Monday, 18 September 2023 19:00

Everything Goes With Blackmail

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A Circle of Friends Story

Everything Goes With Blackmail

By Bek D Corbin, Maggie Finson, E. E. Nalley, and Starwolf

 

There are days when it’s just good to be alive. Miranda woke up next to her husband, Harrison, and nestled up close to him, just to enjoy the warmth. She had a husband. How many dreams did that fulfill, right there?

The fact that Harrison was a good-looking man, who was a well-respected member in the Philadelphia legal community, and more than just comfortably well off, was all well and good. But Harrison knew that Miranda hadn’t been born female. He knew that she was a transsexual, and he still loved her. He shared his name and his life with her, because he saw the woman that she really was, despite the unfortunate quirk of biology. For that alone, she could adore him.

Well, the money, the position and the great sex didn’t hurt any.

She dozed happily for about an hour, safe under the crook of his arm. But the world doesn’t go away, just because you’re happy. Reluctantly Harrison and Miranda pulled themselves out of bed, and got ready for their days. Miranda roused Harrison’s children by his previous marriage, Holly and Neal, out of their beds. Eight-year-old Neal still wasn’t quite sure of how to behave around Miranda, but Holly was just what the doctor ordered: a real pill.

Miranda wasn’t used to having a housekeeper, but she had to admit that Mrs. DiRavenna’s breakfasts were much better than anything that she could put together. Not to mention that it gave her an opportunity to wake up completely before going to work. Thankfully, Holly restricted her jabs to her ‘wicked step-mother’ to merely pointedly ignoring her. Maybe it was only being ten years old and needing some kind of sense of control over her life, but Holly simply refused to accept that Miranda had absolutely nothing to do with breaking up her mother and father. But then, what ten-year-old wants to admit that her mother broke up her home to go chasing younger men?

Oh well, at least it allowed Miranda the conceit of casting herself in the same role that Julia Roberts played in ‘Stepmother’. She fancied that she rather resembled Julia Roberts. They had the same kind of long, narrow face with a straight nose, wide expressive mouth and large gray eyes, all framed by long chestnut brown hair. Well, if you’re too scrawny to pull off curvaceous, Thank God at least ‘willowy’ works! Harrison once told her that he thought that she looked like Julie Hagerty, of the ‘Airplane!’ movies. Miranda paused to wonder if we all cast our lives with actors from TV and movies. Hmm... Not a bad premise. She hastily jotted down the thought; maybe she could expand it to a nice little five-page piece? She contributed regularly to Philadelphia Now, but that wouldn’t stop her from sending it to The New Yorker. Well, it wouldn’t hurt...

Harrison dropped the kids off at their school and let Miranda off a couple of blocks away from her office building. Miranda gave him a kiss, and sent him off to another day of power brokering at his law firm. As she walked the few blocks to where Whitlock & Penobscott, Publishers had its offices, Miranda allowed herself the luxury of quietly reveling in the fact that she was living the sort of life that she’d fantasized about as a kid. She was an attractive woman (or, continuing her train of thought from earlier, a ‘Pretty Woman’) with a wonderful husband, a job that she actually liked, a beautiful house and two wonderful kids. Okay, so the kids could use a little re-tooling; nobody’s life is perfect.

She picked up a cup of tea at the coffee shop in the lobby and rode up the elevator, making the usual pleasantries with those co-workers that she met. She made her way past the cubicles to her own office. Her office wasn’t that much larger than the cubicles, but at least it had a real door, real walls, and there was a window that allowed her some real sunlight.

Her desk was crowded but not cluttered, as so many of the other editors’ were. Whitlock & Penobscott had her on Mysteries - not True Crime, thank God - and Whistler was handling the Hard Boiled stuff, but still there were always a lot of people who wanted to be the next Agatha Christie, so there were still a lot of screened submissions on her desk. Ah well, at least the readers had winnowed out the unmitigated crap. Miranda still had nightmares about wading through tides of ‘First Page’ submissions.

She was skimming through her second submission of the day, when she was rescued by the arrival of the mail. “Mrs. Kitteridge? I have a registered letter for you that requires your signature.”

Miranda took the long envelope, signed the receipt and gave a sigh of relief. It wasn’t another unsolicited manuscript trying to get past her readers by using registered mail. She looked at the envelope - no return address, a Philadelphia postmark. She opened the envelope and read the single page of the letter. She hadn’t gotten three sentences into the letter, when her wonderful life began to fall apart around her.

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Miranda was still gazing numbly at the knob on her office door when the phone rang. It was Sommers in Proof Reading, who had a question about a galley proof. Miranda stumbled through a series of phone calls on Automatic, until she got a phone call from a friend.

“Hey, Miranda! What's going on with you today?”

“Hunh? Oh, Lucia--- oh, I’m just doing the usual. Nothing special.”

"Cool! How about getting the girls together for a little calorie counting and gab? Or are you too busy discovering the next Agatha Christie over there?"

“The girls? Oh sure. My place, about Four.”

"Wow! Must be nice having a job where you can take off whenever you like because the boss is scared that your husband will sue his butt off if he fires you. Me, I just tell them I'm checking out a story possibility. Either way works, I guess."

“Ah, yeah - will you call the others, and let them know? I have to get back to work. I’ll pick up the croissants.”

“Hey, Miranda-”

“I’ll see you at Four.” Miranda hung up and tried to focus on her work.

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Lucia put her cell phone back in her purse after calling the others and frowned thoughtfully. Miranda just hadn't sounded like her usual normal, stuffy self earlier. Well, she was stuffy enough to have generally raised a protest about the crack regarding her boss and husband, anyway. Not that Mrs. Kitteridge's stuffiness (okay, okay, proper) air prevented them from being friends. In fact, the differences between the very proper Miranda Kitteridge and the almost freewheeling Lucia Barrington gave the pair endless hours of fun prodding each other about their different lifestyles and views. Those who didn't know them often thought they were actually fighting.

Not true. Lucia and Miranda had something very basic in common, besides the real friendship that had grown out of attending a support group for post-op transsexuals. Each of them possessed a wicked sense of humor that the other was able to appreciate and hone on the other's little foibles without causing hard feelings.

Luce sat at her desk in the copy room at thePhiladelphia Tribune. Well, it really was a whole desk she actually had to herself unlike other reporters who often had to share their workspace with several others. It wasn't an office of her own, but she at least had room to spread out a little without worrying that a desk mate would spill coffee, or something worse, all over her latest article.

Which would be no real disaster, she thought half sourly while reading back over her latest piece, a rather detailed, and unavoidably dull, description of the Harris/Bloomberg wedding for the society pages. Well at least it wasn't a flower show, she thought with an internal sigh. The affair had been the usual staid affair thrown by the image conscious rich of the city, but at least the catering had been good. Still, she longed to get her hooks into a real story and get herself out of the society and human-interest section of the paper.

Not that she needed the job. Her own trust fund had opened up on her twenty-first birthday, and left her with enough money to buy The Tribune if she wanted to, and still have more left than even an imaginative young woman could spend in a long lifetime. While her own investments kept adding to that every day. But buying the paper so she could do as she pleased wouldn't be any fun. It was the challenge of really proving that she could do the job that kept her at it. That and her love of the news, actually of seeing it before almost anyone else did, anyway.

But now, one of her friends was having trouble, she just knew it. The story was as polished as she could get it without having a screaming fit. So, Luce pushed her chair away from the computer keyboard after saving her work and sending it to proofing, grabbed her purse, and gave her co-workers a cheery wave as she headed for the door, and relative freedom for the day.

The female staffers watched her with either cool dismissal - a rich girl playing at being a reporter those thought - or envy. Lucia had been post-op since she was an underdeveloped sixteen, so had no male physical characteristics to betray that she had once been a boy. In fact she was gorgeous with her long, luxuriously wavy raven hair, and the well fitted white leather pants and red silk blouse she was wearing that day. With her heart shaped face, delicate features, and trim, but definitely female shape, she had effortlessly been a traffic stopper since a year after her final surgery. At twenty-five, that grace of carriage had become unconscious long ago.

"Leaving our little sanctuary of Truth and Integrity already?” A familiar voice interrupted her progress for a few seconds as William Buxton stepped out of his office to smile at her.

"Yeah, Bill, the story is as finished as I'm going to get it without going insane, and I did work all day Saturday on getting it, so I have some time coming and nothing on my desk at the moment." Luce gave the young man a warm smile as she stopped to talk for a few moments. "So I'm going to do some half-assed shopping for the next hour or so, then go get together with some friends for the rest of the afternoon."

"Must be great being some hot shot society reporter at this rag." Bill grinned down at her five foot five inch frame from his own lofty six feet as he shared their private joke about her frustration over what the editors sent her out on which to report. "You people get all the perks, and free food all the time, too."

"Calories, Bill, it's all useless calories; I always spend days paying for at the gym once I've enjoyed them so wickedly." Luce shook her finger at him in mock anger. "That's the price we girls pay for keeping these svelte figures you guys enjoy ogling so much, you know. We either starve, or work out till we drop from exhaustion."

"Speaking of 'wicked calories', I won't call them useless in this case since it involves you, are we still on for dinner on Saturday?"

"Wouldn't miss it, hon!" Luce reached up and forward to pat the man's smooth shaven cheek while wondering if he kept a razor in his office to keep it that way. "You always take me to such interesting places!"

"I still can't believe that you'd never been to a Denny's before I took you that one night." Bill chuckled.

"Well, it's the truth." Luce chuckled at the memory; she hadn't been surprised to find the food plain, but reasonably good there. The company had been better, though. "Where will it be Saturday? McDonalds?"

"Give me some credit for originality here." Bill put on a hurt expression that cracked, as he couldn't help grinning. "I'm saving that one up for a really special occasion."

"Ooooh, I can't wait!" Luce smiled back, then headed for the exit with a wave and an especially sexy little sway in her walk for him while calling back. "But for now, my credit cards are feeling neglected. See you later!"

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Mrs. DiRavenna was nice enough to make some finger food before she left at Three. Miranda kept herself busy fine-tuning Mrs. DiRavenna’s immaculate housekeeping for about a half hour before showering and changing into her afternoon outfit.

It was a little past Four when the doorbell first rang.

Standing in the door, waiting for Miranda to invite her in was a middle-aged woman wearing heavy khaki slacks and shirt, liberally smudged with what looked and smelled like soot. On her head was a wide brimmed cotton khaki hat with the letters C. T. P. I. stenciled in navy blue. Around her waist was a wide black utility belt with an assortment of items including a pistol, handcuffs, and various other items of mayhem. Also attached to the belt was a gold badge with Special Investigator embossed on a shield. A pair of heavy, black workmen boots completed the ensemble.

Underneath all of that was a fair complexioned woman of about 5' 8". She was somewhat stocky, but had a good figure similar to Jamie Lee Curtis. Her hair was a slightly curvy auburn down to her shoulders. Looking out from under the hat was a pair of hazel eyes.

She was in the process of trying to wipe off a smear of soot from her right cheek with a handkerchief when the door opened. The sudden opening of the door startled her.

“Oh! Hi, Miranda! Uh... I just came off a job and was hoping that you wouldn’t mind that I came directly here.”

Miranda smiled and waved her in. She had a preoccupied look even as she welcomed her friend.

“Hello, Charlie. Come on in and sit down. There are some drinks and a little food out in the parlor. Make yourself at home.”

Charlie was so surprised she almost didn’t get in the door. She just managed to get in before the door closed and followed Miranda to the parlor, a look of confusion on her face. Ein, Miranda’s Welsh Corgi, trotted up with a yip of welcome, and stopped in his tracks. He snuffled at the gasoline smell, rubbed his snout on the rug and retreated to underneath one of the Queen Anne chairs.

"Uh, Miranda?"

“Yes?”

“Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine. What makes you say that?”

“Oh...nothing. Just that the last time I tried to enter your house looking like I’d just torched Rome you threatened to call the Fire Department, Police, and Marine Corps and have me evicted from the state. Not to mention the fact that you haven’t mentioned my pistol even once yet. We all know how you feel about my wearing this into your house.”

“I’m fine. Really. It’s just that I’m a little distracted right now. Go on in and sit. I’ll be in shortly.”

“Miranda?”

“Yes?”

“It’s not problems with Harrison is it?”

Miranda got a shocked look on her face. “No! Nothing like that! It’s just that...uh...I can’t talk about it now. But it’s not about that. Really. Just go in and sit. I’ll be out soon.”

Charlie watched her carefully as she moved off down the hall. Then she shook her head and moved into the parlor. She moved over to the table that had the food and drinks. Grabbing a small plate she snagged a few of the treats and a 10-oz. ginger ale. She then tried to find a chair to sit in that wouldn’t be too compromised by the grime on her clothes.

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Luce carefully pulled into the drive of Miranda's home, mindful of the tongue lashing (deserved, she had to admit) from the time she had careened in with a screech of tires on pavement and blacktop, barely stopping her brand new Targa before adding some new furrows to the in-process flower garden at the side of the house. Well, she'd just picked the Porsche up and had been getting used to how the low slung two seater handled. It had just gotten a little out of hand there, is all, and she had the speeding and reckless driving citation to prove that to herself and everyone else when the subject came up. Since then, she'd been (marginally) more careful and mindful of traffic regulations on the street and the Kitteridge's driveway.

Noting that Charlie's gray Escort was already parked, she retrieved the wickedly delightful Verdeens's Cremepuffs in their rather plain box and the six pack of Bass Plale Ale she had picked up on the way. Luce mused on the obvious differences between the circle of friends gathering here this afternoon. Women from different walks of life, and circumstances, who through one important similarity had found each other and become close friends in spite of, or maybe because of those differences.

Balancing the box of pastries and the bag containing the beer on one hip, she rang the doorbell and was surprised as Miranda almost immediately opened the door. "Hi Miranda! Watching to make sure I obey the Law of the Land when I pulled in, were you?"

"Oh, that. Water under the bridge, dear," Miranda answered with half her attention, and the vague half at that. "Come on in, Charlie's already here."

"Ok, thanks." Luce grinned and shook her head as she barely made it off the front walk before the front door closed and her friend turned away. "By the way, how are things in the Reed Household these days?"

"Fine,thanks," Miranda responded without a retort in response to the reference to the old sitcom from the sixties. "Go make yourself comfortable and I'll be with you soon."

"Sure." Luce watched her friend walk away and shook her head. 'Something's wrong here, that's for sure. The question is what? And what I can do to help her out of this funk.'

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Luce entered the parlor to find Charlie already seated, and looking as if she had recently been on fire, or in one. Ein ran hopefully up to her, sniffing first at the pastries, then hopefully pawing at the bag with the beer in it. Luce absently scratched the Corgi behind the ears while telling him, "Maybe a bite later, but last time I shared a beer with you, Miranda claimed you didn't walk right for days, so I'll have to keep that to myself and any humans who want one. Sorry, Ein."

The Corgi gave her a mournful expression as she found a seat, then scampered off. Luce noticed with amusement that he made a deliberately wide circle to avoid where Charlie was seated.

“Hi, Luce! What’s happening?”

“I'm not all that sure, but we'll find out soon enough, I imagine." Nose wrinkling in acknowledgement of Charlie's present state and then grinning, the petite young woman questioned, "What in the world have you been up to?"

Charlie waved at herself. “You mean this?”

Lucia waved her hands in front of her face. “Yes. That. No offense, I'd be the last one to discourage experiments with new looks, but the 'Grunge Gunfighter' look doesn't work for you. I'd drop it. Though that perfume is -- um -- interesting."

“Oh, some guy tried to torch a warehouse for the insurance. For some reason he thought that the fact that several gallons of gasoline poured around the area where the blaze started wouldn’t leave traces that would tell us what had happened. Unfortunately, you have to get into this kind of work to find the evidence. Thus explaining the condition of my clothes and current aroma.”

“And Miranda let you in? Without calling a decontamination squad on the spot?”

“Yeah. And hasn’t said a thing about it either. I’m getting a bit worried. She says it doesn’t have anything to do with Harrison, but I’m having a hard time figuring out what else it could be. Have you heard anything?”

“No. But I intend to find out ASAP. Something’s up, I just don’t know what it is yet. You say you don’t think it’s Harrison?”

“From her reaction when I asked I’m pretty sure that’s not it. But if it isn’t something about him, then I don’t know what it is.”

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Constance Mitchell arrived slightly past four at the fairly sizable Tudor that Miranda called home. Its immaculate lawn let it fit in nicely with the other not quite estates of the neighborhood. Mitchell liked both the house and the neighborhood; it had that quiet, Stepford Wives feel that always made her wonder about what else went on behind closed doors around here.

What would the Jones and the Smiths say if they knew they had a cell of the Transgendered Resistance right in their very midst? As she turned off her Mustang, she took a moment to check her appearance in the rear view mirror. From it stared a young woman of about twenty-six. Her naturally honey blonde hair fell to the top of her shoulders. Anticipating a day of flying, she had forgone makeup and there were those who would have said her expressive oval face didn’t need it. Her eyes were a clear emerald green and they were currently filled with worry.

She wore the Nomex flight suit she also wore in her time on duty in the National Guard as it was surprisingly well designed for its function. Her figure needed work, and the flight suit wasn’t helping, but she had a nice shape that curved right, if perhaps not as well as its owner would like. She weighed 140 pounds and she stood five feet seven inches tall before the inch of the heels of the flight boots she was wearing added to that.

Satisfied that her appearance was as good as it was going to get, she grabbed the bag of streusel from the passenger seat and made her way to the door. Connie chuckled as she made sure her boots were free of mud and rang the bell. “Well, it’s good to know you’re not above answering your own door, Mrs. Kitteridge,” Mitchell teased her hostess with a smile. “I brought streusel.

“Hello, Connie,” greeted Miranda distantly as she opened the door and turned back to the parlor without another word.

“I’m fine thanks, glad to be here,” muttered Connie as she came in and closed the door.

“There’s coffee if you’d like some. And I’ve already set out the croissants, so help yourself,” was the disjointed reply.

Connie followed her hostess into the parlor where the other members of the Transgendered Resistance had beaten her there. She was just noticing a rather odd smell when her eyes fell on the soot covered form of Charlie. Connie glanced at Charlie, obviously trying and failing to keep a grin from her face. "Just come from a fire sale...?"

“Anyone else want to say it?” growled the older woman as she looked at her three friends, but she lost the battle to keep a grin from her face almost immediately. She turned back to Connie. “You know me, Connie. I ALWAYS have to be the first one there. It’s no good for me if it isn’t still smoking because I can always get the best deals that way. Should I be looking for something you want while I’m at it? Somewhat damaged aircraft parts and the like?”

