and never see modern technology. An idea crept into his mind. The kids are just about grown. Evelyn's gone. Why not? He'd read about ways to establish a new identity. After a few months I'll contact the kids just to let them know I'm okay.

If I fake my death the kids'll get the money from the house and the bank account. That'll give them a good start. He didn't like the idea that he wouldn't get to see them grow up and make their way in the world. But I can watch from a distance and after a while things'll calm down. The Company and the Cabal will forget about me and move on to other ventures. Yes!

Karl plotted and planned as the miles slid by between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. D.C. was the perfect place to create a new identity. It had every agency he would need to re-invent himself. First he would go to the Bureau of Vital Statistics to find a death certificate of someone born close to the year he was born. Someone who died very young.

Karl started to feel like the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. He started to hum along with the car radio. It would take some time. Once he got a name he could get a birth certificate. Then he'd get a Social Security Card, a library card, a driver's license. Once he had his new identity he'd get a job at a furniture store or a thrift shop – somewhere he could tinker all day if he wanted to. He'd get a small apartment. A cat. He'd find just the right time and dump his car into a river or a swamp or something. Karl Hansen would be presumed dead. And he would go on with his life without the Goddamn Cabal and the Company. Maybe I'll open my own repair shop. He was smiling when he pulled into the parking lot of the Lucky 7 Motel. I'm going to live life the way I want for a change.


Kristen woke up in bed next to Ryan. It was very early morning. The sun was just creeping up over the horizon. How did I get here? The last thing she remembered was finishing off the bowl of pot and starring at the stars. Ryan must have carried me to bed last night. And I slept right through. She yawned and stretched. I wonder what time it is. Oh, this is going to be an interesting day. 'Red sun at morning, sailors take warning,' Kristen thought as she peered through the window at the sunrise. Looks like we're in for some stormy weather. We can't let that get in the way of our plan. She looked at Ryan who was sprawled out flat on his back, snoring lightly. Gosh, he's gorgeous. I sure got lucky. No way am I gonna spend four years crammed in some stuffy old college while Ryan has all the fun. Kristen didn't know about the rigorous training, the nasty jobs, the rotten hours and the danger and discomfort of traveling in strange places with bad food and poor sanitation that were part and parcel of being a Guardian.

Kristen had to pee so she slipped out of bed and wandered down the hall to the bathroom. The house was quiet. She was the only one awake. She didn't feel like going back to bed so she headed downstairs and decided to brew a pot of coffee. The smell woke her stomach so she began to forage for something easy to make for breakfast. The larder was surprisingly bare. Ryan's gonna be hungry when he wakes up. Guess I'll go down the street and pick up some bagels or something.

She grabbed her purse and slipped out the front door into a bright summer morning. The sun was fully up and the sky was clear blue except for the silver disk of the waning moon and a few puffy clouds. The world was fresh and clean and Kristen was in high spirits. She sang as she skipped down the street towards the bakery. This is going to be a magical day Kristen thought.

She strode into the bakery with a broad smile on her face, made her purchases and was back in house in a matter of minutes. When she got to the kitchen she pulled out a poppy seed bagel, slathered it with cream cheese added a sliver of lox and a ring of red onion. Heaven, she thought as she bit into her sandwich. Then she poured a cup of coffee and headed for the porch. As she munched her breakfast she contemplated yesterdays events. She picked a daisy from the lawn and idly plucked the petals saying "he loves me, he loves me not." In the end she got the answer she wanted. Can it really be true love? she wondered over her feelings for Ryan. How many people meet their perfect mate at age sixteen? Maybe there's something to what Ryan says about my needing to have some normal years in college. Meet other men. Hell. I know what I feel. I don't think it gets any better than this. I need to talk to Leslie about it.

It was as if her thoughts had summoning power. As she finished the thought Leslie appeared on the porch with a cup of coffee in one hand and a bagel in the other. "I guess I have you to thank for this marvelous breakfast. I was worried when I woke up that I didn't have any food in the house."

"Yeah. I was starving when I woke up. Left over munchies I guess. I'm not much for breakfast but this morning my stomach was hollow. That was fun last night, wasn't it?"

"Yeah," Leslie agreed as she set her breakfast down on the table. "I haven't slept so well in a while." She stretched her lanky body and yawned. "It's a pretty morning."

"It's gonna storm tonight. I hope it doesn't interfere with our plans," Kristen said worriedly.

"Probably won't. Thunder storms usually run out of steam well before nine o'clock this time of year. We'll will them away if they look like they're going to be a problem."

Kristen was surprised. "I thought I was the only one who believed in that kind of magic. When I was a kid I used to think snow storms would end if I didn't watch them carefully enough. I imagined I could feel where a storm was brewing and give it a push so it would go where I wanted it. And I could make them stop if I tried hard enough. Do you really think people have that kind of power?"

Leslie laughed. "No. It's more a matter of observation. You can see and feel a storm and maybe know where it's been and where it's headed. But as much as you wish, your mind can't control the weather. But it can do other things."

"What do you mean?"

Leslie paused to take a sip of coffee and a bite of bagel. "You remember how I knew you and Ryan did 'the deed?'"

"You said something about auras. I'm not sure I know what that means."
"Everyone has magnetic fields – energy fields -- in, on or around them. I'm not sure of the science. Some people can see them. Most can't. I can. The fields take on different colors and patterns depending on a lot of things like health, happiness, sexual arousal or frustration, mental well being. Most people read each other subconsciously when they meet. They sense the aura without knowing it. I see the auras much more vividly than most people."

"So when you saw me that morning I was glowing with sexual satisfaction." Kristen gave a rueful laugh.

"Well, not exactly. Your aura was different than the night before. And I sensed satisfaction and happiness. I'm an empath."

"What does that mean?" Kristen asked.

"I sense emotions more strongly than most people. I can read how others are feeling. You're empathic too, you know."

"I am?"

"Yes. Definitely," Leslie said. "And a bit telepathic with some precognition thrown in."

"You really believe in ESP? It's not a bunch of malarkey? I don't know…. Rita and I played games when we were little. We pretended we were sorceresses with magical powers. I could control weather. Rita could make things disappear. We pretended we could read each other's minds. Sometimes it seemed so real. But that's fantasy. They've never been able to prove ESP exists. There's no way to measure it."

"They haven't been able to show me an atom yet. Does that mean the atomic theory should be thrown out the window?"

"No," Kristen said stubbornly. "But that's science. And ESP is…."

"Improvable. But it's real. And you have a good measure of it."

"How do you know that?" Kristen asked belligerently.

"What am I feeling right now?" Leslie asked, trying not to smile.

"God, I don't know. Exasperated amusement, I guess."

"How did you know that?"

"Well it's obvious. I just…. I don't know. It just makes sense that's what you'd be feeling. It's not ESP. It's common sense."

"To you maybe. A lot of people wouldn't be able to figure it out. How do you feel when you're in a crowded room? Do you sense the undercurrents? Do you know who's mad at whom, and who's feeling insecure? I'll bet you hate crowds and don't know why."

Kristen shook her head. "You know, you're a spooky woman. How do you know all that about me? We've only know each other for what, a week? Rita and I were friends for years and she never understood how I felt about…. Oh. Duh. I get it. Rita's not an empath, right? What about Lizzy? Jeez. What powers does she have? Is there an ESP that makes people charismatic?"

"I'm not sure. I never really thought about it. But you may be on to something. Charismatic people seem to have the ability to control others, don't they? At least to some extent. I'd say that's an ESP."

"Well my sister has that in spades," Kristen said ruefully. "Wow. Thinking in terms of ESP might make some sense of a lot of things I could never get a fix on. I'm really gonna have to think about this."

"You do that. What time is it? 7:30 already. Leslie stood and stretched. I've got to get a move on. I have to be at work in an hour. "You and Ryan will have to hold down the fort today." She slurped up the last of her coffee and carried her cup into the kitchen. Then she made her way upstairs to get ready for another day at the small publishing house where she worked as a copy editor.

"I think we can manage," Kristen said with a smile. She had an idea how she wanted to spend part of the day. She ambled into the kitchen to fix a bagel and coffee for Ryan. Humming quietly to herself she prepared a breakfast tray and carried it upstairs. Ryan was sound asleep sprawled out flat on his back with a smile on his face. He'd kicked the covers off his feet which were sticking out over the edge of the bed. Kristen couldn't resist.

She put down the tray and started tickling his left foot lightly with her fingertips. He twitched and kicked a little. Kristen giggled. She tickled him again. He pulled his foot away and mumbled something inaudible. He rolled over onto his side. Kristen ticked his right foot and Ryan finally woke up. He jerked his feet away and sat up with a curse.

"Jesus! What the…!?"

Kristen burst out laughing. "Good morning sleepy head," she said with an innocent smile on her face.

"Christ, you're merciless. Tickling a man when he's sleeping is dirty pool," Ryan growled. "I ought to spank you." He made a grab for her but she slipped out of reach.

"Yeah? Try it buster. I'm fast. You'll never catch me. Besides you're naked. You can't run around the house like that." She pointed her finger at his naked torso.

"Oh yeah? I can if I want to," Ryan replied, jumping out of bed quick as a cat, grabbing Kristen and dumping her on the bed.

"Aren't you hungry?" Kristen asked as Ryan nibbled on her ear. "I brought you coffee and a bagel."

"I'm very hungry, but the food can wait," Ryan said ingeniously. "You're what I'm craving right now."

Kristen laughed light heartedly. "Down boy," she said. "You might want to save that appetite for later."

"Why? You're here. I'm here. The bed's here. It's early and neither of us has anything pressing on their agenda. Or do you have some place to go today?" Ryan laughed. "And as for my appetite, it seems to have become insatiable since I met you. You're leading me down the path to perdition."

"Perdition? Where's that? Is it anywhere near Hades? I thought we were on the road to Nirvana," Kristen quipped.

"Yeah. With a short cut through Paoli," he said as he began unbuttoning Kristen's shirt. He unclasped her bra and began tickling her nipple with his tongue.

"Oh. That feels heavenly. Don't stop."

Ryan pulled Kristen's shorts down and she stepped out of them. Morning light streamed in through the window. Kristen looked glorious swathed in sunshine.

Ryan slipped his hand into Kristen's panties and began playing gently with her clit. He slid his finger into her vagina. She was already wet and swollen with desire. She moaned with pleasure and rubbed herself against Ryan's hand. Just when she was ready to burst with passion Ryan pulled her down on top of him and guided his cock into her. Kristen gasped as her climax rippled through her. Ryan felt her come and slowed the pace. He wanted to make this last. They fell into a rhythm with Kristen astride, leaning back, feeling the length and strength of Ryan's cock. They moved their hips in time, slowly, then faster, faster. Kristen's heart was pounding and her blood was coursing through her body. She came a second time. Ryan bucked hard and finally came with a shout of triumph.

Afterwards they lay together in the bed enjoying the afterglow and the heat of the morning sun which was pouring in through the window. Something was nagging at the back of Ryan's mind. Oh hell, I forgot to pull out. What if she comes up pregnant?

"Uh, Kristen?" he said, "What time of month is it for you?"

"What?" Kristen asked, perplexed, "What do you mean 'time of month?'"

"How close are you to getting your period?"

"Oh. I don't know. I'm pretty unpredictable."

"Oh, great," Ryan said.

"Why? What's wrong?"

"I didn't pull out of you when I came. You might come up pregnant."

"Oh." Kristen was taken aback by the thought. "I never even thought about it. Jez." She didn't know what else to say.

"Don't worry. I'll take care of you if anything happens."

"A baby. Gosh. Wouldn't that be weird? I'd want to have it, and keep it. I couldn't put a baby up for adoption."

Ryan shook his head ruefully. "Hopefully we won't have to make a decision like that." He tried to cast off his worry. "Hey, hand me that bagel, will you. My stomach's growling."

Kristen got out of bed and grabbed the tray for Ryan. Then she started putting her clothes on. Ryan watched, entranced as he sat eating his bagel and sipping coffee. Kristen's natural grace made the simple act of dressing alluring.

Kristen felt the heat of Ryan's stare. "What?" she asked with a hint of laughter in her voice.

"Watching you dress is better than any strip club act I've ever seen," he replied. "You move like a dancer."

"Ah. That's it. You've identified my calling. I'm going to skip college and become a stripper. It may disappoint my friends and family but I'll have a hell of a good time. What do you think?" Kristen grabbed the lacy cloth on the bureau and began a little veil dance."

Ryan laughed heartily at Kristen's antics. This little girl has me beguiled. "Tell you what," Ryan said. "I'll buy a club and you can be my headliner. I'll make you a star." He stood and began dressing.

"Oh, good. That means I won't have to go off to school."

"No. I'm afraid college is a done deal.

You just can't get by without a college education anymore. Education is the great equalizer. A poor man with a great education will go further and get more respect in the long run than a rich man with no education. Look at how many immigrants have been able to pull themselves out of poverty to become great leaders our society in only one or two generations. Education is the key to power and success. Once you have it, it's up to you what you make of it. A lot of folks just throw it away."

"Ah hell. You're ruining my fun," Kristen pouted. "I know I have to go to college. But it's kind of overwhelming to think of going next fall. Don't worry, I'll get used to the idea. But you'd better be sure to visit me a lot. If you don't I'll go AWOL."

"I'll AWOL you if you even think about skipping out of school. And I won't give you the training you're going to need if you're going to be a guardian."

"What makes you think I'm going to be a Guardian?"

"Because you know about us and what we're trying to accomplish. And because of what the Cabal and the Company have put your family through, Ryan said.

"I don't know much about the Guardians."

"You will in time."

The conversation between Ryan and Kristen was interrupted by the sound of the telephone downstairs.

"I'd better get that," Kristen said. "It might be about tonight."

Kristen ran down the hall and took the steps two at a time. She made it to the telephone on the seventh ring. She answered it with a breathless hello. Jim was on the other end.

"Mr. Phillips! It's you. Fantastic! Are you okay? What happened? How'd you get away?"

"Hey. Slow down," Jim laughed listening to Kristen's excited babble. It was gratifying to know she'd been so concerned about him. "I'm fine." He filled Kristen in on last evening's events.

"I was so worried," Kristen said. "Ryan said they had some people out trying to find you but he didn't hold out much hope. Kelly must really like you to have done all that."

"Yeah. She's a good egg. I feel bad. She's out of a job because of me."

"You're out of a job, too. Maybe the Guardians can find a place for the two of you."

"Maybe. But don't worry about me. I'm like a cat. I always land on my feet. Let me talk to Ryan for a minute," Jim said.

"Okay," Kristen said. She put the receiver down and walked to the head of the stairs. "Ryan," she called, "It's Mr. Phillips. He wants to talk to you."

"I'll be right down," Ryan called back. He hauled himself out of bed, pulled on his jeans and grabbed his shirt which he donned as he walked down the hall to the steps. He caught a glimpse of himself in the huge beveled mirror on the wall in the hallway and laughed. I look like I was rode hard and put away wet. But I feel pretty damned good. He strode into the living room with a smile on his face. He was happy to hear Jim's voice.