Connie shook her head and grinned some more. “Fraid I can’t go that route. You think you’ve got a deal and by the time you're finished making sure it’s not too damaged you might as well have bought it new and got the warrantee with it at the same time. You know, that look might catch on, but I don’t think the aroma will.”

“And while we’re on the subject of fashion, Connie, are you off to war?” Charlie asked with a smirk and wave to encompass the flight suit, which was doing a crackerjack job of spoiling what there was of Connie’s figure.

Chuckling around the counterpoint, Mitchell responded, “Nope, just got back.” Giving up on that bit of gambit, Connie nodded a hello to Lucia as she prepped her own coffee and laid out the streusel, keeping the top most piece for herself. As she made her way to an open chair her cell phone went off. Unable to suppress an exasperated sigh, Connie carefully balanced her goodies on the coffee table that was already overcrowded with everyone else’s balancing act as well as a newsstand’s worth of women’s and home magazines. The bothersome technology was removed from a zippered pocket on her flight suit and turned on. “Pegasus Air Taxi, this is Connie, how can I help you?”

The nasal voice on the other end conjured up the image of Jim Conner, the FAA Administrator of the North East Philadelphia Airport where Connie ran her business. Her mind’s eye saw a mousy little man in a bad suit that screamed government employee. “Miss Mitchell, this is Jim Conner, is this a bad time to call you?”

'Isn’t it always?'thought Connie to herself. Out loud she smiled into the phone hoping it carried into her tone. “Not at all, Mr. Conner. What can I do for you?”

“I was just going over the paperwork for your Taxi Service. Everything else seems in order, Miss Mitchell, except I don’t see the report from the Annual Inspection of 217.”

Connie blinked. “I don’t even have the title for 217, yet, Mr. Conner,” she said slowly. “I just bought it last month. I’ve only put forty-five minutes on the airframe bringing it here from the dealer.”

“Be that as it may, Miss Mitchell, 217 was manufactured in February of last year. It's due for its Annual. I cannot issue a flight permit until you’ve filed the Annual.” Connie did her best to contain her amazement.

“217 sat in a dealer showroom for a year. She wasn’t flown. I took delivery putting the first forty-five minutes on her. An Annual Inspection will cost almost eight thousand dollars, not to mention the loss of revenue!”

Jim sniffed in indignation. “If you can afford a new aircraft, Miss Mitchell, you can afford to see it’s properly looked after. Good afternoon.”

“Not anymore!” she snapped, hanging up with a barely contained fury, which melted into an embarrassed blush when she realized Lucia was staring at her. Connie returned the phone to its pocket after somewhat forcefully turning it off. “Hey there, Lucia, what’s new?”

“My new barrel for my Thompson Match Grade came in yesterday, so I was hoping you’d like to join me for a day at the range later this week perhaps?”

“After today, I think a few hundred rounds down range would be a good thing,” agreed Connie as she offered a piece of the German pastry. “Come to think of it, my recertification for the Guard is coming up too, so all the more reason.”

“Now, what was that all about? Is something wrong with your helicopter?”

“Nothing that I can think of,” mumbled Connie around a mouthful of sweet heaven. “Every year an aircraft enters what’s called Phase. There are six and twelve month phase inspections as well as the Annual inspection. It just so happens my new helicopter sat on a showroom floor after the previous purchaser’s financing fell through at the last minute. Which was why it was such a good deal. Well, even though it’s never been flown, it’s due for these inspections, so I can’t get the paperwork for it or use it until it gets them.”

Charlie nodded. “Yeah, I can see where you might not care for those slightly damaged goods. Especially if Uncle Sam insists on messing with the whole thing.”

Connie nodded. “Even when they aren’t damaged goods.”

Ein crawled out from under the chair, padded over to Connie, and laid his long snout on her thigh. He rolled his big soulful eyes up toward her and gave a mournful doggie sigh as she chewed on the strusel. Ein had Connie pegged as a soft touch for begging scraps.

Lucia had the grace not to laugh. “So your good deal isn’t quite as good anymore?”

Constance frowned as she nodded, trying not to bristle. “I’m sorry; I guess I’m just not having a good day. My dog ate one of my favorite pair of running shoes and it’s gone down hill from there. I don’t know where I’m going to come up the money for that inspection. I guess I could ask mom for a little extra from my Trust Fund.” She gave her attention to her munchies, listening to the conversation around her and trying to be pleasant company. She was completely unprepared for what was said next.

Suddenly, Lucia broke in. “Miranda, are you okay? I’ve been sticking you pretty good, and you haven’t risen to the baitonce! You didn't even flinch when I made that crack about how things were going in the Reed household when you opened the door for me. C’mon! I don’t come here just for Marchand’s croissants, or to offer Ein a sip of beer when you aren't looking! What’s got you so upset?”

Miranda stiffened, her lips pressed thin and pale, and her eyes went wide with fear. Her normal air of sleek competence slipped away and she suddenly looked very delicate. She whispered, “Guys---- I’m being blackmailed!”

Plop, went the streusel on the floor. “I’m sorry!” exclaimed Connie as she managed to not spill her coffee trying to catch the errant pastry. But Ein, ever watchful, beat her to the tasty morsel. “Blackmailed?” she demanded as she performed damage control on the hardwood floor.

Lucia dropped her beer, Much to Ein's delight as the Corgi scampered forward to lap up the wonderful brew before anyone could retrieve it and deprive him.

Charlie put her drink and munchies down and leaned forward to listen.

“This morning, at work, I got a letter saying that if I didn’t pay him One Hundred Dollars, then he’d send proof to Linda Everett, the gossip columnist at the Clarion, that I was a Transsexual. He had my birth name, where I was born, my mother and father’s names, and he even knew which High School I went to, back in Dayton! You know what Linda Everett’s like! She’d rip me to bits! I’d be a laughingstock!”

“YOWch! Getting outed is NO Fun!”

“OUTED? You think that this is about getting outed? This is about my MARRIAGE!”

Charlie and Lucia exchanged a glance and nodded to each other.

“What? I thought that you told Harrison about your past!”

“I did! As soon as it was clear that we were getting serious, I told him.”

“How did he take it?” Connie asked curiously.

“Uhm, well, he said that he had to think about it for a while, he left, and then I didn’t see or hear from him for three days. I thought that I’d lost another one. But then he showed up at the office with a big bouquet of white roses - I love white roses, don’t you? - and he said that he loved me, and that the past was the past.”

“Go, Harrison!” Lucia muttered wryly. “So, did you do him right there in the office?”

“No,” Miranda said smugly, a touch of her old spunk showing, “I waited ‘til that night, and jumped him in the living room.”

“Well, if he knows about it, what’s the problem?” Charlie asked.

“You don’t understand! This isn’t about ME, it’s about Harrison! Harrison, his whole life is about being accepted! He went to the right schools, and the right college and he got into the right clubs, and all that! He NEEDS to be accepted! His entire career is about knowing people and people knowing him! If it got out that he’d married a transsexual, it would ruin him! You know what Main Line Society is like! They wouldn’t say anything, not right out, but people would stop talking to him! We wouldn’t get invited to any of the parties, Harrison wouldn’t get tapped for any commissions - and did I tell you that he’s being considered for the DCCC for Philadelphia? - and his clients would go to other firms! Sefton, Hadwin & Flint would come up with a reason to fire him, and he’d be crushed. He’s a good man - he doesn’t deserve that.”

Charlie sighed and nodded. “Yeah, it tends to happen that way.”

“You think that he might leave you?” Connie asked with a raised eyebrow.

”I don’t know which would be worse - losing him, or having him stand by me, and watching him wither away inside, and know that it’s allmy fault!” Miranda ended with a wail and broke down crying.

Charlie got up and moved over near her. She put her hand on Lucia’s shoulder to let her know she was there.

Ein, having finished the spilled beer (not much, but a Corgi is a small dog) left off his begging for more, and carefully crawled up into the chair with his mistress. He tried to console her as best he could with nuzzles and sweet little doggie licks, but it wasn’t doing any good. He scampered off the chair, and snagged one of the strusel that he’d snitched and hidden under a chair. Carrying the goodie in his mouth, he climbed back up into Miranda’s lap and offered it to her. Miranda saw him offering her the pastry that was wet with doggie drool, and swept him up into her arms. She thanked him and cradled him in her arm, even as she handed off the disgusting offering to Lucia with the hand that Ein couldn’t see.

Suppressing a grin, Charlie took the offending piece from Lucia and wrapped it up in a napkin for later disposal.

Connie worked a travel pack of kleenex from one of the pockets of the flight suit and offered them to Miranda. "Miranda, you keep saying he knows, he'll tell. Who is he? Do you know who's blackmailing you? And to be honest, if all he wants is a hundred crummy bucks, I'm having trouble buying into how he got all this on his own."

Lucia gave Connie a withering glance. “Hmmph! Didn’t you ever read any Raymond Chandler at West Point? It’s the oldest blackmail trick in the book! They always ask for some piddling little amount the first time. That’s so that you tacitly admit that you have something that you’re ashamed of, and that you’re willing to pay to keep it quiet. Then they ask for more, using the fact that you paid them off before as more leverage. He’ll either keep upping the amount that he wants, or he’ll offer to let her off the hook by doing him a ‘little favor’ that happens to be either illegal or hideously unethical. Then he usesthatto blackmail her into even more, leveraging her into compromising herself further and further, until he flat out owns her.”

Connie suppressed a very inappropriate chuckle with a nearly superhuman act of will as she returned Lucia’s gaze without flinching. “There’s no need to be rude, Lucy, and I think we’ve all seen enough True Crime Drama to know how a blackmailer works. My point, which you so adroitly missed was it sounds as if someone Miranda may or may not know is behind the front man feeding him info. Miranda is rich. A thousand dollar demand is barely worth noticing. A hundred dollars or a muckraker on a third tier paper gets a plain brown axe grinding is insulting. Get it?” Connie turned back to Miranda and did her best to remove any vestal trace of sarcasm from her tone. “Miranda, sweetie, do you know who this front man is or how he might have found out about you? Tell us everything so we’ve got something to fight back with.”

“Come to think of it,” Charlie pitched in, “how do you know that it’s a ‘He’? I mean, if anything, while men tend to be more aggressive than women, women have men beat flat out in down and dirty nasty. It takes a woman’s touch to twist the knife with finesse.”

Miranda wiped her nose, “I don’t, really. I just got this letter - no return address, Philly postmark, on general market stationery.” She handed Ein off to Charlie, much to Ein’s disgust, and got up out of the chair. Then she walked over to her briefcase and took out a sheet of plain white paper in a clear vinyl sleeve. She pulled out another with an envelope in it also.

“You bagged them for evidence?” Charlie asked.

“Well, that’s what you do with these things, isn’t it? I mean, I got my fingerprints on it, but there might be something that a crime lab could find.”

“Aww...” Lucia smirked, “she just didn’t want that piece of garbage smelling up her house.”

Miranda ignored the swipe, and handed the plastic encased letter to Charlie who put down a very relieved Ein as she took the offerings. “As for it being a ‘He’ - well, I just got a very ‘guy’ vibe off of it.”

“Actually, you did good, Miranda. We may be able to get some good prints off this. A lot of people don’t realize that you can get prints off the paper.”

Lucia peeked over Charlie’s shoulder as they both read it. “Hmmm... I see what you mean, Miranda. There’s a real whiff of cruelty to it, but it’s like he’s getting off on the act of being cruel itself, not on the pain that it causes.”

“Yeah,” Charlie nodded, “and he keeps harping on about himself - ‘_I_ know’, ‘You will send to _Me_’, ‘Or _I_ will-‘, and like that. It’s all about him being in control. It does have a very ‘guy’ vibe. It’s also a very unprofessional letter, when you think about it.”

Unprofessional?” Miranda blurted angrily. It was bad enough getting blackmailed, but to get squeezed by anamateur?

“Oh, definitely,” Charlie continued clinically. “Like Lucia said, you can just see the cruelty all over the place in this thing. There’s definitely something personal going on here. A Pro, even a professional Pee Eye doing a little moonlighting, would try to keep it strictly business, a cash transaction for continued silence. If anything, I’d say that this guy is more interested in either hurting or controlling you than he is in cash.”

Lucia turned to Miranda. “So, who do you know that owes you that kind of grief?”

Miranda picked up Ein out of her chair and sat back down again. She mulled it over as she stroked his fur. “Well, Harrison’s ex-wife, Rebecca, and I never got along. I donotunderstand that woman - she left him to go chasing cabana boys, but she acts like I’m trespassing on her property. No, if she ever found out, she wouldn’t be able to resist beating Harrison and me over the head with it, in person. Still, she might, if it occurred to her that it might hurt Neal. Neal’s in Second Grade, and the other kids would tear him apart if they every got wind of it. It’s her one redeeming trait that I know of; she does care about her children - when she thinks about them. No, I don’t think that Rebecca’s behind this.”

Lucia nodded. “Besides, she’d be slicker than this. She knows that if Harrison’s career goes in the toilet, then her Alimony and Child Support does down with it.”

Connie nodded as she stood to pace as she always did when thinking. Clasping her hands behind her back, her locomotion gave speed to her brain and her voice, a rather pleasant husky tenor began to spill out her thoughts. “Okay, what we need here is a unified front of battle. Our suspect has detailed knowledge of Miranda’s past. If we figure out how he got that then we get a better handle on who he is. For ease of reference, I’ll call him SAM.”

Lucia rolled her eyes. “Why Sam? You want us to think he’s got the jawbone of an ass or something?” Mitchell shook her head, missing the joke completely.

“No, because the thing that ruins every chopper pilots day is a Surface to Air Missile. So, this jerk becomes SAM. SAM is one of three people. One, he’s a childhood friend of Miranda’s who saw her on the street, put two and two together and got four. In this case, he’s hungry and sees Miranda as a meal ticket. Two, he’s an ex-boyfriend or someone else Miranda came out to after her transition. If this is the case, God knows what or why he’s doing this.” She stopped her pacing and turned back to Miranda. “The third option is the blackmailer is a front for the real deal who is probably a one or a two. So, the question is, Miranda, how’s your love life and who have you come out to? Or, have you thought you’d seen any old school chums?”

“Old school chums? Guys, I planned my transition very carefully. I went into the Air Force straight out of High School, and volunteered for Weather Station duty. I managed to start my medications there - believe me, if you’re willing to do eight-month hitches inGreenland, they don’t carewhatyou do, as long as your data’s accurate. By the time that my hitch was up, I was ready to start living full-time.”

Connie gave her a pained look. “And what was the point of that, Hon?” But the real source of the scorn was obvious -Air Force?

“Thepointis, that I had a three-year interval between the time that I graduated High School and the time that I went to College. I went into the Force looking like a scrawny boy, and came out looking like a scrawny girl. _So_, there’s no one saying, ‘hey is that Mitch Palmer in a _dress_?’ ”

Connie nodded, willing to forgive her friend a minor lapse in judgment over a service branch choice. After all, the Army and Navy had hated each other for centuries, but the Air Force was a turncoat. Once upon a time, it had been the Army Air Forces and the bitterness that they were able to become their own branch on top of getting the better of the budgets from Congress was handed down carefully from one generation of soldiers to the next. “All right, so we can eliminate childhood friends or school acquaintances. That leaves people you’ve come out to,” Connie declared, stepping subconsciously into her Command Mode. “We’ll need a list of everyone that you’ve done that to. Charlie, how long will it take you to figure out where all of these people are now? We know from the postmark, SAM is local, so we mostly just need to figure out which ones are in or around Philly. Then we can figure out who has an ax to grind.”

Charlie spoke up. “Well, not necessarily local. If he’s smart he would only make it look like that. But, he doesn’t seem to be that smart yet, so it’s worth a try. The time it will take me to get info on them will be directly related to the amount of real time info you can give me on them to begin with. It will save a lot of dead ends and the like if I have a current address and phone number. Also, I don’t think you want to send this to one of the labs to be printed.”

Connie was the first to respond to that. “Why not?”

Charlie shrugged. “You don’t know these guys like I do. They wouldn’t be able to resist reading it and trying to do their own bit of detecting. That could be as bad as what the blackmailer is doing. They’re all Junior Detectives from way back and are always looking for a chance to be ‘REAL DETECTIVES’.”

“Then how do we get the prints off of it without these guys doing it?” Lucia asked.

Charlie grinned a huge grin. “Simple. They aren’t the only Junior Detectives in town. All I have to do is go out to my car and get my kit.”

Miranda set back in the chair, and stroked Ein’s fur. “A list? Well, that shouldn’t take that long. I don’t exactly get off on raking over the fact that I wasn’t born a girl.”

“Not like some of the ‘girls’ in our old support group,” Lucia grumped.

“Well, let’s face it, Luce - being a transsexual was the only thing that some of those girls had going for them. Such as it was.”

“Hold on.” Connie stopped them. “This support group. Which one was it?”

“Doctor MacArthur’s TS support group,” Miranda said. “We used to meet on Wednesday nights.”

Lucia made a disgusted noise. “A bigger bunch of losers I never hope to be trapped in a room with.”

“Oh, they weren’t that bad. I mean, c’mon, Luce - we lucked out big time. We both transitioned early, and we didn’t feel obligated to ‘prove our manhoods’ by bulking up, or getting tattoos or anything like that. We pass well, we have money, and we’re accepted. Most of them didn’t have that. Remember Jewel Ketch? Talk aboutproblems!”

Lucia grimaced as she remembered. “Big, ugly, obnoxious, nuts, AND politically correct!” <Eee-YEWwww!> The petite brunette shuddered at the memory. "Everything else I could forgive, I suppose, but that over the top Political Correctness, caps intended, was just sooo crass! And worse, she expected everyone else to fall in line with her idiotic ideas or else!"

Charlie and Connie raised eyebrows at Miranda. “Jewel wasreallyinto the Kate Bornstein ‘Gender Outlaw’ bit. Y’know, ‘challenge the gender identity dichotomy’ and all that?”

Charlie made a note of this. “What are the chances that this ‘Jewel’ might have decided to force you out of the closet and maybe pick up a little pocket change at the same time? It’s been a while since the fad for the Press outing prominent Gays; maybe she wants to jumpstart the trend.”

Lucia nodded. “Yeah, that’s just the sort of self-righteous bullshit that she’d do. She was always giving me crap about ‘blending in and leaving my sisters in the lurch’.”

Miranda snarled. “Jewel was a major reason that Lucia and I stopped going to Dr. MacArthur’s group. The rest of us were just trying to get on with our lives - Jewel and her posse were trying to re-wire a basic part of the social dynamic.”

Connie nodded. “Okay, so she sounds like a definite possible SAM. So, on to the list. Miranda, how many people have you told about your transitioning?”