"I have to admit I thought you were in deep trouble when Wanda called me. We got a team out looking for you but I didn't hold out much hope that we'd be able to extricate you. Thank God for that secretary. Kelly you said her name was?"

"Yeah, Kelly. So what are we going to do now with the Hansen kids? They're still at risk 'cause Karl's still out in the cold. Damn him. What possessed him to take off? Stupid thing to do. It put everyone at risk."

"True. But Karl doesn't know that. He probably thinks he's doing what he can to keep the family safe."

"And making a holey mess of things. Damn it all, I wish I knew where he's gotten to – him and his research."

"Don't worry," Ryan said trying to placate Jim, "You never know what might turn up. Maybe he's just gone for a short walkabout.

The two men chatted for a few more minutes. After he hung up, Ryan went looking for Kristen. He found her in the yard picking flowers for a bouquet. It was a fresh, dewy late spring morning. The scent of roses, peonies and honeysuckle filled the air. Fresh cut grass and rich black sod added flavor to the day.

"I'm so glad Mr. Phillips' alright," Kristen said as Ryan drew near. "It's pretty amazing how Kelly tailed Hurst all that way. And then she beat him up. You know, I ought to take Karate lessons. Do they have Karate at Antioch?"

"I don't know. But you're definitely getting self-defense lessons."

"Do I still have to go to a safe house now that Jim's okay?"

"No, I guess not."

"That's good," Kristen said smiling. "I'm getting to like it here. Leslie's great. Did she really raise you?"

"Yeah, from about age four on. After my father married her mother neither one of us had a real parent. Leslie's mother was a chirpy social climber who went from man to man until she realized she was starting to lose her appeal. She latched on to my father who was a mean-spirited son of bitch. They made each other miserable and paid no attention to me or Leslie. Leslie stuck around a lot longer than she had to because of me."

"Christ," Kristen said sadly, "are all parents destined to make their children unhappy? Look at my parents. They hated each other but loved us desperately. They stayed together 'cause they thought that's what would be best for the kids. Look where that got them. Mom's run off and maybe dead. Dad stuck it out for years working for the Company just so us kids could go to college. Now he's disappeared. I don't blame him. I hope he stays missing and gets himself a life. Kristen paused in mid-thought. I wonder where he is. I hope he left some sort of message in his office."

"That reminds me," Ryan said, "we have to pick up some black clothes to wear tonight."

Ryan and Kristen made a quick trip to a nearby Sears and Robuck. They returned to Leslie's around one o'clock with jerseys, sweat pants and sneakers all in black after pausing to get a bite to eat at the department store's restaurant.

The rest of the day passed quickly. Ryan and Kristen spent the time getting to know each other. Ryan told Kristen about his college days and his introduction to the Guardians. He talked a little about the horrors he'd seen in South East Asia and about his work in Hong Kong. Kristen thought he was the most interesting person she'd ever met. She wanted him to talk on and on but he began to bug her to talk about herself.

"There's not much to tell," Kristen said. "I go to school and sing in a band that's going no place. I'm kind of boring if you want to know the truth."

"I don't think you're boring."

They were pretty much talked out by the time Leslie got home from work. She found them on the porch sitting together companionably like an old married couple.

"Look at the two of you," she chided them, laughing. "Just sitting in the afternoon sun thinking about nothing. Tough life you guys have. Here's the bread winner home after a hard day in the salt mines and you don't even have a drink waiting or dinner on the table.

"Actually," Ryan said, "dinner should be here in about two minutes. We called the Pizza King"

"Oh, good. I wasn't looking forward to cooking. Why don't you run out and get some beer to go with it? You know where the distributor is don't you?"

"Sure. I live to serve," Ryan said, making a half bow. "What kind of beer do you like?"

"I'm not particular."

Ryan rode off on his motorcycle and Kristen and Leslie went to the kitchen to wait for the pizza. Leslie set the table while Kristen made a small salad to go with the pizza. It arrived about five minutes after Ryan left. Leslie paid the driver and brought the pizza into the kitchen. The air filled with the tantalizing scent of tomato sauce and garlic. It was tempting to dig in without waiting for Ryan. But they didn't. Ten minutes later Ryan arrived with a six pack and a sixteen ounce bottle of Coke.

Leslie cut the pie and Ryan distributed drinks.

The pie was pretty average, at least by Kristen's standards. "My dad makes a wicked pizza. He used to make it for us kids when he and mom were having liver for dinner." She took a small bite of pizza, made a face, and set her plate aside. She was too nervous to eat. She took a swig of Coke. "Most parents force their kids to eat liver. Mine never did," Kristen said sadly, as if she knew she'd never see either parent again.

Neither Leslie nor Ryan had any words of comfort for Kristen. Ryan took her hand and squeezed it gently. "We'll do our best to find your father," Ryan promised. He paused to take a sip of beer.

"Dad's pretty smart. I doubt you'll find him if he doesn't want to be found. What would you do with him if you did find him? Force him to work against his will?"

"No. Of course not," Ryan said. "We'd give him a new identity if he didn't want to continue his work. He could start a new life."

"Could I go with him?"

"If that's what you want."

They went over their plan for the evening once more as they finished dinner. Leslie did the dishes while Kristen and Ryan went upstairs to change into their black clothes. Kristen made a pit stop in the bathroom and Ryan loaded his revolver, slipped on his shoulder holster and covered it with a black jacket. It was a hot night to wear a sports jacket but Ryan didn't want to go unarmed.

Before they knew it it was time to leave. Leslie's dark blue Dodge Dart wasn't much to look at but was mechanically sound. Traffic was light on the way out of town and through the suburbs to Paoli. Leslie drove fast and they arrived at the Burger King early.

They ordered sodas and found a booth at the back of the restaurant. Kristen was nervous as a cat. Her stomach hurt and she had to pee. She glanced over at Ryan. He looked cool as a cucumber. How can he be so calm? she wondered. Then she realized this kind of action was second nature to him.

Leslie noticed that Kristen was looking a little green around the gills. "Are you alright?" she asked.

"Yeah," Kristen replied. "But I need to find the rest room."

Leslie lit a cigarette as Kristen scooted out of the booth and made her way to the ladies room.

"I thought you quit," Ryan said, waiving tobacco smoke out of the way with his hand.

"I did. But this is a special occasion. Oh, look. I'll bet that's the O'Learys," Leslie said pointing towards the front door. They watched as a youthful pair entered the restaurant and looked around. They didn't see anyone they knew so they went to the counter and ordered French fries and sodas. They got their order and took a booth opposite to Ryan and Leslie.

Kristen spotted the couple when she exited the restroom. "Hi," she said walking over to their table with a big grin. "Thanks for coming." She motioned towards Ryan and Leslie, who stood up and joined Kristen at the O'Leary's table.

"Tom, Rita, this is Leslie and Ryan." The group squeezed into the booth and everyone began talking at once. Tom was in casual clothes and Rita was dressed in black. "I told you he's hunky," Kristen said to Leslie. Leslie and Tom laughed. Tom was just under six feet tall, with auburn hair and sky blue eyes. He had a very sexy smile.

I'm going to enjoy my part in this, Leslie thought, even though he's ten years younger than me. Tom was having similar thoughts about Leslie.

Kristen's sure landed on her feet, Rita thought. Ryan's hot. I wonder how far she's gone with him.

"So," Ryan said to Tom and Rita, "were you able to pick out who's been watching the house?"

"Yeah," Rita replied. "Here's the thing," Rita said. "There are vans parked on the streets both at the front and the back of the house. So you guys are gonna have to creep in through the woods between the houses from about halfway down the hill. It's gonna be dicey if the fire doesn't catch the attention of both surveillance teams.

Ryan looked worried. "Maybe we should reconsider…."

"No," Kristen said. "There's great ground cover in the back yard. And with the distraction we should be able to get inside without trouble."

Rita looked at her watch. She was white as a ghost. "It's time. We should get moving. Remember," she cautioned Kristen, don't go in until you hear the fire siren."

"You be careful, Rita. Don't set yourself on fire or anything."

Leslie handed her car keys to Tom and the group left the restaurant. Rita scrambled into the back seat of Leslie's car while Tom and Leslie got in front. They waited about ten minutes before driving to the spot Tom had picked out earlier as best for their purposes.

Leslie got a bad case of nervous giggles as they drove towards the Hansen's. She felt like a teenager out on a prank. It was even worse when they pulled over and started to neck. She hadn't been necking in years. She felt so awkward. But it was for a good cause and Tom was quite a good kisser. After a few minutes Leslie relaxed and almost forgot what they were there for. Then Rita quietly opened the back door and slipped into the darkness.

Ryan and Kristen took a long, roundabout route to their staging area in order to avoid the surveillance team at the back of the Hansen home. They crossed route thirty, slipped between the shops on the other side of the highway and made their way to the railroad tracks. They went over the tracks, up the bluff and through the fence into the schoolyard. After the schoolyard they took to the woods and made an end run around the van. Then they found a place in the undergrowth to sit and wait. They were both drenched with sweat by the time they found their spot. The moon was rising and the stars were bright in the night sky. Fireflies flickered closer to earth. An owl hooted nearby and off in the distance a freight train sang its lonesome song. Damn it, I should have brought insect repellant, Ryan thought as he slapped at a mosquito. This was the toughest part of an operation -- waiting and not knowing how events were going to unfold.

Rita slinked thought the underbrush like a shadow and found her way, unnoticed, to the blue spruce. She crawled under its branches and kneeled down on the carpet of dry pine needles. Her heart was thundering in her ears. She took off her pack and pulled out matches, lighter fluid and kindling. With trembling hands she laid the fire. Then she doused it with lighter fluid and set it to flame. It had been a dry spring. The tree went up in a blaze of glory taking some underbrush with it. The fire was bigger than planned. Rita got out fast and stuck to the woods as she made her way to the neighbor's house two doors down.

"Fire," she yelled as she pounded on the neighbor's back door. The neighbor ushered Rita inside and called the fire department. The loud, harsh fire siren went off immediately. Smooth as silk, Rita thought smugly as she left the neighbor's house. At this point she was supposed to head for the Burger King but she wanted to see what was happening on the street. So she walked back towards the Hansen's house.

There were two men in the surveillance van at the front of the house. They'd been bored stiff until Leslie's car pulled up. They had a good time watching the couple neck. They didn't see Rita slip out the back seat. They were off guard when the tree went up in flames. Everything happened so quickly they didn't have time to become suspicious. The fire department was on the scene within minutes. The pair watched in amusement as the fire department worked to bring the fire under control.

When the team on the street behind the Hansen house heard the commotion they weren't sure what was happening so they decided to leave their van and look into the matter. This gave Kristen and Ryan the opportunity to slip into the house. Kristen led the way with her back door key in hand. Once inside she guided Ryan downstairs to the cellar.

"That's an amazing piece of carpentry," Ryan said as Kristen shoved the bookcase aside. It glided smoothly inward revealing Karl's hidden office.

"Yeah," Kristen agreed. "He's pretty talented. They entered the room and Ryan turned on a little pen light.

Karl had given Kristen the combination to the safe when he first showed her the room. Kristen crossed her fingers hoping Karl hadn't changed the numbers.

"I can't see a thing," Kristen complained in a low voice.

"Here," Ryan replied, shining the light on the safe.

Kristen's hands shook so much she misdialed the first time around. "Crap," she said as she tugged on the door of the safe. "I'll have to do it again."

"Hurry," Ryan said. He was nervous. Getting in had been easy. But now he was worried about getting out.

Finally the safe door sprang open. It was full of papers.

"Bingo," Ryan said. He began stuffing the papers into a satchel he'd brought along for this purpose. Once he'd emptied out the safe he flicked off the pen light and turned to Kristen. "Alright. Let's get out of here."

They'd been in the house for no more than eight minutes but it felt like an eternity. They crept out of the office and up the stairs, through the kitchen and out the back door. When they reached the back porch they stopped to check the status of the fire. It was nearly out.

"Damn it," Ryan cursed, "the surveillance teams are back in place. "We're pinned. What are we going to do?" If it were just him, he'd make a break for it and hope for the best. But he didn't want to put Kristen at risk.

"Wait," Kristen said. "Rita and Tom are out there. They'll come up with something."

So they waited. Five minutes passed. Then ten. Suddenly there was a loud BANG, right in the vicinity of the van on the back street. Then they saw Rita running hell for leather through the back yard followed by one of the men from the van. Rita zigged and zagged, and then ran for the street drawing attention away from the house.

"That's our cue," Kristen said. "Let's go."

Ryan and Kristen dashed through the yard and dived into the underbrush. They stopped for a minute to catch their breath. Tom came crashing through from the front yard after the men chasing Rita yelling "you leave my sister alone." The whole scene had the flavor of Keystone Cops. Kristen and Ryan started to chuckle as they made their way though the woods and headed towards the Burger King. They were laughing out right by the time they got to the school yard.

Leslie was waiting anxiously for them when they got to the restaurant. "How'd it go?" she asked.

"It was a little more problematical than we planned," Ryan said. "But the O'Leary's really came through."

"I told you Rita was intrepid," Kristen said proudly. "I'm parched." She ordered a Coke and then began describing the evening's events. She was just about done with her narration when Tom and Rita arrived.

"You made it! Rita said happily."

"Yeah. Thanks to you guys. What on earth did you use to get them out of the van?"

"A cherry bomb I'd been saving for a special occasion," Rita said jabbering like an excited magpie. I decided to stick around and watch after I called the fire in. Anyway, we thought you might need a second distraction when we saw how fast the fire was being put out. Tom sprinted home and grabbed the bomb. He wanted to be the one to throw it but he's not as good at dodging as I am. So we worked it out that he'd play the protective big brother after the guards went after me."

"That was awfully dangerous," Ryan chided the O'Leary's.

"So what were we supposed to do? Leave you and Kristen stuck in the house or watch you get caught? Forget about it," Tom said. "Rita's quicker than greased lightening when she wants to be. And I've got a few tricks up my sleeve. "I'd have kicked the hell out of them if they caught Rita. Besides, what were they gonna do if they caught us? Kill us? I don't think so. We were a lot safer than you were."

Ryan was impressed by their logic. "Thanks," he said, "I owe you one."

"Any time," Tom said. Then he looked at Leslie. "It was my pleasure."

Leslie laughed. "We made a good team, didn't we?"

"Yeah. Can I have your phone number? I wouldn't mind trying that first part again.

Leslie shook her head ruefully. But she was pleased. Too bad he's so young.

So, did you guys get what you were looking for in the house?" Rita asked.

"We got something. We didn't have time to look. We just grabbed and ran. I want to wait 'til we're home to see what we got. We should get moving."

Tom and Rita looked disappointed.

"I'll call you," Leslie said to Tom. "You have a right to know what we got."

"Is that the only reason?" Tom asked.

Leslie didn't know how to answer. She just shrugged.