Miranda blushed a bit. “Well, like I said, I don’t exactly get off on seeing how people react. I sort of make it a point to only tell people if it’s really any of their business.”

“You’re evading the question, Kitteridge - how many people?”

“Well, I only told those guys that I’d been dating for a while, when I thought that it was getting serious, like I did with Harrison.”

“And how many are we talking about?”

“Aaahh—two.”

“You made such a production about _two guys_?”

“Hey, they bothdumped me! These are not exactly warm, fuzzy memories we’re talking about here, y’know!”

“Okay, I can get behind that,” Lucia conceded. “Not that it’s ever happened to ME. Well, buck up, Kid and think of England.”

Miranda shot a *humph!* look at Lucia. “Well, aside from a couple of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ flings in the Air Force-”

“I thought you said that you looked like a scrawny kid when you were in the Air Force.”

“Hey, it wasGreenland! After a few months, a guy will jump anything that doesn’t bite back. They didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell. Anyway, I only had one really serious thing in college. His name was Brian Resmannick. He was an MBA major, and the first guy I ever had—y’know, real sex with, after my SRS.”

“What kind of guy was he?”

“Enh, kind of hard to say. He was sort of a ‘Zelig’ type, a real chameleon. I dunno what he ever really thought about anything.” Miranda stroked Ein’s fur lovingly. “On the other hand, he really was a lot of fun to hang out with. I only found out what a weasel he was after I told him about me, and he dumped me like a hot rock. I listened to him talking with other girls, trying to get into their pants, and he pulled exactly the same rigmarole with them. Whatever they were buying, he made out like he was selling.”

“Did he ever threaten to out you, Hon?”

“No, as a matter of fact, he just sort of found reasons to completely avoid me from then on. I think that he kept mum, ‘cause he was afraid that if he did, some of the stink would rub off on him.”

"Brian Resmannick?" Lucia questioned with a look of distaste on her face. "Was he about five ten, really into fitness to keep himself looking good, and vain enough to embarrass most self respecting mirrors? Dark hair, beautiful grey eyes, and a line of patter designed to have any girl he went for panting to be with him?"

"Yes, that pretty well sounds like the same guy," Miranda agreed, then gave Lucia a questioning look. "I take it you know him?"

"Oh yeah," the smaller girl grimaced. "Works for Hutton, Lymann, & Prince Estate Management here in Philly. I met him at a party one night and the guy just kept hitting on me no matter what I tried doing to get him to quit. The weasel just couldn't figure out that at least one girl there wasn't falling for his phony lines. I couldn't stand him from about five minutes into our acquaintance. He was just too smooth, and seemed to be automatically into anything the gal he was talking up was. I must have heard him telling at least five different women variations of the same story slanted to hit on the things they liked. Sickening, really, and the others were actually buying into his lines."

Connie nodded again. “So, I guess that tells us what he’s doing these days. And where he is.”

“Yup. Got himself a cushy a job at a high-rent financial planning outfit." Lucia nodded. "He never stopped letting anyone who would listen know that either, and how he could help them with their money. When he wasn't hitting on some girl, that is."

"Well, I never ran into him or heard about him while I was still up in New York,” Miranda shrugged, “so this is news to me."

“Why did you leave New York, Hon?” Lucia asked. “You talked about your time in the Big Apple, but you never said why you came down to Philly.”

“Well, I got an offer from Whitlock & Penobscott. But, to be honest, Mason dumping me really made it easier.”

“Mason?”

“Mason Royce. He was thesecondguy I ever told about my SRS.”

“_Mason _Royce _?” Connie said incredulously. “That isn’t a name, it’s a bad nom de plume for a writer of syrupy Regency Romances.”

"Sounds like some of the losers my Mom thinks I should get hooked up with." Lucia grimaced. "They all seem to have names like that for some reason I've never quite grasped."

“You may be right, Connie,” Miranda sighed. “Mason was exactly the type to change his name from Myron Rysczeck, or something like that, to something ‘classier’, like ‘Mason Royce’. Anyway, when I met Mason, I’d been living in New York for about three years, and I’d had my SRS for about two. I was working for Plymouth-Heritage Press, when I met Mason at a firm party. Mason was working P-H-P’s law firm, I forget the name. He called me up the next day. By the next week, we were dating on a pretty regular basis, and a month later, we were having sex on a pretty regular basis.”

“Woof! That was quick!”

“Yeah, but don’t nail any round heels to my shoes. Mason just sort of…bowled me over. He’s like that. He’s a real bulldozer, and he sort of plows through anything and anyone that’s in the way of what he wants. At the time, it was rather flattering, all that unrelenting energy focused right at _me_. But he sort of took over. Everything was abouthim. He called all the shots. To be honest, it was sort of a relief when he dropped me.”

"I can see how that would be," Lucia grinned. "Some guys are such control freaks when it comes to the women in their lives. I usually try to steer clear of that type, though Mom keeps throwing them at me. She says I need to be decently married and settled down with a dependable man."

"Poor you," Connie smirked. "Fighting off men all the time. Maybe Charlie could lend you a billy club or a stun gun. But what does that have to do with Miranda's problem?"

"Nothing at all." Lucia grinned, pouring a bit of her beer into a saucer and carefully setting it on the side of her chair opposite from where Miranda was pacing. A grateful Ein licked her hand, gave Miranda an anxious look, then began lapping at the offering. "I just thought I'd lighten things up for a minute or so."

“Hold that thought, guys, and I’ll be right back!”

Charlie ran out to her Escort and pulled two cases from the back and hurried in with them. When she got back she started to clear a table. Lucia decided to take a direct approach. “Uh...Charlie? What are you doing?”

“This is my finger printing kit.”

“We know that. I mean what are you going to do with it?”

“Oh. Sometimes you have to collect the information for yourself in some investigations. Especially if there hasn’t been an obvious crime. All I have to do is get some good prints and I can send them in for identification myself. If SAM is local I can have the results before the end of the day. If not, and we have to do a larger search, it could take a few days.”

“A few days?”

“Don’t worry. I expect to have the necessary results in two to three days tops. Then all we have to do is match with the list Miranda is making and we have our perp. Assuming his fingerprints are on someone’s list.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

“Well, if he was smart and didn’t leave any fingerprints then it could be a lot harder. But with the new age of communications this kind of thing is only slowed down by the people handling the machines. Then there’s the possible fact that the perps prints aren’t on file. If that happens we will at least have the prints to compare with whoever we check out. If we can get their prints I can compare those and we still have some proof if they are the one we‘re looking for or not.”

While talking, Charlie prepared the various tools and ingredients needed. Then she carefully prepared the paper. Soon several prints became obvious on the paper. Charlie concentrated on the back of the paper more than the front. On the front she was more interested in the corners and edges.

After she had that prepared, she opened the second case. In this she had a digital camera and a rack like devise that would hold the camera steady. She quickly set this up and photographed the prints. Then she did the same with the front of the page and the envelope. Then she turned to Miranda. “Okay, lets get a set of yours to compare with these. That way we won’t end up getting your prints sent in for identification.”

Looking at the ink pads that Charlie was preparing, Miranda seemed to get second thoughts. “Are you sure about this?”

Charlie looked up and then grinned. “Don’t worry. I have cleaning pads here designed to get this stuff off quickly and painlessly. It’ll just take a minute. You don’t want to have to explain how your prints ended up in an arson investigation do you?”

“Arson!?”

“Yeah. That’s how I’m going to get them to run a check. I’ll just include it in the report on this arson as a possible suspect in the case. We’ll get an answer pretty quick that way. They have this thing about letting people who torch things run around loose.”

“How will you make sure you don’t send any of my prints to be identified?”

“Well, I have this nifty program on my computer that will compare the prints I got off these things with the ones that you are about to give me. I’ll separate yours and send any others that I find. There might be more than one of these blackmailers, and they might have handled this, too. Might as well make a clean sweep if we can.”

The next part of the process was quickly over with, much to Miranda’s relief. Gathering her tools and evidence together, Charlie prepared to leave. Miranda asked, “Why are you in such a hurry to get out of here?”

“I have to hurry if I’m going to get these sorted out and sent in fast enough to get any results today. Sorry to be in such a hurry, but I’ll get you my results as soon as possible, and we can then make some plans. I’ll call you later!”

With that, she rushed off and headed for her apartment. The others turned back to trying to figure out who it might be in their own ways as the gray Escort headed down the street.

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Ever the commander with a mission, Connie tossed back the last of her coffee and stood. “Right, then, Ladies, I’m off as well. Lucia, let Charlie know I’m going to see what’s on Mr. Resmannick’s mind.”

Miranda looked up, some feelings of abandonment on her face through the worry. “Why him and why you?” she asked.

“Well,” drawled Connie as she collected her purse, “I can’t think of a single MBA at a high rent firm who wouldn’t love to get their mitts on the contract for managing the Mitchell Estate. As for me, well,” she paused and struck a fairly ludicrous imitation of the pose made famous by Miss Monroe, made even less believable by the military flight suit she was wearing. “Everybody knows that creeps prefer blondes, Miranda. Catch you later.”

In short order Connie was out the door and roaring down the street in her Mustang.

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Lucia stood next, trying to keep a slightly tipsy Ein between herself and Miranda until she could make it to the door herself. "We're not abandoning you, Miranda. Things are moving, and the three of us need to get them coordinated is all. I bet I could dig up some dirt on this guy at my office, too. So I'll be running along to see what I can find. Thanks for the use of your parlor, and don't worry, we'll get this straightened out without dragging you or Harrison through the figurative mud."

"Don't worry, she says." As the slim, dark haired beauty hastily gave her a hug then headed out of the parlor, Miranda shook her head in bemused half acceptance of what her friends were doing for her and once again was glad that she had them.

With a look at Ein, currently an ungraceful lump of fur letting out soft doggie snores, she shouted at Lucia's retreating back. "You got my dog drunk again, didn't you?"

"It was an accident this time, honest!" Luce shouted back as Miranda heard the front door open. "Bye for now. Things to do, you know!"

The slam of a car door, a muted roar from a powerful, well tuned engine, and screech of tires announced the departure of her last guest.

Miranda gave her sleeping pet a rueful look, then let out a long sigh. "Well, I suppose it doesn't hurt you once in a a while..."

There was a real smile on her face for the first time since she'd opened the blackmail letter as she left Ein to sleep off his overindulgence.

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Connie almost didn’t notice that the door to her apartment was unlocked when she arrived there, in a tremendous hurry. It did give her a moment of pause and filled her with the fear every woman is only too aware of. Someone was in her apartment. Cautiously, she crept back to her Mustang to remove the Beretta M92 she kept in the trunk. While it wasn’t her duty weapon per se, as aviators are issued .38 caliber revolvers, being a soldier did have certain advantages in weapon procurement.

Once she had checked the weapon and its safety, she returned to her apartment and cautiously opened the door. Standing a few feet away was a man somewhere between thirty-five and forty-five in a tuxedo facing the door. His slightly thinning black hair was slicked down into a part from his left over clear green eyes that impassively met her gaze over a firm jaw. “If this is an inconvenient time, Miss Constance, I can call another time.”

Connie breathed an enormous sigh of relief, placed the pistol on her calling card table and closed the front door. “Williams, you about scared the piss out of me.”

“Incontinence is often a system of surprise, Miss,” agreed Williams. “I shall endeavor to be less unexpected in the future.” Connie placed her purse on the table with the weapon and pulled off her jacket. Williams seamlessly collected both and placed them in the front closet. Then with equal dispatch emptied the weapon and placed it in an extremely cleverly concealed safe which he both knew of and had access to.

“What are you doing here, anyway?” demanded Connie as she sat down and began to unlace her boots, being careful not to damage the spit shine.

“I am here at Madam Mitchell’s request to remind you of her Spring Cotillion tomorrow evening,” replied the older man as he closed the closet door. “Also to make sure your attire shall pass inspection, as it were. Your mother felt it wise to put your best foot forward as there will be several, extremely eligible gentlemen on the guest list.”

“Williams, how do you put up with our crazy family?” asked Connie with a smile.

“I have a great fondness for your family in general, Miss, and, if I might be so bold, you in particular.”

A somewhat evil smile grew across Connie’s face. “Actually, Williams,” she said in a tone that gave the Major Domo of the Mitchell Household a moment of pause, “it’s a great bit of good fortune you’re here. Would you mind playing Valet for a few hours?”

“As always, Miss Constance, I am quite at your disposal.”

“Great. While I hop in the shower, I’d like you to find the number for Hutton, Lymann, & Prince Estate Management, at which one Brian Resmannick works here in Philly. And get us an appointment with him tonight. If they get the impression they might get the management of the Mitchell Estate out of the late meeting, well that’s not our fault, is it?”

“Very good, Miss,” agreed Williams, with just a hint of disapproval in his tone. “Shall I lay out something suitable for such a late business meeting for you?”

“That’d be great, Williams, I’ll be ready in about thirty minutes.”

Williams sighed. “I shall do my utmost to have your engagement by then, Miss.”

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As Connie rode the elevator to the upper floors of the Baxter Building to the offices of Hutton, Lymann & Prince Estate Management, she checked her appearance one last time with a compact she’d removed from her purse. She worried her makeup was a bit dramatic, but this occasion called for a bit of a drama. Her clothing was not even thought of; she was eminently pleased with what she was wearing. There were times when she wondered if Williams had a better command of her closets than she herself did.

The Mitchell Estate’s Major Domo had selected a stunning retro forties business skirt suit in black with white accents on the cuffs and lapels that displayed a scandalous amount of cleavage. While the matching skirt was mid calf, it also had a bold slit that rose to well over her knee through which the tops of her thigh high hose would peek every now and again. Said hose was a Cuban heeled back seam in a rather sheer black which was set off by a pair of patent leather ankle strap pumps with three and a half-inch heels.

She was as ready physically as she was going to get. The job now was to put on the personality that would pull off this charade while getting the goods on Mr. Resmannick. For that, Connie called up the long list of disliked girlfriends of both her older brother and sister. There was a laundry list, so she began to pick and choose the traits.

Connie was comforted by Williams' silent presence by her elbow. While the very definition of decorum personified, Connie knew that Williams was more than capable to taking care of both himself and her if push came to shove. The doors slid open to a soft tone.

It was time.

Standing before her were three men, two significantly older than the third. All were exquisitely attired in suits that had been custom made, however the younger, dark haired man’s suit didn’t announce Important Old Money the way his superiors did. Connie extended a lace gloved hand to Jonathan Hutton, whom she knew from several of her mother’s parties and kept her smile polite, but dangerous. “Jonathan, what a pleasure to see you once more,” she greeted, purposefully being familiar.

“The pleasure is entirely mine, Constance,” returned the founder of the firm, his grip steady and his lips on the back of her hand soft. He was not in the least intimidated. “I believe you’ve meet my partner, Bertram Lymann?”

“Charmed, once more, Miss Mitchell,” assured Lymann in his willowy voice as Connie’s hand was passed between the two men. “And, as you’ve requested, allow me to introduce Mr. Brian Resmannick.” As the younger man eagerly made to kiss Connie’s hand, she purposefully re-arranged her purse to keep it from him.

This gave Resmannick a moment of pause as he carefully worked to give no offense to what both of his superiors had diligently instructed him was a valuable potential client. His recovery was sufficiently smooth. “It’s a great honor to make your acquaintance, Miss Mitchell,” he greeted in a rich, cultured baritone. “I guess I’m making a name for myself since I’m told you requested me by name.”

“Oh, I’ve heard all about you from a good friend,” said Connie softly, her tone carefully neutral. Despite this, Jonathan began to worry about offending one of the most well heeled families in Philadelphia.

“Brian is one of our best young men,” he said with a slight emphasis. “If he continues the valued work he’s done for the firm so far, in a decade or so he might be offered a junior partnership.”

“Oh, no need to be worried, Jonathan,” breezed Connie. “I’m certain Brian will be adequate.

Brian bristled a bit under the veiled barbs and tried to take control of the conversation. “So, Miss Mitchell, would this be Mr. Mitchell?” he asked indicating Williams, to whom he offered his hand.

There was a sharp inhalation of breath from the two older men before Connie’s low chuckle. “This would be Mr. Williams, my man servant and valet, Brian. Williams, allow me to introduce Brian Resmannick.”

“It is my great pleasure to meet you, Mr. Resmannick,” greeted Williams as he took the man’s hand to ease some of his now considerable consternation.

“Yeah, it’s all mine, Mr. Williams,” responded Resmannick, who forced a chuckle at his faux pas. “Well, for my next trick I’ll see if I can get both feet in my mouth. But, before that, Miss Mitchell, would you like to come to the boardroom for something to drink?”

Connie felt her heart go out to the man for a split second as he tried to smooth things over, but quickly pushed those thoughts down before they could show on her face. “All right, Brian. I’m not certain how you’ll top your last performance, but you certainly have my full attention.”

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The boardroom was generously appointed in Cordoban leather, polished cherry wood and Old World excess. Even the water goblets at each place on the table were German crystal. While not intimidated by the room, Connie did her best to strut to the head of the table, head as high as a queen surveying her domain. As she settled into the chair, she noticed the concerned glances between Jonathan and Bertram over her new demeanor from the easy going young lady they had met at any number of parties.

It was a delicate situation that grated on her nerves. Both men were friendly with her parents, Hutton was a member of her father’s regular golf foursome. Still, she had to coax Brian’s greedy nature out to see if he would let something important slip.

Williams stepped to the concealed bar at one end of the conference room and made himself at home. “What can I bring everyone, gentlemen?”

“I’ll have a finger of Glenlivet, Williams,” remarked Hutton as he sat with his partner at Connie’s left. “Ice and soda if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all, sir. Mr. Lymann?”

“None for me, thanks,” responded the other man who kept his eyes on Brian, non-verbally letting him know he didn’t want any either.

“Certainly sir. Miss?”

“One finger neat, Williams,” she said, her eyes fixed on her prey.

“Constance,” began Jonathan hesitantly, “while we would be deeply honored to be of assistance to your family, I must confess to being a trifle confused. How can we help the Mitchell Family?”

“Well, you know my father, Jonathan. He’s always balancing strategic versus tactical planning. It’s not that he’s particularly dissatisfied with Emory and Associates, but with all of the accounting irregularities in the news these days, it’s always a good thing to shop around and get a second opinion. Thank you, Williams,” she said as the drinks were served.

The Scotch was as smooth and warm as a velvet cardigan with just a hint of sweet oak from the barrels it had been aged in. Connie was careful to keep her sip small. While she had never been a serious drinker in her life, she wasn’t entirely sure how it would affect her now that she’d finally reached her target weight.

“Surely Mr. Mitchell doesn’t think there’s any kind of impropriety at Emory,” commented Brian, as he tried to worm his way into the conversation.