"Well, I'll look forward to your call, whatever the reason." He smiled and gave her a wink. Then he stood up. "Come on Rita," he said. "We'd better be getting home. Mom and Dad are probably frantic by now."

Kristen looked at Rita. She wanted to cry. "I don't know when I'll see you again. They're going to pack me off to school in the fall. But I'll keep in touch." Then she scooted out of the booth and stood to give Rita a hug.

"You'd better." Rita said. "I'll come looking for you if you don't. This was the best adventure ever, wasn't it?"

"Yeah," Kristen replied.

"So Ryan's the one, huh?" Rita whispered. "You're lucky. He's cool."

"I know."

Then Leslie hugged Tom. "You were great tonight. A real hero. Thanks.

"You know," Tom said quietly, "age isn't all that important if two people really connect. Just think about it, okay?" Then he kissed her lips softly.

"Okay. I will," Leslie said, bemused. Oh, I will think about it.

The group made their final goodbyes and left the restaurant. Tom and Rita headed home. They passed the Hansen house on their way. The fire department was gone. The side yard and the tree were in sorry shape – charred and sopping wet. The surveillance van was still in place. There was no way to know if the team thought the fire was suspicious.

Leslie asked Ryan to drive on the way home. She was beat. She stretched out on the back seat of the car and was asleep by the time they hit the highway. Ryan turned the radio on and let the tension ease out of his body as he drove.

Kristen was still running on an adrenaline high. She chattered about the evening's events for a while and then started singing along with the radio. A thunder storm overtook them when they were about halfway home. Lightening lit the sky and a hard driving rain splashed the windshield. Gusts of wind shook the car and visibility was almost nil. Kristen became quiet and Ryan slowed down to a crawl. The windshield wipers slapped in time with the rock and roll on the radio and were accompanied by thunder and the steady beating of the rain. Every once in a while a tractor trailer would speed by and almost swamp the little Dodge with a whoosh of rain water. Kristen tried to will the storm away without success.

Time seemed to slow down for Ryan as he maneuvered the vehicle along the treacherous expressway. He followed the lines of the road and the tail lights in front of him. He tried to keep a steady pace so the car behind wouldn't ram into him because of the poor visibility.

It was almost midnight by the time they got home. The storm was finally abating. The lightening was far off on the horizon and the thunder was a distant memory. The downpour was now a steady summer drizzle. Leslie woke up when the engine stopped. "Wow, are we home already? I was really out of it," she said as she stretched and moved to open the car door. "Hey, it's raining."

Ryan gave her a dour look. "You just slept through the monsoon of the month. I had to put pylons on the wheels to float us home."

Kristen laughed. "That's right. It was so windy I took off my shirt and used it as a sail. We've been bobbing around in the flood waters for forty days. I just saw a seagull so I guess we've finally found dry land."

"You guys are hopeless," Leslie replied.

"No. It was really quite a storm," Kristen said as she stepped out of the car right into a huge puddle. "Oh, crap. You see. The waters haven't completely receded yet." She raced between the raindrops to the front porch. "Hurry up and let me in. I'm getting soaked."

The house was dark and still when they entered the foyer. Leslie turned on lights as they made their way through the house to the library. They were anxious to see what they retrieved from Karl's safe. Ryan opened the satchel and pulled out the stack of papers.

"Dad's research," Kristen said in a small voice. She started sifting through the pages. "Is there a note or anything?"

"Doesn't look like it," Ryan replied.

"So what do we do now?" Kristen asked.

A wintry voice answered from the doorway. "You hand it over to me. And I'll take the girl as well." Max was standing there cool as ice with a gun aimed at Kristen's head.

"Well, well. Look what just slithered in," Ryan said disgustedly.

"Oh Christ." said Kristen. "You're a freaking bad penny. You always turn up at the wrong time. I hate you." She started to lunge for him. He said "don't" real sharply. Don't make me do you like I did your mother, he thought.

"My mother!" Kristen cried, not realizing Max hadn't spoken aloud. "What did you do to my mother? Shoot her? You bastard." Tears coursed down her face.

Leslie grabbed Kristen and pulled her into her arms. "Hush, she soothed. He didn't say anything about your mom. Calm down. He's got a gun."

"That's right Leslie. Get her calm. And you, pretty boy," he pointed to Ryan, "step away from the desk and put your hands where I can see them."

Ryan had been ready to jump on Max but he realized it was too risky. He raised his arms and moved over towards the women. He was grateful his jacket was well tailored. Max didn't know he was armed. "So how did you find us?" he asked, hoping to get Max talking, let his guard down. All it would take was a split second of lost concentration and Ryan would strike. Ryan knew his capabilities and knew how to weigh the odds.

"You left a trail a mile wide," Max said smugly. "You were so damned worried about Hurst you forgot all about me. I've been waiting on the sidelines, watching and listening ever since Evelyn left. Jim thought he was so smooth, screwing around with Karl's work and keeping the Company at bay. Meanwhile the Cabal's been acquiring talent and strengthening its position. I have to admit I was thrown when you made your play for Karl. And I'm impressed by Karl's resourcefulness. He seems to have bested all of us. For now. But I knew if I waited something would give. And it did tonight. Those kids did a good job but they didn't count on having me as a neighbor. Imagine my surprise when I saw Rita sneak out of the car and set the tree on fire. I figured something was up so I got in my car and parked in back street and waited."

"You followed us all that way through the storm."

"Yep. And now I'll just take that pile of papers you got from the house. Put them into your sack and hand it over nice and gently. I don't want anyone to get hurt."

"Huh unh," Ryan said steadily. "Come and get it."

"Oh no. That's not the way we're going to play." Max grabbed Kristen and twisted her arm behind her back. She cried out in pain. "Give me the papers."

"All right," Ryan said as he started to put the papers into the sack. "Just out of curiosity, what did become of Evelyn," he asked as he buckled the satchel. Time slowed down for him again. He took measure of the room. Kristen was being held roughly by Max. Leslie had crept slowly away from Max as he talked and was now at the far end of the library. Good girl. As far out of range as possible. Leslie was furtively looking for anything which could be used as a weapon.

"Evelyn's dead. But you already knew that," Max said coldly. Kristen started struggling. Max had her with one hand. The other held the gun. Ryan tossed the satchel at Max hard. Max had to let go of Kristen to catch it. She jumped away from Max and dove for the floor. Ryan pulled his gun. They both fired at the same time. Kristen screamed.

Ryan's aim was better than Max's. Max caught a bullet in his chest and went down hard. Ryan was thrown back against the desk by the force of a slug hitting his right shoulder. He staggered and fell and his gun flew out of his hand. Leslie jumped to pick it up as Kristen ran over to Ryan.

"Oh God, Oh God. Please don't be dead," Kristen cried. All she saw was blood. She couldn't tell where he was hit.

"It's my shoulder, Kristen," Ryan said weakly. "I'm not dead. Leslie, check on Max. Be careful," he said.

Kristen pulled herself together and ran into the living room to call 911. Leslie crawled over to Max who was barely breathing. She took the gun out of his hand. "We need a lot of bandages," she yelled to Kristen. She pressed both hands hard onto the hole in Max's chest trying to slow the gushing blood. Grab some towels from the linen closet. It's at the top of the steps to the left of the bathroom. Hurry!"

Kristen raced up the steps grabbed the towels and was back in a flash. She dumped a bunch of them on to the floor next to Leslie and then went to attend to Ryan's shoulder. "You dope," she said as she worked to slow the bleeding and make him more comfortable. "You weren't supposed to get hurt. How are you going to ride your bike with your arm in a sling? Now I'm gonna have to find some other hunk to drive me to California."