Connie met his gaze coolly. “I make it a point to never risk guessing my father’s mind, Brian.”

“Of course, we’d be pleased to perform an audit for Bull,” said Hutton. “What kind of depth did you have in mind?”

“Oh, nothing terribly serious. Just say, the past ten years.”

“I see. Well, I’m certain Mr. Resmannick is capable of being of service,” Hutton opined as he polished off the Scotch as he stood. “If we will not be needed further, Constance, I’ll let you work out the details with Brian here.”

“I’m terribly sorry to have be a trouble to either you or Jonathan, Bertram. I’m sure young Brian and I can get things going from here. Have a wonderful evening.” Connie watched the older gentlemen depart before settling her gaze on the younger man once more.

“Williams, I think I’ll have a finger of that Scotch now, if you don’t mind,” he said, gracing Connie with the most fetching smile he could manage.

“As you say, sir,” was the butler’s reply as he busied himself at the bar.

“So, Miss Mitchell, I’m feeling a little on the spot here. Still, I hope I can live up to what you’ve heard about me.”

“I am certain of few things in this life, Brian, but that is certainly one of them,” she said, her tone a knife’s edge between geniality and scorn. Resmannick took a generous gulp of the liquor to calm his nerves. “My parents are throwing their annual Spring Cotillion tomorrow, you can stop by and take care of things then,” she told him.

“It won’t be a problem to pick up the records then. How soon was your father looking to have the audit finished?”

Connie concentrated on the hurt he had caused her friend and permitted herself a cruel smile. “My father will have Mr. Emory at the Cotillion. He’ll expect the results of the audit to make his decision by ten o’clock that evening.” Brian paled as Connie stood and collected her purse.

“You want a ten year audit on one of the wealthiest families in Pennsylvania in one night?”

“Do be presentable,” she told him, looking down on him with the most feral smile she could manage. “A good bit of this party is all about my mother’s obsession with finding me a husband. Try not to make a scene.”

A light Connie distinctly didn’t care for lit behind his eyes. “You may rely on me, Miss Mitchell. I’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

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“I was unaware Mr. Mitchell was in need of an audit of the work done for him by Mr. Emory, Miss,” commented Williams as the elevator doors closed.

“Oh, don’t be a stick in the mud, Williams,” Connie replied. “Daddy’s always looking for initiative from me, isn’t he? Here’s my chance, while helping Miranda.”

Williams sighed with a saint’s patience. “As you say, Miss.”

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Luce stalked back into the Tribune offices without noticing the looks her unexpected return caused to be exchanged among both the male and female staff members still working. She did stop long enough to knock on Bill's door before opening it and entering to find the young man working on his computer. "Hey, Bill, I have a question for you, and sorry for the interruption but it's kind of important."

William Buxton, still clean shaven, looked up from his work with a grin. "No problem, you know my door is always open to you, but what bings you back so soon? I thought you were going to do some shopping then spend time with friends this afternoon."

"I did." Lucia gave him a grin, then her expression turned halfway serious. "Actually, I still am, kind of. The shopping around, anyway, but this is a different kind of shopping."

"Oh, what would you be shopping for that you need to be here to do it?" Bill questioned with more than a little curiosity.

"Actually, I'm checking out a financial management firm, one person who works there in particular," Lucia answered with a smile. "I'm thinking of getting someone to handle some of my own money and heard that Hutton, Lymann & Prince are very good. They have a young turk working for them named Brian Resmmanick that I'm interested in finding more about. Have you heard anything about him?"

"I haven't myself." Bill shrugged. "That kind of high powered outfit is a little out reach for someone like me just now, but I think I can find someone in Finance who could either tell you on the spot or find out fast. Let me give him a call, and then you can go talk with him, okay?"

"Great, thanks." Lucia gave him a broad smile as he picked up his phone and keyed in a number.

"No problem, hon," Bill answered, then began talking to someone on the other end of the connection. "Hi, Roger, I have a friend here who would like to know about a firm named Hutton, Lymann & Prince. Specifically one person working for them named Brian Resmannick. Heard anything about him?"

"Okay." Bill nodded while giving Lucia a thumbs up gesture. "Thanks, Roger, I'll send her up to talk with you then."

"Roger Montague is our head honcho in Financial," Bill told her while hanging up the phone. "He's pulling up what they have on this Resmannick guy for you now. Just go to the third floor and go left once you get off the elevator. His office is at the end of the hall and he's expecting you."

"Thanks again, Bill, I owe you on this one." Lucia gave the man a peck on the cheek, giggling as she noted an electric razor resting in a half opened drawer. "I knew you kept a razor in here!"

"Hey, have to stay presentable, you know." Bill grinned back while running a hand across his chin. "Besides, I always heard that girls hate scratchy beards on a guy..."

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Roger Billing's office was not exactly what Lucia had expected the chief editor of financial news to be ensconced in. It was large enough, and probably plush without all the stacks of printouts occupying just about every space flat enough to hold them. But it was clean, and Montague stood to greet her when she entered his sanctuary. "Hello, you're Lucia Barrington, aren't you?"

"Yes, that would be me." Luce nodded as she lightly shook his offered hand. "I have some questions I was hoping you could help me out with here."

"So Bill was saying." Montague smiled while waving her toward a chair that was miraculously free of stacked paper. "Sorry for the mess up here. We're doing some reorganizing, and scanning all the old hard copy records into our data base. Of course, I have to okay everything that goes into the system. Don't ask me why that is, because I still haven't quite figured it out myself."

"Guess it's just part of being a senior editor?" Lucia shrugged. "I really wouldn't know either. It seems that someone else could do it, doesn't it?"

"Actually, we're just replacing the filing cabinets in here." Montague chuckled, waving to the empty spaces along one wall. "I just like to see what people say when they think The Trib does things like that to their senior staff. Get some really interesting responses, let me tell you."


"I'd imagine you do." Lucia laughed, liking the man almost at once. "And here I thought everyone involved with financial reporting was stuffy and always serious."

"Sure you did." Montague laughed in his turn. "Your family got their fortune started in newspapers, didn't they?"

"Yes, then branched into other things." Lucia nodded. "But the only exposure I've had to the business is the work I do downstairs so far. But I'm learning as I go."

"Good for you," Montague told her, obviously meaning it. "Thinking of getting back into the business?"

"I don't really know," Lucia answered. "I just like the work, myself. I know, I know. What kind of a fool am I? Subjecting myself to that kind of grind when I could just buy a paper and do what I wanted. It just wouldn't be the same, and to be honest, I wouldn't really know what I was doing. I'd probably run the poor thing right into the ground before I got a handle on how to operate it. So I'm learning from the ground up, I guess."

"Smart of you," Montague agreed, then got down to business. "I understand you want some information on a certain Brian Resmannick who works for Hutton, Lymann & Prince."

"Yes, I'm kind of looking around for someone to handle a few of my more complex investments, and had heard about him from a friend."

"Well, he's an up and comer in the firm." Montague referred to some information on his computer screen. "Has an MBA in finance from NYU and is gaining the trust of his bosses a bit at a time..."

"But?" Lucia questioned as the man hesitated. "I can tell there is a pretty big but in there somewhere. What is it?"

"Well, I'd just advise you to find someone else to handle your affairs right now. There are rumors floating around that he is heavily in debt at the moment, and that he considers himself to be quite the ladies man. I personally don't think that's a good combination for the job he currently has, and would caution you about approaching him for that reason alone."

"There's more?"

"Nothing that I, or anyone else can prove," Montague answered slowly. "I've met the young man, and just came away with an uncomfortable feeling regarding his personal ethics. I think he'd take any advantage he could find to get himself in a secure position without any real regard for the people he stepped on to do it."

"In other words, you didn't like him?" Lucia questioned thoughtfully.

"No, I didn't, and my opinions may well be colored by that first impression, but my instincts tell me that I'm right. That young man is going to get himself into some sort of scandal one of these times that no amount of smooth talk will get him out of. I'd just advise you to steer clear of him, is all. Of course, I'd expect you to check up on him with other people, too. My own opinion is just that, an opinion, after all. There are persistent rumors that he isn't a pleasant person to cross, or to slight."

"I'll do that, thanks," Lucia responded. "May I have copies of the information you do have about him?"

"Of course, it's all on public record," Montague answered. "Hang on and I'll print it out for you. At least that paper won't be hanging around my office waiting for the new filing cabinets."

"Thanks for the help." Lucia gave him a sunny smile.

"Oh, my pleasure, Ms. Barrington."

"Lucia," she told him. "I work here too, you know."

"All right, Lucia." Montague returned her smile. "If there's anything else I can help you with, just give me a call and I'll do what I can."

"I'll remember that, and thanks again. You've been a big help to me here, really."

"My pleasure."

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"Hello, Connie?"

"Who else would be answering my cell phone?" her friend answered from the other end of the connection. "What's up, Luce?"

"I got some info on Brian from the financial editor at the Trib that I'm sending to you. Is there a fax machine at your place?"

"Send it to my parent's place up in Rushland," Connie told her. "That's where I am right now. Anything interesting in it?"

"Mainly data on his education, personal finances, and prospects with the company he works for," Lucia answered. "It's what isn't on paper that I found interesting. Our chief financial editor doesn't trust him, and actually warned me away from the guy."

"Would that be Roger Montague?"

"That's him, and from all I've heard, and after meeting with him, and having met Brian, I tend to agree with his personal judgement. Resmannick is a smooth talking sleaze looking out for himself first. Be careful with him."

"I already knew that, but thanks." Connie chuckled. "You should have seen the guy falling all over himself when he thought I'd be giving a chance for management of our family money to him. He almost drooled on himself."

"Well, given the amounts involved there, I think anyone in his position would have done that." Lucia chuckled. "But he seems to have a rep for being very vindictive with people who he thinks have crossed him, or even embarrassed him. Be careful, okay?"

"Sure, and I can handle that type. Think he's our SAM?"

"Yes, given what I've heard and seen of him, I would rate him at an eleven on a scale of ten."

"Okay, you sending this stuff to Charlie, too?"

"Of course, she's already got it," Lucia told her friend.

"Good, I'm arranging to get some sample fingerprints from him today. A non-disclosure agreement on waxed paper that he's going to have to sign before I let him see any of the data on the family finances. I'll get that to Charlie as soon as I can."

"Great." Lucia chuckled. "Sometimes we're a scary bunch, you know that?"

"We watch out for each other is all," Connie answered. "Got to go now, Luce. Oh, how did Miranda take you getting her dog drunk again?"

"She mentioned it as I was leaving." Lucia laughed. "But there wasn't any heat in it. I told her we'd get this taken care of for her and to try and stop worrying herself to death over it. Not that she will, but you know how it is. I also claimed it was an accident with Ein."

"Sure it was." Connie laughed. "I saw you accidentally pouring that brew into a saucer for the little mooch. But I do have to get going now. It's a Cotillion my Mom's throwing for me tonight, and I have to go make nice to everyone, plus work my wiles on dear Brian."

"Have fun. I've had to endure more than a few of those, myself," Lucia responded. "What is it about mothers wanting us to be safely married off?"

"Probably so our husbands will start worrying about us and relieve them of that job." Connie chuckled. "Talk with you later, Luce."

"Sure, bye."

"Oh, why don't you run up here and join in on the fun?" Connie added just before Lucia was ready to close the connection. "I could use the moral support, and you might actually meet some guy that you like here. Though I doubt that."

"My Mother would be ecstatic. But it might chill her out on trying to fix me up with guys herself." Lucia grinned into the air as she thought about it. "It wouldn't be a problem?"

"Nah," Connie assured her. "With all the food and refreshments being laid on, one more person won't be a problem, and maybe you being up here would pull some of the would-be suitors off my back."

"Okay, I'll see you later."

"Good. I can always use another ally when it comes to these things. See you this evening. Plan on staying the night. It will probably run pretty late."

"Right."

"Wear something that will knock their eyes out, hon," Connie added. "Though if I know you, that won't be a problem will it?"

"Nope," Lucia giggled. "I happen to have this little number in red silk that I've been dying to wear somewhere. See you tonight then."

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It really didn’t take long to separate the prints and send in the ones Charlie thought might be the culprit. After that it was just a matter of waiting for the results, but that would probably take a few hours. She'd never been good at that, and decided to follow up on the Jewel Ketch lead while she was waiting.

Using the information they had given her, Charlie was able to quickly find out where Jewel was likely to be for about the next hour or so. Cleaning and changing into a white blouse and navy blue suit with black oxfords, she prepared to use one of her many personas that had been honed for these situations.

Every semester Charlie had taken a journalism class just so she could do this convincingly. If anyone ever checked on her, they’d find that she was taking these classes and it would add to her credibility.

Now she’d be Charlotte Turner, Junior Journalist, and she'd be on the trail of a story concerning how Transgendered people were getting a raw deal and what was being done about it. Not that old Miss Turner was actually aware of the problems, just the luck of the draw from the hat and the Professor gets a few laughs. But Charlotte is a determined girl, and she’s going to ace this assignment and show them all.

But the only way to do that is to go out and find someone who is doing something about it. And that someone appears to be a Ms. Jewel Ketch and her crusade to bring the plight of transgendered people everywhere into the spotlight.

Charlie called the number of the TLO, ‘Transgender Liberty Organization’, and got a reply on the second ring.

“Transgender Liberty Organization, this is Barbara speaking. How may I help you?”

“Uh, Hello! My name is Charlotte Turner and I’m doing a story for my Journalism 402 class. I’ve been assigned to look into how being a transsexual affects their lives. Transsexuals, I mean. I was told that I could get better information from you than from anyone else. I was hoping I could come over and talk to someone about what is happening and how people are coping with the problem?”

Charlie could hear and understand the hesitation that followed. It was a little forward and whoever was on the other end might be having problems with that.

“Uh...I’m just a secretary here. Let me put you through to Ms. Hammond. She might be able to help you with that.” She went to Hold before Charlie could reply. Now it was just a matter of waiting to see if they would really answer her or just try to wait her out and see if she’d hang up.

While she was waiting Charlie looked over the information she’d already pulled up on Jewel and the TLO. She quickly found Ms. Hammond. She was the Executive Secretary. There were several other names and positions in the organization, but the only one who had any kind of background information on her was Jewel. All the others were noticeably sparse where personal info was involved.

Jewel it seems was a truck driver before transitioning. After she did so, she found it very difficult to get and maintain any kind of work for long. Since she had a good work record before and the only thing changed was her sex, it seemed likely that this was the problem.

Greatly angered by this, she sought out ways to remedy the situation and found that few if any people were currently willing to listen to someone complain about this. Especially since not many votes hinged on it. After having her first attempts shot down she thought it over and came up with a solution. Transsexuals needed lobbying power. And she was the one to do it!

So the Transsexual Liberty Organization became her dream. It didn’t happen all at once. She had to go to work for a local Gay Rights group at first to learn the ropes. Then, after she learned what was needed to make it work, she set out to find people who could help build and maintain it. She also learned that she had a talent for it. Not long after that the organization became a reality and politicians learned that they had a new thorn in their sides.

Since its beginnings two years ago, it had grown to be a recognized and respected if small force in the local political scene. While no one would admit to it, they obviously just didn’t feel up to having to deal with her militant and in their face kind of pressure she was more than willing to dish out, and many victories were simply won by the expert use of that force.

'I guess you can’t argue too much with results,' Charlie thought. While she certainly agreed with some of the goals of this organization and had been a victim of the same kind of discrimination, she still wasn’t sure this was the best way to handle it yet. And she trusted the observations of her friends too much to just jump on the wagon. If they felt that there was something not quite right there, then Charlie would go with that at least until she had more information. She was still musing over this when someone picked up on the other end.

“Hello. This is Ms. Mary Jane Hammond. How may I help you?”

“Oh, Hi! My name is Charlotte Turner and I have received an assignment to see how well transgendered people are doing in our society. I was told that your organization might be the best source of information and I was hoping to have a chance to talk to someone there.”

“Well, I’m sure we might be able to help you with your project. This is only a school assignment for you?”

“It’s for my Journalism 402 class. But we’ve been told that if we do a good job, some of the local papers have agreed to carry some of our stories. I’m hoping that I can do a good enough article to get it published.”

“We’re pretty busy now, but if you can get over here in the next hour, I think we can arrange a short interview.” She didn’t sound too excited about the possibility, but this was too good a chance to pass up.

“OH! Would you!? I’ll be right over then! I just have to freshen up a little. Do you mind if I bring my camera?”

“Uh...well. We would appreciate it if you didn’t do that. We have publicity shots that you can use, but some of our clients are very nervous about people taking pictures around here. I hope you can understand that?”

“Oh. Okay. I’d like to see those publicity shots, though, if I could. They will help with the article I’m sure.”

“I’ll have some ready for you, then. Please don’t take too long, though. We’ll be shutting down for the day soon.”

“I’ll be right over!”

“See you then. Drive carefully.”

“Thank you. I will.”

They hung up and Charlie quickly changed into a navy blue suit and put her hair in a bun. It was hoped that she didn’t smell too much like a fire, but Charlie didn’t have time to shower. Fortunately, their office was fairly close and she was just able to get there just under the hour limit she’d been given.

The office was located on the sixteenth floor and was easy to find. The door had only the building number and the letters TLO. Charlie tried the door and found it unlocked. Opening it, she entered into a waiting room that was watched over by a secretarial desk.

Standing next to the desk was a woman in a black business suit. She was light complexioned and had what Charlie thought would be long, black, straight hair that was pulled into a tight bun. She was about 5' 6" and had a very slender boyish build. She looked up from the paperwork she was looking over as Charlie entered.

“Hi! I’m Charlotte Turner. I believe I’m expected?”

She seemed a little surprised, and spent a few moments looking me over before answering. “Hello. I’m Mary Jane Hammond. We spoke on the phone.”

“I hope I’m not too late? Traffic is murder right now and I was a bit delayed.”

“You're not too late. We had a bit more to do anyway, and it was convenient that it took as long as it did. I’m afraid I don’t have those pictures you wanted here. I have some at our house, though. If after the interview you still want some I’ll see about getting you some.”

Their house? Hmmm. “I’d appreciate that, if you don’t mind. Pictures can make or break the article.”

“Yes, I guess they might at that.”

She stalked over and extended her hand. Charlie responded somewhat hesitantly and allowed herself to lose the resulting war of grips by flinching and relaxing her grip as Mary Jane increased hers. Carefully flexing her hand afterwards, Charlie smiled and waited for the next move. Apparently satisfied, she then moved toward a door that led to the interior offices.

“Follow me. Jewel is waiting to see you.” She probably didn’t realize it but, Mary Jane had taken a more superior attitude. This might work to Charlie's advantage.