"You do that and I'll throttle you with my good arm. I'm not going to be an invalid you know."

"Promises, promises," Kristen quipped.

"Put that satchel somewhere safe, will you?" Ryan said." He was the only one who remembered the papers that'd caused all the trouble. He took over the task of staunching his wound and Kristen took the sack upstairs and buried it at the bottom of Leslie's closet.

It took the ambulance 15 minutes to get to Leslie's house. While they were waiting they devised a cover story for the cops who arrived with the EMT's. They told the cops that Ryan got in the way of a prowler.

Leslie had tried her best to keep Max alive but he breathed his last breath as he was lifted into the gurney by the EMTs. There wasn't room in the ambulance for Kristen to ride with Ryan. She kissed him as he was rolled into the vehicle and promised to meet him in the emergency room after they finished with the police and had a chance to get cleaned up. Both Kristen and Leslie were covered with blood. After the cops left they took turns showering and stopped in the kitchen long enough to have cold pizza washed down with beer before heading off to the Hospital.

"How you doing, kid?" Leslie asked worriedly once they hit the highway. "You've been through the wars today. Were you surprised to learn about your mom?"

"I don't know. I'm kind of numb. And I'm hurt Ryan didn't tell me. He must have known. That's probably what set Dad off, you know? Max was best man at their wedding and he was supposed to have cared about Mom. She trusted him enough to run off with him and he shot her. Christ. It's so fucking sad. It makes me wonder if any male/female relationship can work. Poor Mom. No wonder she was crazy – married to dad and hung up on Max. I'd cry but I don't seem to have any tears right now."
"You're in shock. You'll have a delayed reaction I guess. But don't give up on relationships. You're only 16. You and Ryan have something very special. Don't blame him for not telling you about your Mom. He probably thought it should be left to your dad to break the news."

"I guess. I'm not giving up. I'm just getting started. I'll take Ryan since Paul McCartney's not available." Kristen gave a dry laugh.

"Well, you haven't lost your sense of humor. Right now Ryan's a wounded bird. He's going to be a rotten patient. I remember when he got the mumps. He was hell to live with. This is gonna be worse than that. He'll have to stay with us. At least for the first week or so.

"I'll be a genuine Florence Nightingale. How long do bullet wounds take to heal?"

"A while. You'll be in school before he's really up to speed."

"Oh good," Kristen said with a malicious smile. "He'll be at my mercy. I'll get all kinds of concessions from him."

"Uh oh. What do you have in mind?"

"Well, I want him to start training me to be a Guardian right away. I'll be good and go to school but he's not going to make me sit things out for four years. And if he thinks I'm going to fall for some college nerd he's out of his mind. He's stuck with me. I wonder how long he'll be out of commission for, uhm, sex."

"I knew this was going to be an interesting summer when I read your cards," Leslie said shaking her head in dismay.

"I guess I'll have to take the initiative, won't I, with his shoulder trussed up? Maybe I should get a book. Rita told me about one where the women dressed in black and tied their men up…."

"You're a devil," Leslie laughed. "You're just trying to see how easily I shock."

"That's not true. You probably started doing it as early as I did. But your generation wasn't allowed to talk about it. How many lovers have you had? You sure knew what you were doing with Tom tonight. I'll be he has wet dreams for the next month. You're going to call him, aren't you?"

"Oh stop it." Leslie blushed to the roots of her honey blond hair. He's much too young for me. Besides, I'm sure he was just being polite."

Kristen roared with laughter. "Tom O'Leary was not being polite. He was about to trip over his tongue. You're the hottest thing that's happened to him since he quit the fire department. And if you stick with him, you might just shake him up enough that he'll start getting on with his life."

"What do you mean?" Leslie's curiosity was piqued. She stopped herself. "Oh, what do I care? He's too young."

"How old are you," Kristen asked," wanting to resolve the issue.

"I'm 32."

"Oh. That's perfect." Kristen clapped her hands, happy as a child. "There's only a ten year difference."

"Ten years. That's an eternity. It's impossible."

"What do you mean? Ryan and I are eight years apart and you don't think there's anything wrong with it."

"But that's different," Leslie said trying to quell an upsurge of feeling which was suspiciously like hope. "Tom a guy. It'd be like 'The Graduate,' dating him."

"Oh, that's crap and you know it, Kristen said heatedly. "First, you're not married. You don't have any grown kids Tom might want to date. And Tom's not a virginal nerd.

Leslie had to laugh. "But ten years!"

"You're the one who told me it's relative – that the difference between 16 and 24 was much greater than 36 and 44. 32 and 22 isn't bad, and just think, when you're 66 he'll be 56."

"That doesn't make me feel any better."

"It should. It's a fact that women live longer than men. So why should there be a taboo about older women and younger men? And anyway, I'm an empath. I can tell. You need to call him. When's the last time you had sex, anyway?"

"I give up," Leslie said with mock despair, too amused by Kristen's diatribe to be angry at her impertinence.

"So you'll call him."


"And you'll go out with him," Kristen pressed.

"If he asks me. I'm not going to ask him. That would be taking things much too far. The next step would be a seedy hotel room."

"You don't need a hotel. You have a perfectly good house."

"I was just thinking about 'The Graduate' again," Leslie sighed.

"Oh, right. You gotta get past that."

"I'll do my best." Leslie rolled her eyes and shook her head and then turned the car radio up to silence further conversation. Kristen shrugged and decided to rest her eyes for a moment. Soon she was nodding off with her head rolling to the side. She jerked awake when her mouth fell open, then settled into a more comfortable position and slept for the remaining ten minutes of the trip.

The bright lights of the hospital awakened her and she sat bolt upright. Leslie had to drive around a bit to find a parking space. She hated paying for a lot but ultimately didn't have a choice in the matter. They left the car in a spot as close to the Emergency Room entrance as possible and hustled inside.

The city hospital was large and fairly new. The parking lot was light as day and everything about the emergency room shouted URGENT. An ambulance shrieked up and skidded to a halt outside the door just as Kristen and Leslie entered the building. It was a busy night and the ER looked like a confused mess. They paused to get their bearings, and then walked up to the kiosk to get information about Ryan. The receptionist looked overwhelmed by the activity in front of her desk. Kristen wondered if it was her first night on the job. It seemed like hours before the woman pulled things together enough to answer their questions. "Ryan Peters? Gun shot wound?" The receptionist looked at them like they were from another planet. "I don't think…. No…. Oh, yes! I remember. Where did they put him?"

Kristen looked at Leslie in dismay. "God. They probably sent him to the morgue by mistake."

Leslie laughed. "I don't think he was ready for the morgue. Miss," she said to the receptionist. "You must have an intake form. That should tell you where he was sent."

"Oh. Yeah. That's a good idea," the woman replied. She started rummaging through a mess of clipboards on the desk. "Ah ha. I got him. Oh. He went to surgery."

"Surgery," Leslie said with concern in her voice. "What time did he go?"

The woman shrugged her shoulders.

"Which way is surgery?"

The woman pointed to a sign overhead. "You'll have to take a seat in the waiting room."

"This waiting room?" Leslie asked, looking around at the messy room which was full of misery.

"No. Go down the hall to the end. Make a right and then a left. Follow the signs. They'll get you there."

"Thanks," Leslie said relieved. "Let's go, Kristen. I gotta get out of here. It's making me sick. Leslie was hit with a wave of nausea. The smell of fear and pain mixed with anesthesia and bodily fluids was overwhelming.