She led Charlie to an office that many CEO’s of large corporations would envy. It was a corner office with large windows, dark wood paneling and a large mahogany desk. Standing up from behind it was an even bigger woman. Jewel must have been impressive as a man. As a woman she stood 6' 4" and must have weighed in around 220 plus pounds. She was obviously in good condition, the result of constant workouts. But even that and the platinum blonde hair couldn’t conceal the heavy bone structure. The large breasts looked somewhat out of place on that body, but no one was likely to say anything about it to her face. The makeup was somewhat heavily done, too. She was wearing a suit similar to the one worn by Ms. Hammond, and she came around the desk and put Charlie through another of those finger crushers. Maybe the suit was a uniform and the handshake some kind of tradition.

“Hello! I’m Jewel Ketch and I’m happy to meet you!”

Carlie had to hand it to her, though. Her voice was perfect. Wonderfully modulated and forceful. She must have practiced long hard hours to get a voice like that.

As she wiggled some feeling back into her hand, Charlie smiled and introduced herself again. “Hi! I’m Charlotte Turner. Thank you for seeing me like this on such short notice. That was very nice of you.”

“We’re always looking for ways to get our message out to the public. Turning anyone away who is really willing to listen would be terribly non productive, don’t you think?”

“It was nice of you to go out of your way anyway, and I really appreciate that.”

“Thank you. What can we do for you?”

“Well, I have these articles I pulled off the Internet and I was hoping you could help me determine if the information is correct and usable. They are also a little out of date, and I thought you might be able to bring me up to date on some of these.”

Charlie pulled some copies of the articles she’d printed off from their web site. They were placed in plastic page holders that could be put in and out of a binder easily. She handed one to each of them. They took a moment to look them over and exchanged a glance. Then MJ spoke for the two of them. “These articles are correct, and you can use the information in them without worry. They are a little out of date and I have some information to update them that I can give you before you leave. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

As she asked this, Charlie was able to retrieve the plastic covered pages and place them back in her small briefcase. “If you have anything you’d like to add to the articles, I have a recorder here and would appreciate an interview if you're willing to give one?”

Jewel took over the control of the conversation from that point. “Are you aware of just how badly some of us are being treated in a society that’s supposed to be accepting and open?”

“Uhhh... You mean transsexuals? I’m aware that there’s supposed to be a lot more discrimination than we like to think there is.”

“Supposed to be? Honey, let me tell you. There’s a LOT more out there than you know. And as much as we hear about racial discrimination and the like, discrimination against sexes is even worse. Discrimination against those of us who are simply trying to correct mistakes we have no control over is even blatant and accepted.”

“Aren’t there laws against that kind of open discrimination? Can’t you go to the lawyers and such to stop them?”

“Honey.” Charlie was starting to dislike that moniker more and more. It made her sound like some kind of stupid kid. “Don’t you believe it for a minute! ‘Real’ women and racially discriminated people have legal recourse. People like us just get walked on by everyone else, even the ones who should know better because of the way they’ve been treated in the past. I guess it’s the idea that they can dish out to someone what they’ve been getting all along, but they can be even worse than the established types of discrimination. The establishment has at least learned that there’s a limit to what you can do and get away with.”

“So you can’t go to the police or lawyers for protection?”

“Not unless you want to get the same from them as soon as they think no one is watching. Believe me. No one’s on our side. And until we can get the law to really accept and defend our rights, we can expect it to just keep on the same old, same old routine. No one’s on our side except us.”

Charlie supposed it was good strategy to try and make it everyone’s problem with the ‘we’ and ‘our sides’, but it made her a bit uncomfortable. She knew how bad it could be, but taking that kind of stance would only alienate people who might normally be receptive to reason. What she wanted to say was, ‘Who’s we? You got a mouse in your pocket?’, but she decided to keep Jewel talking for now. “So, you feel that there’s an actual conspiracy against transsexuals and the like?”

“I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I do think there is a definite tendency to let these things slide if they’re allowed to. Even by official agencies. A kind of wink and nod arrangement, if you will.”

“And you're trying to put a stop to that. Do you think if more transsexuals came forward that there would be more official notice of the injustices?”

“Well, I certainly think if more of us would make a point of making the rest of the world pay attention to our problems, we’d get past them that much faster.”

“Wouldn’t that tend to make several of them martyrs? And do you think enough of them could come forward to make a difference?”

“I’m certain some of them would become martyrs. There’s just too much opposition for there not to be. But no progress can be made without forcing the issue. We HAVE to bring it to the public’s attention! Problem is, the majority of them tend to be moderately un-aggressive and try to keep a low profile instead. This means that no one pays any attention to it except in extreme situations that are better for their shock potential and not for bringing the situation to the public’s attention.”

“Do you think someone should bring more of the transsexuals to the public’s notice?”

“You mean by outing them without their permission?”

Charlie nodded.

“NO! Absolutely not! It would create martyrs all right, but I think it would have a more detrimental effect than a good one. It would be like branding them as criminals and just create more problems for us in the end. The ones who come forward must want to bring this problem to the public’s attention openly so that no one can accuse us of trying to hide something shameful and wrong. Any other approach will only make it seem like we were in the wrong to begin with. I can’t support any attempts to do that. It’s one of the reasons we are so careful about letting people take pictures around here. It might accidentally expose someone who doesn’t want to be.”

She might be a really good liar, but Charlie really thought Jewel believed what she was saying there. She was willing at that point to write her off the list. Still, Jewel might know someone else who might. “So you wouldn’t support anyone trying to out some or all of the transsexuals in this area?”

“Honey, don’t take this wrong, but one of the reasons I’ve started this organization is so that if anyone tries, I can flatten them flatter than a fly under a steamroller. Our organization is here to see to it that we get the rights and privileges we deserve. And I can’t accept the idea that trying to force people to get hurt will accomplish that.”

“Do you know anyone that would try and do something like that?”

“If I did we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I’d be out doing my best to throttle them.”

She did a very impressive knuckle cracking demonstration as she said that. Charlie was pretty sure she meant that, too. “Okay. Now that that’s out of the way, do you have any information you can give me about some of the incidents that have made this organization necessary? It would help my paper a lot if I had something to use as examples of what’s happening and how transsexual rights are being abused.”

“I can give you several. You have to understand that in many of these cases I have to conceal or modify the information to protect some of these people from further outrages.”

“Please give me what you can.”

This might have gone on all night, in fact Charlie would find out later this was one of her favorite ploys, talk them into submission. But Charlie had an advantage Jewel didn’t know she had. About five minutes into her spiel, she started to sniff a bit. Not long after that it started to get more noticeable and about ten minutes into it Charlie could tell she really wasn’t paying very much attention to her at all.

After about fifteen minutes, she couldn’t keep it up any more.

“Do... Do either of you smell smoke?”

“Why, no. I don’t, Jewel. Are you a smoker by any chance, Miss Turner?”

MJ was staring at Charlie closely by this time. Charlie really didn’t like the look in her eyes either. “No, I’m not. I hate cigarettes. Why do you ask?”

“When Jewel was young, she was almost caught and killed in a house fire. Ever since then she has been very sensitive about smoke. We have to be careful about such things because they cause her distress. Are you sure that what you smell isn’t cigarette smoke, Jewel?”

“It... It’s not cigarette smoke. I know how that smells. This is totally different.”

“Maybe you’ll feel better if we get home, then. I’m sorry to break this off, but we really need to be going. I hope you will forgive us. I can arrange for the pictures to be sent to you through your teacher if you like.”

She smiled a bit as she said that. Charlie was sure she was trying to prove that she wasn’t a student and was really just spying on them, but as Charlie really was a student she didn’t have any problems with that at all. “Please do. Do you know how to get hold of Professor Hansen?”

“You're not taking the class from Professor Morrell?” Charlie figured she thought she had her now.

“No. Professor Morrell taught the class last year. I had him in the Creative Writing 380 class instead. Professor Hanson is doing the Journalism 402 class this year.” Sometimes the truth is the best concealment possible. Charlie gave MJ her best smile. “I can give you his number if you wish?”

“That won’t be necessary. I’m sure I can get it to him to get it to you. Now we really must be going, Jewel. We have a long night ahead of us.”

“We do? Oh! Yes! I’m afraid we do. Sorry to cut you off like this, but we really have to be going!”

Charlie was starting to wonder who was really in charge here. But that would have to wait for later. Now it was time to get back and check these new prints. She really didn’t think they would pan out, but she needed to check them anyway. “Well, I really don’t want to slow you two down. I have to be going, too. Thank you so much for all the help you’ve given me.”

“You're welcome. Please let us know if you need anything else to make a good report. If you need any advice, we have a staff of expert writers who can help.”

“I’m sure I can do a good job with this, but thanks for the offer.”

“We’d appreciate it if you’d at least let us look it over before you present it.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Like we said, we really don’t want to make the situation worse for ourselves and others.”

“Okay. I can see that. I promise to allow you to look at it before I turn it in.”

“Thank you. Please don’t think we’re being paranoid. We just feel that it’s better to be prepared than sorry.”

“I understand. Thank you again.” Charlie headed out as the two of them started a discussion behind her as they headed out, too.

Something Charlie had found useful in her career is a very good set of ears. Jewel was talking to MJ. “Are you sure there isn’t a fire? Have you alerted security and had the building checked?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure the building is checked. I wonder where that smell came from? Somehow I’m sure that Turner woman had something to do with it.”

The door closed before Charlie could hear any more. She figured she'd better call Professor Hansen and remind him of the topic upon which her paper was going to be based. He had it in his notes, but if she reminded him it would look better when MJ called him. Charlie just knew she would.

Still, she was pretty sure they weren’t involved in this unless they were much better at lying than she thought. She’d test their prints to be sure, but Charlie had a feeling that would be all she’d have to do with them. Still, they might be useful in the future. No point in alienating them, and she could probably get a good grade on the paper anyway. Especially with the information they could help her find.

Not long after that she was home and able to process the prints off the plastic sheets. Just like Carlie thought, no matches. Well, there was one less lead to follow up for now. She wouldn’t totally put them out of the picture, she’d been wrong before about people, but they would be way down her list for now.

She had almost decided to try and follow up some of the other leads when Charlie remembered that Connie had invited her to her Cotillion. She’d just as soon avoid it, but she did need to show her some solidarity. Besides, it would give her a chance to share some of what she’d learned with her and get her opinion on it. It never hurt to have someone else look at a problem. Sometimes they saw things that you didn’t, no matter how good you thought you were. Now, what to wear?

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The Mitchell Estate in Rushland was a rambling affair, sprawling just shy of a square mile that abutted Tyler State Park. That evening it knew an accustomed warmth, glowing lights on ropes adorned the cherry trees near the house, a modest little place of sixty odd rooms. Garlands of flowers were roped around the wrought iron work of the series decks behind the house.

The crowd was becoming a throng through which deftly maneuvered the crisply attired staff of the household, all under the anxious eyes of Beatrice Mitchell and her faithful Williams. This was her Spring Cotillion, the grand send off of the Pennsylvania Social Season.

Everything had to be perfect.

Connie watched from the widow of the room she had grown up in, a tired sigh of anticipated dread on her lips. “Breathe, Miss,” murmured Julie, one of the upstairs maids who was helping her dress. Connie took in a breath and held it as the maid zipped up the white gossamer gown, somewhere between a sun and cocktail dress.

“I don’t see why she makes this kind of fuss,” Connie muttered as the dress was settled. “Mom doesn’t even know half these people.”

“That’s not for me to say, Miss,” deferred the maid.

“Oh, come off it, Julie,” retorted Connie peevishly as she sat on the parade ground that served as the room’s bed to slip into her shoes, three-inch platformed heels of sandal wood and white leather. “Wouldn’t you rather just get together with a small group of close friends in some old, comfy jeans?”

“You don’t own any jeans, Miss,” Julie responded sensibly.

“You’re dodging the question, Julie,” Connie said around a smile.

“Quite so, Miss.”

She stood and preformed a slow pirouette. “So, do I pass muster?” The maid nodded as she busied herself laying out Connie’s night gown and turning down the bed. “All right, then, ‘once more unto the breech, dear friends,’ and all that. Oh, Julie, there should have been a young man here to go over the house’s books. Where is he?”

“I saw him in Mister Mitchell’s office on my way up here, Miss.” For the first time, a bit of anticipation crept into Connie’s smile.

“Good. Have a good night, Julie.”

“Yes, Miss.” From her rooms, Connie took one of the back sets of stairs that brought her into the servants area where she found Williams waiting for her, a manila envelope resting on a silver tray he was holding.

“Are we all set, Williams?”

“I have the document on the paper you requested, Miss. One does wonder why you have a need of a non-disclosure agreement on a waxed paper, however.”

“It holds fingerprints better than normal paper,” answered the young woman as she took the envelope and led the way toward her father's office.

“Indeed, Miss. Would there be some specific reason you might wish a sample of Mr. Resmannick’s fingerprints?”

“Nothing I’d care to disclose, just now,” she said, maneuvering by memory through the maze the house had grown into over two hundred years of additions.

“As you say, Miss.” The pair arrived at the dour, dark paneled affair that was Bull Mitchell’s office, its sizable desk overflowing with papers, accounting ledgers and a silver coffee service that had shown a good bit of recent use. Behind the desk sat Mr. Resmannick, and if his current state of partial undress was any indication, a much worse for wear man. His shirt and tie were askance, his jacket nowhere to be seen as he was writing furiously from one of the ledger books to a tablet upon which he was taking notes.

“How’s the war, general?” asked Connie as she breezed in, secretly pleased by his jaw falling open in naked lust. She alighted on a corner of the desk to be close enough to reach over and close his mouth for him. Now she remembered why she put up with the discomfort of this dress. “That good?”

“I, uh, well, that is to say…” he stammered.

“I have a little formality for you to sign,” she interrupted, placing the envelope before him, appearing to accidentally scatter the papers he was working through. He couldn’t keep a small cry of dismay in as the pile shifted. “Just a non-disclosure agreement. Fairly standard, but you’ll want to read the fine print.”

Having something to get him back into a professional mind frame, Brian picked up the document and scanned it. “A Four Million dollar personal liability for disclosure?” he demanded.

“Yes, that’s not your firm’s responsibility, either. Theirs is line seven.”

“Who in their right mind would sign this?” he demanded.

Connie’s smile was feral. “Someone who can keep their mouth shut as well as scoring the account of the century for their firm of course,” she answered. He fumed for moment, torn between leaving and trying once more to show a good impression. Finally, lust won out and he scratched his name across the required lines. He placed it back into the envelope and handed it to her. “Thank you very much, Brian. Good luck with the audit.” Connie rose and swept out of the room, very much feeling his eyes on her ass the entire way.

Once clear of his line of sight, she passed the envelope to Williams.

“Can you see that Miss Charlotte Turner gets this tonight, Williams?”

“Certainly, Miss,” he answered smoothly, passing the folder to another of the house’s staff they passed. A significant glance between the two was all that was needed.

“Mission accomplished, Williams. Now for a little payback. Any ideas?”

“Payback, Miss?” asked the Butler, his tone as close as it would ever come to disdain. Tonight was not the night for shenanigans.

“That slime ball in there hurt a good friend of mine some time ago. I think it’s time he knew what it felt like.”

“If I may say so, Miss, a Lady of your standing should hardly be concerning herself with avenging someone. It is not lady like.”

“Just because I’m a well born lady, doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings, Williams,” she countered. The butler made a placating gesture.

“Even so, Miss, it is beneath you to personally involve yourself in something as sordid as revenge. There are people for that sort of thing.” Connie smiled as she allowed him to lead her out into the party proper.

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“You know,” drawled a familiar voice behind Connie that brought a smile to her face, “I can never make up my mind if you’re off to a wedding or a funeral in that dress.”

The red headed woman in the leather dress returned Connie’s smile as she swept her into a hug.

“To be honest,” Connie said as she withdrew from the bear hug, “a funeral. You’re feeling full of yourself dressed like that here,” she observed. The woman’s black leather mini-dress clung to her like a second skin, accented by a collection of jewelry making a fair imitation of a king’s ransom.

The woman was into her thirties, indeed, forty was becoming uncomfortably close, yet she was still very attractive and a flamboyant fire danced in her green eyes. “Mom’s gonna have a fit when she sees you. What brings you here, Emily? I thought you hated these things,” asked Connie.

“What?” Emily demanded, “I can’t come home to see my favorite little sister? And Mother’s lack of fashion sense is her problem, not mine.”

“I’m your only little sister,” Connie grinned. “And you’re dodging the question.”

“Of course I am,” she said blithely. “It’s a big sister’s prerogative. I can’t get over how well you’re blossoming, though! You just seem to get more radiant by the day.” Emily’s sister’s expression let her know she wouldn’t be bought off with compliments. “Oh, all right, if you must know I’m on the prowl for future ex-husband number three,” she said, brandishing her left hand whose only digit without jewelry was the ring finger.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Connie exclaimed contritely. “What happened with Robert?”

“My suspicions were correct,” growled Emily. “He was fooling around with that woman at his tennis club. Rebecca something. Anyway, by the time my lawyers are done with him he won’t stop looking over his shoulder for the rest of his miserable life. I did want to thank you, however, for recommending your friend, Charlotte. She did impeccable work.”

“I’m glad I was able to help. I just wish you’d been wrong,” mourned Connie. She would have said more, but her sister raised a cautioning hand and pointed discreetly behind her.

“Here comes trouble.”

The forty-something man who approached was resplendent in his dress blue uniform, the silver oak leaves on his shoulders glittered as his broad shoulders casually rolled with his gait. To the uninitiated, his ribbons must have been impressive as they covered both sides of his chest, but Connie knew better. Most were either awards to the unit he served in or mundane achievement awards. There wasn’t an award for valor or distinguished service in combat among them. His close blonde hair was going gray and there was little high about his high and tight. Indeed, it was obvious he had inherited their father’s propensity to baldness.

“Hello, Emily,” he greeted stiffly, his disdain at her attire readily apparent on his face. After a long moment, his eyes shifted to Connie.

“Captain,” he said as though reluctant to confer the title.

“Hello, Mike,” Connie said through clenched teeth, emphasizing her brother’s name. “I see your bird hunt is still fruitless.” Mike frowned as her veiled barb at his lack of reaching Full Colonel found its mark.

“Don’t assume that the lack of a suitable unit for me to take command of in any way limits the odds of my achieving a rank you will never hope to see, Captain,” he hissed, trying and failing to maintain an even tone. “And I shall thank you to not be so familiar with me.”

“Oh, if I could, I wouldn’t be family with you at all. It’s just my cross to bear,” she countered.

“The uniforms have really caught up with the times if that counts,” added Emily, with a gesture to the daring gown Connie wore.

“Just because she isn’t in uniform…” started Mike hotly.

“Means I don’t have to give you the time of day,” finished Connie. “Do you mind? The adults were having a conversation.”

Michael’s face suffused with barely contained fury. “Why…you…” he stuttered before the legendary Mitchell temper they all shared flared in Emily.

“Oh, zip it, Mikey. If you’re just not man enough to deal with Connie then shove off. Or was there some legitimatereason you came barging over here?”

“Mother requests both of you girls at the buffet,” he hissed before turning sharply on his heel and stalking off.

“Asshole,” tossed Emily to his back as she linked her arm with Connie’s and led her in the direction of the tables laden with food. “Onward Christian Soldiers then,” she said brightly, some of her usual fire returning. “You know, you could put a stop to all this nonsense if you’d just pick one and get it over with. Besides, I thought you liked men even before?”

Connie nodded. “I did and I do. However, the operative word there was men. There isn’t an ounce of manhood separate from Dad in all these lap dogs combined. They’re all just sniffing for a piece of the Mitchell Fortune anyway. Not a one sees me.”

Emily laughed. “Honey, you’re doing your chest a great disservice there. What are you up to now? A C cup?”

“Almost. They’re still too loose and I fall out of B’s. I’ve been toying with a boob job, though…”

“Connie,” her sister said softly, “you’ve only been a woman two years. Give them time. Trust me on this,” she said with a gesture to her own, amble bosom. The two women arrived at the buffet table to the cool, disapproving stare of the Mitchell Matriarch.

“Emily Rachael Mitchell, what are you wearing?” she demanded in a voice that thundered without managing to carry to a single of her guests.

Emily did a slow turn, much to her mother's dismay, showing off her outfit's cut, material and most of all, daring. “Do you like it, Mother?” she asked in a honey sweet voice full of arsenic. “It’s the very latest in Mid-Life Crisis Chic.”

Beatrice Mitchell sniffed, clearly not amused in the least with her middle child. “You look like a two dollar street walker,” she hissed.

“Mother,” countered her daughter blithely, “two dollar hookers can’t afford leather.”

“You will go to your room and change into something suitable this instant.”

“For what I have in mind this evening, Mother dear, this is entirely suitable.”

“Do I need to involve your father in this?”

“Oh, as if Daddy will come anywhere near this parade you’re orchestrating,” countered Emily. “No, Mother, I’m afraid you’ll have to grin and bear it.”

“Constance, I’ll expect you in the receiving line in five minutes,” Beatrice whispered before leaving as though without a care in the world.

“You’re my hero,” said Connie as loudly as she dared to her sister’s grin.

“Pick one!” she urged. “At least that way you’ll get full control of your trust fund.”

“Don’t remind me!” Connie grimaced as she helped herself to a cup of the punch. “I’m in enough financial straights without thinking about all that money I get if I just give myself to the highest bidder. Maybe I should have worn something like that…”

“Watch it, little sister,” Emily warned with a smile. “Besides, just because you pick one today doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind later. I’m certainly proof of that.”

“Emily, I think I’m just too much of a romantic for my own good. When I think of all the shit I’ve faced in my admittedly young life, and I look at these bridge club haunting, yacht party throwing milquetoasts, I can’t help but think I’ll never find someone I can respect.”

“Who says you have to respect them?” demanded her sister as they left the buffet to wade through the party toward the receiving line. Connie smirked mischievously.

“Watch this,” she whispered and walked up to a GQ model who was sipping a drink and studiously trying to look like he wasn’t undressing them both with his eyes. “Hello there. I’m Constance, the victim of this little shindig, and you are?”

The young man swallowed, his war to appear calm and believe his luck parading on the best face the plastic surgery profession could produce. “I’m Warren,” he managed as casually as he could. “Warren Steele. It’s my great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Mitchell.”

“Oh, it’s all mine, Warren. My sister and I were just having a discussion about you. I wonder if you’d do me something of a favor?” she asked coquettishly with heavy batting of her eyes.

“I’d be only too happy!” he exclaimed.

“Well, do you see the stuffy looking jerk in the uniform just over there?” she asked, pointing out her brother. “He was just extremely rude to me, but I wouldn’t want to make a scene. It would mean so much to me if you’d go over there and throw your drink in his face.”

The model didn’t hesitate a moment. Emily watched in abject fascination as he marched over to Michael, drink held before him like a weapon. The two exchanged angry words before the younger man’s whiskey sour found a new home down Mike’s collar. The model turned, a huge smile of accomplishment on his face before the soldier angrily snatched him up and lock stepped him toward the front gate.

“I can’t believe you just did that!” laughed Emily.

Connie sighed. “I can’t believe he did either. What real man would have just caused a major scene like that just on my say so if he had an ounce of self respect?”

“Connie, sweetie,” cajoled her sister, “you did lay it on rather thick that your virtue had been maligned. I hardly think you can hold that against Mr. Steele.”

“I suppose, still, I think I might have liked him a bit more if he’d told me to go to hell.”

“You have a very warped sense of attraction,” was her sister’s comment as she and Connie made themselves scarce before Michael could figure out what the reason behind his shower had been.

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Williams’ brain was had been turning for quite a while on how to fulfill Connie’s desire for the humiliation of Mr. Resmannick without causing a disruption in Madam Mitchell’s Cotillion. The two were fairly diametrically apposed objectives, however, he was also aware having caught sight of Miss Emily’s attire there would be little likelihood of the event going off without the proverbial hitch.

More importantly, there was not a single gentleman in attendance this evening of whom he approved as a match for the youngest of the Mitchell children.

His years of service to the family had given him a keen sense of insight as to their collective likes and dislikes, more to the point, he felt it his obligation to see to it Miss Constance’s marriage not be a first in a long succession of unhappy unions. She had gone through too much unhappiness as it was.

With that in mind, a plan formulated that he decided to act upon without a second thought. Scooping up a glass and a decanter of some of Mr. Mitchell’s more potent Scotch, he placed it on a silver tray and guided his steps to the Master’s office.

There he found Mr. Resmannick still puzzling over the books, a frown on his face and dark circles beginning to form under his eyes. “Good evening, Mr. Resmannick,” he greeted, placing the tray within his reach. “I trust your work is going well?”

The man picked up the glass and drank a goodly swallow before he realized what it was he was drinking. Suppressing a violent cough, he finished the glass. “Thank you, Williams,” he managed hoarsely. “Actually, I’m trying to understand some rather strange medical expenses from two years ago. Do you know anything about it?”

“Medical expenses, sir?” asked the butler carefully.

“Yes, Medical expenses,” responded Brian, his tone betraying the frustration he was feeling. “Look here, a fifteen thousand dollar bill from Bethesda Naval Hospital, first class plane tickets to and from Colorado Springs to DC for a Doctor Biber, anesthesia, surgery room, various professional bills all only labeled as Connie Surgery. What is this?”

Comprehension dawned behind the butler’s eyes, which he carefully concealed. “Ah, yes, Mr. Resmannick, terrible thing that. You wouldn’t believe it now, sir, but Miss Constance was very nearly killed in a horrific helicopter crash.”

“Helicopter crash?” asked Brian as he allowed the butler to refill his glass with the Scotch.

“Yes, sir. Something of a hobby to Miss Constance. In her earlier stages, quite a dangerous one, if I may say so. She required extensive care afterwards. I am, of course, not at liberty to discuss the details, but I understand the damage was quite extensive.”

“How horrible,” replied Resmannick. “And how wonderfully brave of her to carry on as if nothing had happened! You know, Will,” and he paused to toss off the drink before holding it out for another refill. “I’d give anything to get a Class Act like Connie in my life.”

“Indeed, sir,” was William’s knowing comment. “Wouldn’t we all?”

“Say!” exclaimed Brian around another mouthful of the excellent Scotch. Already it was working its magic on Brian’s empty stomach, giving him a strong feeling of invincibility. “You’ve been helping the Mitchells for years, Will. I’d bet you’d know the shortest route to her heart, wouldn’t you?”

Williams kept a grin from his face. “I’m not entirely sure I should divulge such sensitive information, sir,” he said dubiously.

Brian took another drink from the glass that somehow never seemed to empty. “Aw, come ‘on, Will! I signed the NDA. Your secrets are safe with me.”

“Well, in that case, sir, I should note that Miss Constance has always had a fascination with fearless men. And, after her accident of course, a great fondness of the color black.”

“Black?” asked Brian through the haze in his mind that settled like a winter’s fog.

“The paramedics who came to her aid after the accident wore black uniforms,” supplied Williams knowingly. “If she were to see you doing something particularly courageous while wearing that color, I should think the outcome would be assured.”

“Well, that’s great!” exclaimed the accountant. “But I don’t have anything black and what could she see me do?”

“This house is full of clothing, Mr. Resmannick,” assured Williams. “As touching the latter, there is a widow’s walk about the perimeter of the roof that Miss Constance was always afraid to use. I trust my assistance in this matter shall be kept discreet, sir?”

“My lips are sealed, Will, lead on!”

“Right this way, sir.”

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From her place in the receiving line, Connie caught sight of Lucia being interrogated by her mother, Mrs. Barrington, out front. Having forgotten to mention Mrs. Barrington’s invitation to her friend was sure to cause her some grief later on. A rescue was definitely called for; not to mention the added bonuses of sparing her friend meeting her own mother as well as getting Connie out of the reception line.

Connie excused herself as politely as she could from the stream of well wishers and muttered a need to freshen up to warm her mother’s icy stare as she made good her escape.

As she approached mother and daughter Barrington, Connie pulled out her sixteen-year-old personae and swept Lucia into a hug before she could announce her displeasure. “You came!” exclaimed Connie, forcing as much excitement as she could into her voice. “I’m so glad to see you, Luce! There’s so much I’ve got to show you! Come on! Bye, Mrs. Barrington!” she called over her shoulder as she dragged off her dumbstruck friend. Once free of both eye and ear shot of her mother, Lucia recovered her composure sufficiently to snatch herself free of Connie’s grasp.

“What on Earth was that?” she demanded. “And why didn’t you warn me my mother would be here?”

“That was a rescue,” Connie retorted with a conspiratorial wink. “And I forgot about your Mom coming. Cut me some slack, there’s like a thousand people here. I just forgot.”

“Well, don’t let it happen again,” chuckled Lucia. “Where are we going, anyway? Shouldn’t I be paying my respects to your Mom?”

“We’re going to my room,” replied Connie. “And, trust me, you don’t want to meet my Mother. Nice dress, by the way.”

“This old thing?” she answered around a flattered smile. “And why not?”

“This whole thing is about getting me hitched, remember? You’re competition. Not the best way to get on Mom’s good side.”

Lucia nodded. “Why are we going to your room, then? Do you have designs on my virtue?” Connie snorted.

“To hide. I’ve got room service and playing cards. We can weather the storm there.”

Lucia dug in her heels and dragged her friend to a halt. “Uh uh, I like these little get togethers, remember? I didn’t rush through getting this dolled up to play cards. Let’s circulate.”

“Oh, that does sound like fun,” drawled Connie with heavy sarcasm and rolling of her eyes. “Meet and greet the same boring idiots who all belong to the same clubs and figure out whose house they’re in by which party and day of the week it is? Oh, let’s!”

“You know,” countered Lucia, “if you would stop looking down that lovely button nose of yours and actually talk with some of these people you might find out some of them are actually interesting.”

“My lovely button nose?” demanded Connie with a grin. “Are you coming on to me?”

“Not into blondes, sorry,” was Lucia’s counter with a smile as she led her friend back toward the party.

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It had taken some work, but Charlie had finally been able to get the dress ready. She’d seen something like it on the anime show Gundam Seed and by checking around a little was able to find a shop on the Internet that could supply her with one that would fit.

It still needed a little work, but in the end she liked the results. Charlie had to lighten up the color of her hair a little and arrange it in a more classical anime fashion with the majority swept back behind her and two long bangs falling in front of her ears and to her breasts.

The dress was sleeveless and had a wrap around vest like blouse that fastened at the left shoulder. The skirt was pleated and came to mid calf. The area where they joined at the waist was covered by a wrap around sash tied in a large bow fastened to the left also.

The shoes were low heeled and red. Oh, did you make note that the dress was pink? The combination of Charlie's light complexion, darkish red hair, shoes, and pink dress worked together surprisingly well. And it was also surprisingly un-encumbering. Combined with a somewhat large pink purse. She was more than prepared for Connie’s cotillion.

As she drove up, Charlie had to admit to feeling a little underdressed in the car department. The cars ranged from well maintained MGs to some of the new H2s. All of them looked expensive and well maintained. Her old gray Escort wagon looked a bit out of place. But at least she wasn’t going to have to worry about the valets scratching her paint. She had to park it herself as the valets refused to risk driving it. Charlie was going to have to talk to Connie about some lessons in humility for her employees.

The next challenge was going to be after she worked her way out of the parking area. Everyone was entering by way of one of the side gates. Several security men dressed in dark suits were checking out the guests as they entered. All of these had earphones. She was sure that there would be more blending in to the crowd to add extra security. If she looked hard enough Charlie was sure she’d be able to spot them. They would be the better looking ones, most likely.

She happened to know that Martin Masters was in charge of security that evening, and Charlie knew many of the people who worked for him. She even did some freelance work for him on occasion. There wasn’t anyone better at security and bodyguarding in this area, in her opinion. The ones manning this side gate didn’t look familiar to her, so Charlie figured they must be new hires that would be put out in the open to distract any possible attackers or thieves from the concealed protectors in the crowd. The security at this gate was arranged so that it was fairly secluded and anything going on here wouldn’t likely disturb the guests.

Both of these security people were over six feet tall, had crew cuts, and that peculiar squared off brick like look of the professional who works out regularly with purpose. One was blonde and the other had dark brown hair. Both were well tanned, too. A little too blocky for Charlie, but not bad looking. A little tight and uncomfortable in their suits, they still managed to do a good job of looking like they were ready to spring into action in a moment. Certainly, it would make many of the people attending this function feel safer, what with all the uncertainty and unrest stemming from the oversea problems in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Jeff Hancock ran a hand through his short blonde hair and nodded in the direction of the car park.

“Hey, Pete. Get a load of the chick comin from the car corral.”

Peter Jameson glanced that way and stood up straighter. “Why is she coming from there? Do you think she’s trying to avoid the ID checks?”

“We should be so lucky. Probably forgot her lipstick in the Beemer and had to run down and get it.”

“Didn’t come by us, though. And we’re the closest entrance to the parking area.”

“Yeah, you're right. Well, at least it beats being totally bored. Better check her out. Call this in?”

“Better not. No use in causing a panic if it’s something simple. Better just find out who she is first.”

“Okay. Who gets to ask?”

“You saw her first.”

“Right.”

They waited for her to approach but kept their eyes on her. An older couple and a young man who was being dragged there by them passed on their way from the regular greeting area. All of them had small stickers indicating that they’d been checked at the greeting area and were probably trying to avoid someone at the regular entrance area. The lady they had first thought was a younger girl by her pink dress didn’t have a sticker. She greeted them with a smile as she approached. “Hello, boys. Having a good evening?”

They glanced at each other and then Jeff stepped in front of her and blocked the entrance.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. But do you have an invitation?”

“What!?” The smile was replaced by a look of confusion.

“Do you have an invitation?”

“Connie’s one of my best friends. Of course I have an invitation!”

“May we please see it?”

“You didn’t ask the guy ahead of me for one.”

“He’d already been cleared at the greeting area. If you’d come from there I wouldn’t have to ask, but you didn’t and I’m afraid we’ll have to see it before we can allow you in.”

“Well! If the dumb valets had been doing their jobs I’d have come that way, but since they insisted that I park my own car I came this way. I didn’t feel like having to walk back there and come up that way if all I had to do was come straight here.”

“I understand, ma’am, but I still need to see that invitation.”

She stood there looking at them closely. Then she sighed and nodded her head.

“Okay. If you insist. I’ve got it right here in my purse.” She popped the largish pink purse open and reached into it. Right next to what looked like an invitation was an automatic pistol.

Jeff, who was closest, grabbed for it. Unfortunately, Pete couldn’t see what was going on because Jeff happened to be blocking his line of sight. The lady, reacting with unusual speed, pulled the purse and pistol out of reach and simultaneously launched a quick side kick into his left knee. With a yell of pain, Jeff collapsed to the ground. Surprised by the sudden fall of his partner, Pete was slow to react and before he could more than half draw his pistol, the lady had pulled an automatic pistol from the purse and was backing up so as to cover them both.

“All right, you two! Freeze!”

The lady in pink had a peculiar and vicious grimace and was handling the pistol in a very professional fashion. Pete froze. Jeff lay there groaning and holding his knee.

“I don’t know what you were thinking of, but you will NEVER try crap like that around me again, or so help me I’ll blow your balls into the next millennium! Got that?”

“Uh...sure. Look, I’m moving my hand away from my pistol. Don’t do anything stupid now, okay? Can I check my partner?”

“He’ll be fine. I didn’t kick him that hard.”

In the meantime, several other security people realized that something unusual was going on at one of the entrances. The first one to get a look at what was happening immediately activated his radio and spoke quietly into it.

“Gun! Car entrance. No shots fired but it looks like the newbie Hancock is on the ground and some girl in a pink dress has the drop on the other newbie Jameson. Advise, please.”

There was an immediate but quiet reaction from around the compound as the security forces went to immediate alert. No one who didn’t know what to look for would notice anything, but several members of the party broke off what they were doing and moved quietly toward the car entrance. Others took up alert positions looking to see if this might just be some kind of diversion.

A large black man who had been watching the crowd from a terrace immediately started to ask for more information. “Gill? Is that you?”

“Yes sir!”

“What do you see?”

“Looks like this girl in a pink dress has the drop on Jameson and Hancock. Hancock is on the ground and holding his knee. Jameson is just standing there and keeping his hands out.”

“You sure no shots have been fired?”

“I didn’t hear anything and the pistol doesn’t look like it’s silenced in any way.”

“What the hell are the newbies doin' by themselves, anyway? Who’s supposed to be with them?”

There was silence for a moment.

“Forget that for now. Gill? What’s happening now?”

“Nothing. The girl seems to know how to handle that pistol, but nothing else is happening.”

“Can you describe the girl?”

“Let’s see. She’s white, about five six to ten or so. Wearing a pink dress. Hair’s fairly long and looks kind of dark red.”

“Parker here, sir. I can confirm that. Looks like she’s wearing red shoes, too.”

“Wait a minute! Dark red hair? And she knows how to handle a pistol?”

Several of the ones who could now see what was happening confirmed it. One of the older people then spoke up. “You know, Marty. She looks kind of familiar. But from this angle it’s kind of hard to say.”