They found their way to surgery through the maze-like halls of City Hospital. There were three operating rooms in an L shaped corridor connected by a small waiting area and a nurse's station. The area was dimly lit and painted an unwelcoming pea green. There was no one manning the nursing station, and no way to tell which room Ryan was in.

A young woman was crying quietly in the back of the waiting area. Leslie and Kristen took seats in front and prepared to wait a while. After about ten minutes a surgeon came out of operating room 2 and walked over to weeping woman. She stood listening and wringing her hands while the doctor spoke to her in a muffled voice. As the doctor talked the woman became more cheerful. He smiled at her and patted her back, and then returned to surgery.

Kristen glanced at the clock on the wall. 2:15. Time dragged as Leslie and Kristen shuffled through old magazines on the coffee table in front of their chairs.

"I hope we're in the right place," Leslie whispered worriedly. "How long does it take to pull a bullet out of a shoulder? It's taking too long. I wish there was a nurse or someone, anyone to talk to."

"It's okay," Kristen replied, "I've been here before. They focus on the people who need attention. They'll tell us what we need to know when we need to know it."

"When were you here?"

"About a year ago I went to a party in the City. A friend of a friend got wasted and went running into a barbed wire fence. He didn't feel a thing. But when he lifted his shirt what I saw wasn't blood, it was stomach fluid. I raised hell until I found someone willing to take him to the hospital. We brought him here. They took really good care of him. He was in the hospital for a week."

"God. Some party!"

"Yeah. That one was a real bust. The kid's parents threw a fit. They were gonna sue the parents of the guy who threw the party. I never heard what happened about that. I started avoiding that crowd right after that."

"You've been in the line of fire a lot, it seems," Leslie said, somewhat cautiously; unsure how deep she should probe this matter."

"What do you mean?" Kristen asked, puzzled by the statement.

"Well. A few days ago you told me about a girl you took care of after one party and now I hear about a boy with a punctured stomach. Sound's like you needed a first aid kit to get into those parties of yours."

"No. Come on. Stuff happens. They're just parties."

"Not like any party I ever went to."

"Yeah, but you're …."

"Old?" Leslie laughed mirthlessly.

"I didn't mean…."

"Sure you did. It's true. I'm from a different generation."

"Maybe. But you're not like my dad, all dry and used up."

"Is that what you think of your father?"

"Yeah. Sometimes. Seems like life for him is all work and worry and bills. It was worse when Mom…." Kristen paused in her diatribe and looked guilty. "God. I can't believe I said that now that I know how she ended up…. But it's true. It was worse when she was around. I mean, I loved her and all. But unless she was nurturing one of us she was always so angry and unhappy. Even at parties with friends. She'd be, like, frantic to have a good time. So she'd toss down a few too many drinks too fast and by the middle of the night she'd either be sappy or angry drunk. And poor dad would suffer in silence, embarrassed to death by her cavorting.

"Well. Sounds like he knew how to torture himself."


"Why didn't he just ignore her and have a good time? It's not like they were Siamese twins. He didn't have to consider her actions to be a reflection on him.

"Ya know, I never really though about it that way. None of us did. We all inwardly cringed whenever Mom acted out."

"Maybe in some sick way that's what she wanted," Leslie suggested.

"Like a baby acting out to get attention," Kristen agreed, "but always getting the wrong kind of attention. Except at Christmas. There was always something special about our Christmases. It was the only time mom and dad worked together. They used to put on a Swedish dinner with all the trimmings," Kristen said wistfully. "But at other parties mom would act out and dad would sink into himself chagrined and embarrassed. Jesus. And you wonder why I worry about getting involved."

"But you and Ryan are nothing like your mother and father."

"Thank God."

"And, you don't know if this relationship with Ryan's going to last. Chances are it won't. You're both so young. Enjoy what you have but don't assume it's going to last forever. I don't think partnering for life is realistic anymore in our society,"

"Why? What do you mean?"

"Well, for one thing we're living a lot longer than our ancestors. If you marry at 16 and live to be 80 you could be stuck with the same man for sixty four years. That's an awful long time. And now we have a whole lot more opportunities and choices. We're not stuck with the boy or girl next door any more. It's a smorgasbord out there."

Kristen started to laugh. "Sounds like you're hungry."

"That's the truth."

"Have you ever been in love?"

"Yeah. A couple of times," Leslie said with a wry smile.

"You don't sound so happy about it."

Leslie sighed. "I've been stuck with a lot of almosts and unrequited crushes. I'm still waiting to capture that elusive whatever it is. I've been head over heels twice. Neither guy was head over heels with me. The first time it happened I stuck around too long and made an ass of myself. The second time I bowed out… Maybe too soon. I don't know what would have happened if I'd stuck with it but at the time I thought I saw the writing on the wall. 'I love him, he loves somebody else' but we sure were compatible. I couldn't take it. He'd say 'I love you' in his sleep, but never to me when he was awake. So I split. On Valentine's Day."

"Ouch. You've got guts."

"I don't know. Maybe I didn't think I deserved him so I sabotaged it. I don't know. Sometimes I think what if I'd been bitchier about his crush on the other woman - stood up for myself, nagged him, thrown tantrums. But that's not me. And then there's the down part of being an empath. I could always tell what he was feeling. So if I screamed at him and he felt bad, I felt bad and didn't get any satisfaction. Or if he got angry I'd understand his anger and not get angry in return. I guess being an empath is kind of like being an emotional bomb squad. I'm always defusing situations. But when it comes to my own heart – well I have a kind of 'shoot myself in the foot' syndrome."

"Oh, come on, I doubt that. You're so…um, I don't know what to call it. Well centered I guess is how I see you. I think it just hasn't happened for you yet."

"Really?" Leslie was pleased by the compliment. "But it's true. Get me within a yard of a guy I'm attracted to and I become a gibbering idiot."

"You weren't a gibbering idiot around Tom."

"No. But he's…."

"Too young. Get over it. Maybe it's a good thing he's not perfect. You won't expect anything great to come of it so you'll be able to relax and enjoy the ride, so to speak."

"So to speak," Leslie Laughed. "I don't know. I did feel a certain something with Tom. I didn't want to admit it."


Just as they ran out of conversation the door to Operating Room 3 opened and a tired looking, green garbed surgeon walked into the waiting room. He looked around and spotted them. "Are you here for the gunshot wound?" he asked curtly.

Leslie and Kristen jumped to their feet. "Yes," Kristen said eagerly. "Ryan Peters. How's he doing?"

"Peters, uh huh, he's fine. We had to do a little digging. He's been stitched up and is ready to go to recovery."

"Can we see him?" Leslie asked

"Are you family?"

"Yes. His sisters."

"Okay. It'll be about ten more minutes until he comes around. Why don't you go get some coffee or something before you see him. There's some machines around the corner on the way to recovery."

"I could use a soda," Kristen said. So they sauntered down the corridor to the snack room and fumbled for change to get a couple of Diet Pepsis and a bag of chips. Then they found their way to the recovery room. Ryan was coming out of the anesthesia as they entered the room.

Kristen's heart lurched when she saw him all pale and stretched out on the bed. "How ya feeling? She asked cheerfully." She wanted to hold him in her arms, but knew he would hurt if she touched him.

"I've had better days," Ryan said groggily. "Are you going to get me out of here tonight?"

"I don't know. The doctor didn't say. It doesn't look like you're fit to go anywhere. Why don't you just relax and enjoy the drugs."

"Yeah, right. No. I hate hospitals. There's no reason for me to stay," Ryan persisted.

"Just the fact you lost a quart of blood and had a slug removed from your shoulder under general anesthesia," Leslie replied acerbically. "I think you're better off here tonight."