“All right. Nobody do anything stupid. Can any of you see if the newbies have their radios and if they’re on?”

“Gill here, sir. I think so. But we need to act pretty soon. Someone’s bound to come up the trail soon and then the shit’s goin to hit the fan.”

“Nobody do ANYTHING! I’ll be right there. Someone be sure to tell the two newbies not to try anything. Let’s hope and assume their radios are on.”

The black man rushed down carefully prepared routes that were kept clear and out of site of the guests. As he went he quickly gave several orders to the men and women under his direction.

“Winston! Keep anyone from going up that trail from your end. Gill? You and the others keep an eye on things at your end and don’t let anyone wander into this. Angel! I think you’ll be needed down here. Get here ASAP!”

Soon he was in a position near what was going on. He turned as someone else came up behind him. He wasn’t used to looking up at many people, but even his six two was shorter than the six eight giantess that approached him now.

“Angel. I think a friend of ours may be in a mood today.” Angel Banks was six eight, and built like a Swiss Bikini Team member. Her long golden blonde hair and blue eyes with large C-cup breasts and hips to match couldn’t be concealed, even by the black suit she was wearing. Nor could her grace and muscle.

“I’ve been listening in, too. I think you're right. Let me take a look.”

She used her unusual height to advantage and looked over a hedge.

“That’s cheating, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah. When you boys manage to grow up I bet you won’t think so. And you're right, as usual. That’s our girl. Wonder what has her all worked up now?”

“We’ll have to find out later. Now we’ve got to get a handle on this. What do you think?”

“I think I’ll just go out there and find out. Think you can keep the newbies in line?”

“If I can’t, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Thanks loads. If I get killed I’m gonna haunt you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You do that. Here I go.”

By this time, things had progressed a bit at the entrance. Hancock was still holding his knee, but wasn’t groaning anymore. He was glaring from his position on the ground but didn’t dare do more. The girl had backed off a bit more so as to be able to cover them both better but the tension was mounting. Soon something would have to be done.

Then a large figure came around one of the hedges.

“Hey! Killa! What’s up?” The sudden appearance of an ally almost made the two security men make a grave mistake. Both reached for their pistols.

“FREEZE, YOU IDIOTS! If either of you pulls his pistol and Killa doesn’t shoot you, I will!”

That shout not only got the attention of the two men, but a spreading silence came from the people gathered on the other side of the hedges. Marty spoke up from behind the hedge. “Way to go, Angel. We won’t even have to call the police. I’m sure every officer anywhere near Rushland is aware of it now.”

“Shut up, Marty, and get a leash on these jerks before Killa or me has to kill them.”

“All right, all right. Hancock! Jameson! Don’t do anything! If either one of you so much as sneezes, you're fired!”

The two men exchanged a confused look and Hancock spoke up. “Mister Masters! She attacked us. She’s dangerous! Don’t take any chances!”

Martin stepped from behind the hedge. “I’m NOT taking any chances, which is why I’ve told you not to move. Why aren’t your radios on? Or have you simply been ignoring the instructions we’ve been sending you?”

Both of them looked very confused for a moment. Then Jameson spoke up. “But they are on, sir. Or at least they were. Now that you mention it, though, I’m not getting anything right now."

He started to reach for his radio and Masters, Angel, and the girl all shouted at the same time. “DON’T MOVE!”

“Uhhhh... Yes sir. Don’t move.”

“Angel. If you please?”

“Yes, sir. Killa?”

“Yes, Angel?”

“Will you PLEASE put down the pistol?”

“Okay, but I don’t completely trust these guys.”

“I know. But we can’t have you waving that thing around now can we?”

“O...Okay.”

Taking some deep breaths, she slowly came out of her firing stance and slowly placed the pistol back into her purse. Neither Hancock nor Jameson moved during this. Angel moved up closer to her. “Whatcha doin’ here, girl?”

“I was invited by my friend, Connie. But so far it seems like no one wants me here. First the valets and then these guys.”

“What happened?”

“Well, first the valets wouldn’t park my car. Then when I was getting out my invitation to show these guys, the one on the ground tried to grab my purse. You know I don’t react well to that kind of thing.”

“Yeah. You are a little high strung. When are you goin' to find a man and settle down a bit?”

“I keep looking, but they all seem to want to run away after they get to try and know me.”

“I wonder why? Will you show me the invite? I promise not to make any snatching motions.”

“Okay. Here it is.”

Angel accepted the proffered envelope and check it out. "Seems in order. Okay, I guess you can go in...”

Jameson and Hancock both made choking noises. Hancock recovered first. "WHAT! You can’t be serious! She’s armed and dangerous! You can’t put the guests at risk like that!”

Masters, who had moved up to check out Hancock's condition, put his hand on Hancock's shoulder. “Shut up, you idiot, and let Angel handle this. Besides, we’re all armed and dangerous here.”

“He’s right you know, Killa. We can’t let you wander around with that here.”

Charlie got a stricken look on her face and started to look around nervously. “But...”

“I know. Here, let me take it for you. I’ll hold on to it until you leave. I’ll give it back then. I promise.”

Hancock would have jumped up but Masters held him down. “Sir! You can’t let her get away with this! She kicked me and pulled a pistol on us!”

“Hancock. She just let you live and I’m sure if either of you want to make a scene I can arrange to have you out on the street before you can decide just what line of work you want to go into now that you’ve screwed up in this one.”

“But...”

“No buts. You both screwed up here. Fortunately for you, it was in front of one of the good guys. And before you say anything, I’d like to point out that she has a permit to carry that thing concealed. Now, are we on the same wavelength here?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Good. You know, Charlie? Angel has a good idea there. You ought to listen to her.”

“But...”

“We know how you feel. I wouldn’t ask this without a good reason. Give the pistol to Angel and we’ll be sure to get it back to you as soon as you head home.” He paused as if listening to something. “Tell you what. Something just came up that I have to handle. Gill?”

“Yes, sir?” A tall athletic looking guy who might have been somebody involved in weight lifting had moved up while they were talking. Charlie recognized him as one of Martin’s employee’s.

“Take these two in tow and finish out this shift here. Give them some pointers on the right way to handle these situations and make sure about their radios. I want to know if these things aren’t working and why.”

“Yes sir! C’mon, you two. Let’s get to work!”

Martin then popped up and looked back at the house. “Got to go. See you around?”

Charlie nodded and looked at them and back at Angel. She knew they were right and she shouldn’t have brought it with her in the first place. But somehow she couldn’t let it get too far from her for very long. She felt a lot better having it near her. Realizing that they wouldn’t let her in if she didn’t, and that she still needed to talk to Connie, there was only one course of action to take. As Martin and the others headed off, Charlie pulled the pistol out. “O...Okay. You’ll be real careful with it?”

“You know me, Honey. I’ll treat it better than my own kids.”

“You don’t have any kids.”

“See. That was easy, wasn’t it? Besides, who says I won’t have kids soon?”

“Really!?”

“We’ll talk about this later, okay?”

“Okay!” Charlie started to walk by and almost ran into Angel's outstretched hand.

“Oh. Yeah. Here it is.”

She had a hard time letting it go, but Angel managed to gently pry it out of Charlie's hand. Then she placed it in a pocket inside her suit jacket. “There. All safe and sound. Now you can go and join the party.”

“Would you mind if I hung with you for a while, Angel?”

“If it will make you feel better. But don’t get in my way, okay?”

“Okay. You’ll hardly know I’m here.”

“Right. We'd better get going then. Follow me.” She turned and headed out into the grounds. It was easy for Charlie to follow in her wake as everyone else quickly got out of the way when they saw her coming.

“Hey, Angel!”

“Yeah?”

“About those kids. It’s not, you know...”

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Luce giggled in spite of the tense appearing situation at the gate. "Oh, dear. It looks like Charlie has livened things up again, doesn't it?"

"Sure does," Connie agreed, then watched a very reluctant Charlie hand her weapon to the large female guard with a chuckle. "But doesn't she usually manage to do that when we see her?"

"Yup," Luce agreed with a grin as Charlie began following the security guard away from the gate. "But you have to admit that she really does have that pathetic, 'puppy waiting for a treat' look down pretty well there."

"I don't even think she's practiced that one before," Connie nodded in agreement. "But she does have it just about perfectly."

"Poor thing, security made her give up her weapon and it's driving her nuts," Luce chuckled, then glanced upwards for a moment to take in the stars that showed up marginally better in the country - even with all the lights in the area - than they ever did in Philly.

Her attention was taken by a movement on the roof of the house, and she peered in that direction working to get a better idea of what she was seeing. "Umm, Connie?"

"Yes?"

"I think someone's on your roof." The little brunette gestured without really pointing and her friend glanced upwards to see the black clad figure cautiously climbing toward a higher part of the roof.

"You're right." Narrowing her eyes, Connie also noted some security people discreetly climbing after the figure. "You don't happen to hear a chopper in the vicinity, do you?"

"No, I don't think so," Luce answered slowly.

"Good, then whoever it is won't get away. Security's on it already."

"You don't sound too worried," Luce answered. "It might be a real thief trying to take advantage of the crowd, you know."

"If so, Dad will take care of it." Connie grinned, then shrugged. "I'll find out about it soon enough, I'm sure."

"Speaking of parents..." Luce grimaced. "Mother is giving that gimlet 'Why aren't you mingling' stare. If I don't do something like that pretty soon, she's going to come over here and bodily drag me into it."

"Then go mingle," Connie grinned in sympathy. "I'll catch up with you later."

"Okay, see you."

"Try not to have too much fun, Luce. I don't really think these 'pillars of society' my Mom invited would handle your more interesting quirks all that well. But seeing them try might be entertaining."

"Don't tempt me," Luce grinned, then headed off into the crowd, followed by more than just interested stares from more than one male member of the gathering.

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Angel hadn’t let Charlie out of arms length most of the time. Not that she intended to get very far from her, either. The thought occurred to Charlie that maybe she and Martin were trying to keep a close watch on her anyway, just in case she had a hidden gun or might cause some other kind of trouble. Chelie thought she'd have to give the hidden gun a thought, though. It just might work.

To her surprise, Charlie ran into Luce first. Charlie hadn’t been expecting her, but she wasted no time in dragging Angel over to say hello. “Hey, Luce! Good to see you! Have you seen Connie?”

“Just over that way a little while ago. How are you doing? Brought your own bodyguard?”

“Uh, no. Angel here is a good friend of mine from way back. She’s...uh...helping me with a small problem is all. Do you know if Connie had that project for me yet? I hate to say it but I think I’m not really appreciated around here.”

Several of the people were glaring at Charlie. Most notably some older ladies she recognized as being Connie’s and Luce’s Mothers. Many of the guests who’d seen her come in were also making a point of avoiding her.

“Well, I can’t imagine why they don’t. Judging by the uniforms and all I’d think at least some of them would appreciate your accessories.”

“You saw that?”

“I think most of us here saw at least some of it. At least the passing of the torch stuff.”

“Oh. Connie’s gonna kill me when she catches up to me, isn’t she?”

“I don’t think you need to worry too much. She’s got other things on her mind right now. If you go over there and ask her right now you might just get away with it. Or at most only a small scolding.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Really. Now get going so my Mom can scold me for associating with people like you.”

“Okay. I’ll call and let you know what happens.”

“You do that. You’ve got my cell?”

“Yep. I should know pretty quick.”

Charlie waved and moved off to where Luce had told her to look for Connie. Soon she spotted her talking to that butler guy. They were so busy discussing something that Charlie don’t think they saw her coming until she was right on them. “Hey, Connie!”

They both jumped a bit, though the butler was good at covering that up. He was holding a large manilla envelope. He gave Charlie a short bow. “Miss Turner. It’s good to see you. Miss Constance was just asking me to see about delivering this to you. It will save us time if I give it to you now I think.”

“Hey! Great! Thanks and all. I guess I better get going then.”

Connie seemed a little put out with me. “You're not going to stick around and enjoy the party?”

“Uh. Sorry about that, but I really have to be going. I don’t think I’m all that welcome right now and most everybody seems to want to avoid me.”

“They might be a little concerned that you might shoot them or something. A lot of them saw you turn your cannon over to that lady wrestler friend of yours.”

“I’m sorry. But it wasn’t my fault. Besides, I wouldn’t shoot them unless I had to.”

“Has it occurred to you that maybe the fact that you ‘would’ shoot them if you had to gives ‘em the willies?”

“Why? Wouldn’t anyone?”

Connie shook her head and sighed. “Don’t go changing on us. And I guess you'd better get going. There’s gonna be a bit more excitement soon, and I don’t think you want to be caught in the rush.”

“Oh. Okay. I’ll call you as soon as I know anything.”

“You do that. See you later.”

“Bye!”

Angel kept up with Charlie and stayed with her until she got into her car. Then she handed the pistol back to her.

“Care to let me in on what you and the others are up to?”

“Sorry, Angel. I really don’t think you want to be involved in this. Don’t worry, though. It’s in a good cause.”

“I’ll take your word for that. Will you tell me later?”

“Might. But I’ll have to get permission first. I’m sure you understand.”

“Yeah. Take care. And drive carefully.”

Angel stopped for a moment as if listening. Then she raised the mike to her mouth. “Okay. Charlie’s out of here. I’ll be right there.”

“Trouble?”

“Nothing we can’t handle. Better get going. Your friend was right. You don’t want to have to stick around here.”

“I’m going. Let me know what happens if you can.”

“I’ll do that. Get going!”

With that and a wave she headed back toward the house and Charlie headed back to her own place.

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The wax paper sheets were perfect for prints. But a few minutes later Charlie was certain that the prints on the wax paper didn’t match anything on their own note. With a sigh she placed a call to the others to meet with her ASAP to discuss stratagems.

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Connie watched Charlie depart for a moment before turning to the Major Domo of the Mitchell Estate. “Williams, judging from the fact there’s someone on the roof, can I trust that whatever master plan you’ve cooked up is well in hand?”

“One never wants to brag, Miss, but I believe one could be considered safe in saying so,” was the butler’s response. A feral smile made itself at home on Connie’s otherwise lovely face.

“Williams, I’m going to buy you a Ferrari for Christmas.”

“A gentleman wouldn’t be seen in such an insensible automobile, Miss Constance. However, a gentleman would never refuse such a thoughtful gift from so lovely a lady, if I may say so.”

“You may,” grinned Connie. “So, is there at least some small part for me to play in all this? It is my revenge plot after all.”

The man servant looked thoughtful for a moment. “I should think that at some time in the next few minutes, Mr. Mitchell might become distressed to learn that his youngest daughter’s room has been ransacked by someone of unspeakable moral character. That same person, would, in fact, be on the roof as we speak, making good his escape.”

“It sounds like the aforementioned daughter should have a tearful conversation with the father of the first part.”

“Indeed, Miss. This way.”

The two made their way with the ease of those who knew the estate well to the house’s smoking room where Bull Mitchell was holding court with the other husbands who had been press ganged into attending the event. To the room itself the Mitchell Patriarch had taken to adding his own additions to the hunting traditions of the family with not only the heads of his kills from his numerous big game hunts in Africa, but also enshrined was the rifle with which they’d been taken.

Every cigar smoking head turned as Connie burst into the room, a somewhat excited expression on her face. “Dad!”

“Constance…” started Bull in his thick, gravely voice, clearly annoyed at the interruption of his difficult to explain daughter. Connie didn’t give him time to get a head of steam on his annoyance.

“Dad, someone’s broken into the house! My room’s been ransacked!”

What?” roared Bull.

Williams, ever one to say just the right word, discreetly stepped forward. “I’ve been listening in our security specialists, Mr. Mitchell. It seems they have spotted the felon on the widows walk.” Bull snatched the rifle from its place on the wall. “I should think the specialists have things well in hand, sir,” he cautioned.

“Some pervert breaks into my house?” demanded Bull as he opened a cupboard and retrieved a box of ammunition. The rifle's clip was loaded and closed with an ominous snap. “I’ll have his guts for garters!”

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Things were not going well for Beatrice Mitchell. Her youngest daughter was making a point of absenting herself from the party that was supposed to be about her finally meeting her husband. Her oldest daughter was prowling around in a lewd leather dress, making herself as on display as a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop, and her son had already managed to get a drink thrown in his face.

This was definitely not a party she’d want detailed in the society pages. To make things worse, she’d already spotting Lucia Barrington, the aforementioned pages author, wandering around. As she dejectedly drank at the cup of punch half heartedly that she held, wondering furiously what else could possibly go wrong, the wail of police sirens tickled her ears.

Standing slowly, a feeling of cold dread settled over her. “No,” she whispered as she caught sight of the lights on the road below the patio. “No!” she repeated more fervently as they approached the drive.

Her worst nightmare became certainty as the lights turned into her driveway and roared toward the house.

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"Damn!" Luce softly let out the curse once Charlie had finished telling them what she had found from the fingerprint comparison. "I was sure that sleaze was the culprit. Couldn't we, you know, kind of frame him or something? He'd be the type to pull something like that anyway."

"He's in enough trouble now as it is," Connie chuckled. "Especially after my Dad caught him on the roof, in some of my clothes. I don't think dear Brian is going to be a problem for anyone but the county jail for a while now."

"Whatever,” the petite brunette shook her head, which sent her loose hair swirling. "So that leaves us with Mason Royce to check out, right?"

"The other possibilities have been pretty well eliminated." Charlie nodded.

"Okay." Luce let out a drawn out sigh. "I talked my Mom into inviting him to one of her parties that I'm expected to be attending. She took one look at a picture of the guy and his resume, and I could almost see Marraige material for Lucia flash through her one track mind. That I suggested she invite him just makes that worse."

"You'll survive it, dear," Miranda soothed her friend, but couldn't help a small chuckle that escaped during that at Luce's put upon expression.

"All you need to do is get his fingerprints for Charlie to compare against the ones she got off the note, then you can dump him for good."

"You know how Mother is once she's got an idea in her head," Luce opined. "Especially if it involves getting me 'safely married off' to a properly set up guy."

"Well, look at it this way," Charlie offered. "If Mason is our guy, you won't have to worry about that for long. I don't really think your mama is going to like the idea of her little girl marrying, or even dating, a convict."

"True." Luce shook her head, then her eyes widened even more. "Omigod, what if he isn't the blackmailer? Then I'm stuck with him hanging around - with my Mother's approval!"

"I'm pretty sure you could handle that, hon," Charlie answered quietly, obviously amused by her friend’s worries.

"That's easy for you to say," Luce grumbled. "The things I do for friends."