The doctor walked in looking tired and harried. "You should get a good nights rest here. You're going to be very tender for a while. You were lucky, though. There was minimal damage to the muscle and no major arteries were hit. You've got a lot of stitches in that shoulder. The arm will be useless for at least a couple of days. I'll look in on you in the afternoon. If you make good progress I'll let you go tomorrow evening with instructions and a clinic appointment. You may need some physical therapy. A gun shot wound isn't something you put a band aid on and forget about. You'll get another shot for the pain in about an hour. After that I'll have you on oral pain killers." The doctor made a couple of notes on the chart and walked off without even acknowledging the two women in the room.

"Well, that was warm and fuzzy," Leslie said sarcastically. "Was it just me or did that guy have an attitude problem?"

"Maybe he doesn't like women," Kristen suggested.

"Maybe he doesn't like life," Ryan retorted with a bark of laughter. "Paging Dr. Grimm, you're patients are revolting."

"How does someone with a chip on his shoulder like that end up in medicine?" Kristen wondered.

"Who knows? He's probably spent his entire life with his nose in a text book and all of a sudden he has to deal with humanity. He didn't expect it to be so troublesome to actually have to practice medicine," Leslie said. "What do you say we get out of here. It's really late. Ryan needs to sleep."

It was true. Ryan was struggling to stay awake. His head nodded a few times, he gave a small sigh and fell asleep.

"I don't know. I'd like to stay. After all that's been happening, I don't want to leave him alone. Who knows, the Cabal or the Company could be after him now. Or us. We should stick together."

"No one else knows we have your dad's papers."

"Unless Max told someone," Kristen said worriedly.

"I hadn't thought of that," Leslie replied. "But that's not very likely."

"I know, but still…. I want to stay. He looks so sweet – sound asleep. I want to be here when he wakes up."

"Alright." Leslie stood up and stretched. "I'm gonna go home. Thank God it's Saturday. I don't have to work. I'm gonna sleep."

"Keep an eye on the papers," Kristen cautioned.

"Where are they?"

Buried under the mess in your bedroom closet."

'Bout as safe a place as any, I'd say," Leslie laughed. "Do you have any money on you. For food and phone calls?"

"Huh unh."

"Here's five bucks. Make sure you get yourself something to eat. And try to sleep. Call me if anything comes up."

"Yes mother," Kristen said fondly.

"Stuff it," Leslie shot back as she walked out of the room.


Ryan was released from the hospital late Saturday afternoon. Leslie insisted he stay with her and Kristen. He tried to be grouchy about it but failed. After all he was being cousined and coddled by two beautiful women. Sure his shoulder hurt and he was out of commission for a few weeks – well, not entirely. As it turned out Kristen had a few tricks up her sleeve which didn't require him to disturb his shoulder. She was quite the little seductress.

Karl's research was picked up by on of Ryan's colleagues the night he came home from the hospital. Things were pretty quiet on the cloak and dagger front for a change.

Leslie called Tom a few days later after much prodding from Kristen. She updated him on events and agreed, nervously, to met him for lunch the following Sunday. She was flushed when she got off the phone.

"You see," Kristen said haughtily, "I knew there was a spark between you. Are you going out with him?"

"Uh huh."


"Next week. It's just lunch."

Lunch went very well and led to an afternoon of what Leslie had to admit was great fun. Tom took her to Valley Forge Park where they had a picnic by the river and talked for hours. There was an undeniable sexual attraction between them. Leslie wanted to be forthright about the age difference.

"It's pretty strange," she said hesitantly, "but I felt this tug, towards you when we first met. But here I am, over thirty…."

"Hey. I was there. I felt it too. I don't care what age you are. Maybe we're not star crossed lovers like Ryan and Kristen but there's definitely chemistry here. Hell, maybe we are star crossed lovers and are too stupid to figure it out. I don't know. But I like this feeling."
Leslie drew back a bit.

"I'm not saying we need to jump in the sack right away," he paused and caressed Leslie's face. "We can take it step by step. This afternoon's just perfect as it is."

Leslie laughed but had tears in her eyes. "That great. I really loved necking with you in my car the other night. I almost forgot what were there to do."

"Me too."

"And I love necking with you here. I could get used to this."

"Well, we'll have to do it more often, won't we?" Tom gave a low growl of a laugh."

They spent the rest of the afternoon watching the river, kissing and touching and talking. The might have stayed well into the evening but a summer storm kicked up and they ended up running for the car laughing like children in a downpour. Tom drove Leslie home and they lingered for a while in the car. They set another date for more of the same.

Kristen was spying on them and was well pleased to see Leslie getting some tender loving care from Rita's big brother. I knew it, she thought happily.

Over the next few weeks Kristen had a great time caring for Ryan and getting to know him. They were amazingly compatible. It was completely different than the relationships she'd observed when she was a child. They found that they could be friends as well as lovers. They weren't competitive with each other and loved learning and teaching. Leslie watched, somewhat enviously, as they formed a bond that would last a life time.

As Ryan healed, he began to training Kristen and Leslie in martial arts. It helped him regain strength in his upper body and was great exercise for the women. Always at the back of his mind was the fact they were beginning Kristen on the path of a Guardian.

Leslie decided to take a vacation time towards the end of July. She added a metaphysical element to the training which opened pathways Ryan had only suspected existed. As Kristen grew in knowledge and strength, Ryan became more well rounded. Leslie learned about the threat of the New World Order and sharpened her craft. They established a formidable triad.

Kristen and Ryan made a camping trip to the Jersey Shore one weekend in late August, leaving Leslie with a free weekend for Tom.

Sitting on the beach under a pale moon with a small fire they felt the season begin to turn. It was just a slight shift in the wind. But there it was. They knew their summer coming to an end. Kristen shivered a bit in Ryan's arms. Then she leaned back and looked at the night sky. It was the time of meteor showers. They started counting the falling stars and making silent wishes.

I wish this feeling would never end, Kristen thought sadly, knowing that time was going to speed up again once they returned to Germantown. Ryan's getting restless. I can't do anything about that. I've got school to think about. And we still don't know what happened to Dad. Ryan sensed her pensiveness and brushed a stray lock of hair off her face. He looked at her questioningly. She shook her head and smiled. "Summer's almost over," she said. Two weeks from now I'm going to be a freshman at Antioch. God. I'm going to have a roommate. Hell. I thought I was done sharing a room when Lizzy and Ned went off to school. And they're all going to be older than me."

"Older than you?" Ryan said wonderingly. "Kiddo, you're older than most of us. Just relax and enjoy the time you have at school. That's what it's all about – college, I mean. It's a transition period. A training camp."

"But you won't stop my real training, will you?" she asked plaintively."

"I've got to get back to work. But I'll be around. You can call me. And there's always the holidays."

Yeah. I gotta establish a whole new Christmas tradition.


Kristen's college years flew by. She majored in psychology and sociology, made some friends and even dated a bit. She never got that zing with anyone but Ryan. Her vacations were spent at Leslie's house with Tom and Rita and Ryan, always Ryan. After the first year Ned and Lizzy started coming for the holidays as well. They became a new family. The Cabal and the Company had their sights set elsewhere. The Guardians kept up the mortgage on the Hanson home and turned it into another safe house. It was perfect because it had that little secret room.

A week before graduation Kristen got a card in the mail from someone named Alphonse Guitti congratulating her on commencement. Inside the card was a picture of a silver haired man with a wonderful mustache standing next to a store front. "Inventions, by Guitti," was the placard.

I'll be damned. Good going Dad, Kristen thought with a laugh.
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