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Lucia sailed into the Barrington house as if she still lived there with her usual aplomb and total lack of concern for such things as protocol or what her Mother might think. Of course, she had announced herself at the estate's front gate before using her own electronic key to open it, so the staff at least was aware of her arrival. Which meant that her Mother would be as well.

"Miss Lucia," the Major Domo - of course Patricia Barrington (her Mother) would never have stood for a simple butler - Jones greeted her at the door. "As usual, it's a pleasure to see you again."

"Thanks, Gerald." Luce grinned and handed him the garment bag that held the dress she would be wearing for the party that evening. "Good to see you, too. How are things at the old homestead?"

"Proceeding on a course deemed proper by your Mother, Miss," Gerald grinned back. "And how is the newspaper business, if I may ask?"

"Pretty well, thanks," Luce answered as Gerald handed the garment bag off to a maid who had answered his summons. "I'm still stuck on the society pages stuff, but I'm beginning to discover that even that can be pretty entertaining at times. You just need to look at things in the right perspective."

"I take it you're speaking of the fiasco at the Mitchell Cotillion a few evenings ago?" the man questioned with a straight face, but a twinkle in his eye.

"Oh, yeah," Luce chuckled. "Now, that was a real hoot. Imagine, a burglar who is also a pervert getting caught on their roof! Beatrice Mitchell actually offered to pay me real money to not write that one up."

"Did you take it?" Gerald questioned.

"Of course not!" Luce laughed as she shook her head. "I already have real money of my own, and I wouldn't want to embarrass Connie, anyway."

"Ahh, yes. The young lady is a friend of yours, after all." Gerald nodded with a small smile. "Will any of your friends be attending this evening?"

"Not tonight." Luce shook her head with a sigh. "Other engagements and all that, you know. So I'll just have to buck up and get through this one on my own."

"I'm sure you'll do your usual elegent best, Miss."

"Thanks, Gerald. I think." Luce rolled her eyes. "Oh, could you let me know when a fellow named Mason Royce arrives? He's the current designated victim in Mother's 'Get Lucia safely married off to a proper gentleman', and I'll need to make nice with him for at least a while."

"Simply be yourself, Miss." Gerald actually grinned when he was certain the other staff members weren't watching. "I'm sure this one will soon be running for his life just like the others have."

"That's why I like you, Gerald," Luce chuckled. "You always seem to look at the bright side of things."

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"You're wearing that?!!" Patricia Barrington eyed the mid calf length, very tight and low cut cocktail dress of ice blue silk that Luce had chosen for that evening.

"Yes, Mom." Luce turned around to better display the dress and how it literally clung to her figure in very strategic spots. "What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing, absolutely nothing," Patricia Barrington answered with a shake of her head and a halfway suspiciuous look at her daughter. "I'd come up here prepared to argue you out of something frumpy or totally inappropriate and am rather pleasantly surprised that I don't need to do so. What are you up to, young lady?"

"Why would I be up to something?" Luce innocently questioned while making sure her outfit was as perfect as she had intended for it to be. "Maybe I'm just finally settling down a little like you've always wanted me to do?"

"That would be too much to hope for." Patricia let out a long sigh. "I know you too well, Lucia. This sudden turn around worries me as much as all the kicking and screaming did."

"Mooother!!" Lucia shook her head in almost real despair at her Mother's attitude. Even if she knew it was justified.

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Several hours later, Lucia wondered if the very real headache she was developing would be an acceptable reason to escape the monotony of the evening Soiree her Mother had put so much work into planning and reluctanly decided that it wouldn't be.

Mason Royce had the movie star kind of good looks that would take him far in the right cricles, and the smooth gentility that would make him a more than welcome member in most society circles. The man was unfailingly attentive, pleasant, and even amusing with his dry delivery on the little insights about the other guests he shared with her. The only things he really lacked were position and money. Usually great draws for Lucia, but not in this case.

If she hadn't suspected that he was such a sleaze underneath that inviting surface, or already knew how controlling and manipulative the guy was with his women, Luce might have been tempted to really give him a chance.

Might have. That, however, was the operative phrase in this situation, and Luce was not quite comfortable in his presence, and wouldn't have been even without knowing what he was really like.

"Deep in thought here?" Mason questioned as he expertly guided her through one of the dances Luce usually worked very hard not to participate in. "You seem as if you're miles away here."

"Oh, nothing important, really," Luce smiled up at him with her very best sincerely sorry expression. Actually she was getting very frustrated with the way the evening was going. Everything the man had touched that would be likely to hold a good fingerprint had been whisked away by the over efficient staff her mother retained before she could snatch it without attracting undue notice.

Worse, the man was almost insufferable with his quietly overbearing solicitude for her.

"Why don't we sit a few of these out?" Mason offered, while guiding her off the dance floor of the ballroom without waiting for an answer. "I think a little sitting time might be something you could use just now."

"Would you mind getting me a drink, Mason?" Luce gave him a sunny smile that she tried to make appear grateful for the reprieve from the dance floor.

"Of course. The same you've been having this evening?" he questioned with a small frown.

"Yes, and what's wrong with a good beer?" Luce questioned a little defensively.

"Nothing at all." Mason held out his hands in mock defense at her half irritated scowl. "I happen to like a beer off and on myself, it's just that in some cases that seems a bit inappropriate, is all."

"Champagne makes me sneeze." Luce screwed up her face in a halfway humourous moue of disgust. "Wine makes me very ill the next morning, and I'm too small to handle much in the way of harder liquor. Trust me, beer is the safest thing for me to drink at something like this."

"Whatever you say, dear." Mason nodded. "Corona with lime, wasn't it?"

"Yes, thanks." Luce watched him saunter away toward the bar and began to frantically work out plans to get at least one item with one of his fingerprints on it before the night got too much older.

Not to mention getting more deeply embroiled with the man than she really wanted to be. She pulled a printout of her latest article out of the slim, but rather large bag she carried and began going over it to help take her mind off the present problem. Sometimes working at something else would trigger an answer to a nagging problem and getting a fingerprint from Mason Royce had been nagging at her all evening. That her doing so would also annoy her Mother, also occurred to Luce who knew at least one little such incident would be expected of her to avoid arousing even more suspicion in the matriarch of the Barrington Family.

"Here you go, dear." Mason's deep, resonant voice startled her out of those thoughts, and she jumped a little, dropping the printout with a little gasp of surprise.

"Oh damn!" she swore without embarrassment, mostly at getting so engrossed with her own thoughts that she hadn't been paying attention to her surroundings.

"Let me help you with with these," Royce offered, setting the glasses he had been carrying carefully on the nearby table while kneeling to retrieve the scattered papers.

"Thanks." Lucia actually colored with embarrassment. "I was thinking of something else I could have put in this thing and just had to look and make a few notes. Sorry."

"Well, I suppose I can forgive that." Mason smiled winningly while gathering the papers off the carpet. "Since you were doing it when I was gone. What is it, by the way?"

"An article I'm working on for the paper," she replied with a shrug. "Nothing special, but I want it to be right. That way maybe my bosses will start giving me more interesting assignments."

"I see," he responded while handing the now out of order pages back to her with his disapproval of her chosen profession, or that she worked at all, well hidden. But not well enough for her to miss it.

"I happen to like working for the newspaper," she almost defiantly told him.

"I suppose a hobby is good for everyone." Mason nodded without so much as looking at the article, or asking if he might see it.

"It's not a hobby, it's a JOB," Lucia answered with a little heat. She'd caught flack from her Mother constantly about the work and her associating with the low sorts that most journalists were supposed to be. In that woman's opinion, anyway.

"Sorry, I didn't intend to upset you there." The man smoothly recovered from the gaffe. "I was trying to kid you about it is all. Could I see it, do you think?"

"Sure." Luce let herself appear mollified by the apology and explanation, while handing the papers back to him. "It's all out of order now, though."

"No problem, I can sort as well as the next person," Mason chuckled as he began doing just that. "Why don't you have some of the drink I just brought while I read over this?"

"Okay, and I'm sorry, too." Luce was almost elated. Surely she could get a decent fingerprint off him on at least one sheet of that paper, and it had happened by accident. "I catch a lot of flack about my job from Mom and my sister, you know. The defensive reaction is just kind a natural thing with me when someone seems to be belittling it."

"I understand," he answered while reaching for his own drink, a simple three fingers of Scotch without ice as he read the article.

I'll bet you do.Luce thoughtfully sipped at her own drink, the requested Corona with a slice of lime disguised by being poured into an elegant piece of crystal glassware.

"This isn't bad stuff," Mason nodded with a grin as he read through the article. "For society reporting, anyway."

"Thanks." Luce felt like dumping the remaining beer on his head for the patronizing way he'd said that, but didn't want to waste a good beer on his immaculately combed hair. Even though the image almost made her giggle. "Why don't you finish your drink, and I'll go get it refilled for you?"

"Sure, thanks." Draining his glass, he simply held it out for her to catch or not and let go without so much as glancing in her direction.

Grumbling over the medieval attitudes the men her Mother always seemed to think were right for her youngest, wildest daughter, Luce made her way to the bar, making sure the glass really was empty and sneaking it into her bag when she was sure no one was watching her too closely.

Got another one!she thought almost triumphantly. TakethatMason Royce!

The rest of the evening was pretty much a bust in Luce's opinion, though her Mother was almost ecstatic at the idea that the little brunette she despaired of ever getting a decent man for had actually spent the entire evening with the gentleman of the moment.

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So how'd it go last night?" Charlie questioned as Luce handed her the glass, and the sheaf of papers - both in sealed plastic bags.

"Don't ask," Luce sighed, and rolled her eyes. "The jerk thinks I'm actually interested in him, and was getting way too familiar toward the end of the evening, much to my Mother's delight."

"Sounds as if you scored twice then," the redheaded investigator grinned. "You got yourself a man, and made Mom happy."

"Oh, shut up."

"Okay, okay," Charlie chuckled. "I'll run these for prints and see if they match up with our blackmailer."

"God, I hope they do." Luce closed her eyes. "If not, I'm going to have to endure more of the man. Mother will see to that, I'm sure."

"Poor baby," Charlie grinned while ducking a half-hearted slap from her guest. "You'll survive this."

"If worse comes to worse, I suppose I could just shoot him and run for Brazil or Argentina. Somewhere that doesn't have an extradition treaty with the US..."

"I don't think it will come to that," Charlie assured while dusting the papers and glass. "Bingo! Got a really good set on the glass here. Let me run a comparison on my computer and we'll know in a few minutes."

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Miranda tried to pull into her driveway, but it was blocked. Fine thing, she thought snippishly, when you can’t even park in your own freaking drive! At least the cars belonged to the girls and not to somebody trying to duck parking lot costs. Oh well, she’d told Mrs. DiRavenna to let the girls in if she wasn’t back yet. When she went in the door, Ein gave out a yip, trotted over to her - sober, for once - and begged to be picked up.

Connie, Charlie and Lucia were seated, and they had the air of a group of schoolgirls expecting a treat. Charlie was fairly bouncing in her seat. “Miranda! We got a positive match! The fingerprints on the page belong to-”

“Mason Royce,” Miranda finished for her, with a sour tone.

Charlie deflated where she sat. “Yeah. How’d you know?”

“Oh,” Miranda leaned over and picked up Ein, “I just came from a long lunch with Harrison, and a lawyer who’s *ahem!* ‘negotiating’ to ship over to Sefton, Hadwin & Flint.”

“Oh,” Connie sighed, comprehension dawning, “and it’s our boy Mason?”

“Yep. And he’s making noises about fast-tracking to Partner.”

“You mean, he actually started putting the screws to you, right there in front of Harrison?” Lucia asked incredulously. “I’d’a thought that Harrison would use him for knot-tying practice!”

“Oh, he wasn’tthatobvious,” Miranda growled as she sat down, “but just barely. He just brought up our old relationship, intimated that bygones were bygones, and we’d always be friends-”

“And, gee, if there’s ever anything that I can do,” Lucia cut in sarcastically, “like, say, get an annoying blackmailer off your back... but then, you have to put in a good word or a thousand, with your husband...”

“Exactly,” Miranda snarled. “I don’t know which pisses me off more: that he’s doing this in the first place, or that he thinks that he’s beingsubtle!”

Charlie held up the Forensics report. “Yeah, well, with this, let’s see laughing boy try to subtle his way out of an Extortion charge!”

Miranda shook her head. “No, I can’t go to the Police. Even if I just tell people that Mason was bluffing about my being a TS, there’d be people making ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ noises.”

“You mean that I put up with that asshole for NOTHING?” Lucia said, aghast.

“No,” Connie said, going into Command Mode again, “we’ll just have to show this bozo that he made a big mistake! He picked on thewrong personthis time!”

“Mistake?” Miranda’s gray eyes snapped open. “Wrong person?” Her eyes went from gray to steely. The metaphoric sound of wheels turning filled the room. Then Miranda leaned back in her chair, and began stroking Ein’s fur in unconscious imitation of a Criminal Mastermind outlining his nefarious plan. “Charlie, does that Forensics report mention the precise brand and make of the stationary used?”

“Sure. That’s SOP.”

“Good,” Miranda purred, “and the fonts used on the letter and envelope?”

“Ditto? Where is this going, Hon?”

“Well, YOU are going to the nearest stationary store to buy a box of both the letter and envelopes used.” Miranda got up and walked over to her bookshelf. “The rest of us are going to go through the Social Register with a fine-toothed comb.”

“Social Register?” Connie asked. “What for?”

“Why, we’ve got to decide who we’re going toblackmail, of course!”

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“No, no, no. NOT Libby Dunston. I wouldn’t be caught DEAD being blackmailed along with Libby Dunston!”

“Miranda, only YOU would turn being blackmailed into an opportunity for social-climbing!”

“Dear, it isn’t social-climbing, it’s NETWORKING!”

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Charlie raised a hand. “I have a possible recipient for some of these notes. I thought I’d pass it by you guys.”

Everyone looked up from their notes. Miranda asked first. “Who did you have in mind?”

“Jewel.”

“Jewel? Why? Everyone already knows about her.”

“Oh. I thought that if our little note accused her of being submissive to Mary Jane... You know, the S & M kind of stuff, that they might like to have a piece of him, too.”

“You think...”

“Maybe. Anyway, if it isn’t true I can see Jewel ripping into him like nobody’s business. And if it is true, can you see some Dom giving in to that kind of threat? Either way he gets toasted, and if they can work with some of the other injured parties, there’s no end of the trouble the rat could get into.”

“You have an evil mind. You worry me sometimes.”

“Thank you. One does one’s best.”

“We’ll take it under advisement.”

“That’s all I can ask. They may be a little out of the general victim’s profile, but it might be a good thing to put a few in like that to keep from giving any clues that it’s us doing it. And they do have some influence and money, so it’s not too big a stretch.”

Miranda shook her head. “Nope, it doesn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“We might try siccing Jewel on him, if this doesn’t work. But for this? Remember, Jewel knows both Lucia and me by sight. If I spin a yarn about being blackmailed for being a TS, while implying that I’m not, Jewel might smell a rat.”

Charlie sighed. “And even if Jewel’s not sharp enough to pick up on it, Mary Jane is. Oh well. It was just an idea.”

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Luce breezed into the offices of Clancy, Gibson & Houghton wearing a big smile and announced herself to the receptionist. "Hi, Lucia Barrington to see Mason Royce."

"Do you have an appointment, Ma'am?" the girl at the desk questioned while checking her computer. Lucia had been careful to dress comfortably but with very expensive taste and class for the visit.

"No, but I'm sure he'll make time to see me," Luce answered confidently.

"Certainly, Ma'am, I'll just check with him." The 'money and style' look had achieved its planned purpose.

"Thank you." Luce gave the girl a smile and waited with carefully shown patience she had seen her Mother use with staff members in public establishments.

"Mr. Royce will be down in a moment." The girl looked up with a professional smile that covered a hint of both envy and dislike.

"Thank you, Lorna, I appreciate your help."

"It's what I'm here for, Ma'am."

Mason walked into the reception area with his usual saunter, and greeted his visitor with a smile. "Hello, Lucia. What brings you here today?"

"Oh, I was in the area and just wanted to see where you work." Luce shrugged, then offered him a broad smile. "And to confirm our plans for the weekend while I was here."

"Of course." Mason took her offered arm and escorted her past the reception desk. "Come on into my office and we can discuss that for a while. I have half an hour open at the moment."

"Oh good, then I timed this visit perfectly, didn't I?" The rich bitch routine was almost enough to make Luce throw up, especially when she was using it on Mason Royce, but it was working.

"Yes you did, my dear," he answered while leading her into a small office. "It isn't much, but I have plans to change my situation very soon. I'll be moving to another firm within the month, though that's confidential for now. It wouldn't do to let that out in the office here until the deal is done."

"Of course not," Luce agreed with an internal sneer at the man's sheer gall. "We couldn't have your present position jeopardized until the new one has been nailed down, can we?"

The conversation drifted into the sailing trip Luce's Mother had set up for the 'happy' young people despite her daughter's protests. Mason had taken the offer without the slightest hesitation, which was no surprise.

While looking around the rather cramped office a junior member of the firm rated, Luce noted a pile of correspondence neatly sitting on the edge of his desk. And quite naturally managed to knock it off with an errant swing of her purse while leaning forward to peck his cheek.

"Oh, I'm such a damned klutz! I'm sorry," she apologized while kneeling to pick up the stack of letters, surreptitiously adding the stack she had brought in her bag while his view was blocked by the edge of the desk. "Here, I've got them, and in apology for my clumsiness, I'll even drop these off in the mail room for you, if they're all ready to go."

"Oh, no need for that, dear," Mason answered with a grin at her very real urge to get the correspondence off the desk and out of the way.

"I insist, really," Luce replied with her best embarrassed grin. "It's right on my way out, anyway, isn't it? At worst, I could drop them off with that too cute receptionist and have her get them mailed, couldn't I?"

"I suppose you could, if you really want to do it." Mason shrugged. "Let me walk you out, at least."

"I can find my way, thank you," Luce smiled while heading for the door. "You must be very busy, and I've already taken enough of your valuable time up today. I'll see you Saturday morning, then?"

"You bet."

His smile, almost predatory, caused Luce's stomach to lurch in protest, especially when she cheerfully waved and sang out, "Great! I'm really looking forward to it!"

Like having surgery without an anesthetic,she thought while making her way along the short hallway, and popping her head into the mail room. "Hello! I have some letters Mason wants mailed right away."

The mailroom clerk rose from his desk where he had been going through incoming correspondence and reached forward to accept the bundle of envelopes. "Thanks, I'll take those from you, and get it done."

"Thank you somuch!" Luce put on a gushy smile as he took the letters from her. "Please do make sure these go out right away. Mase said they were important."

"I'm sure they are, Ma'am." The clerk nodded, obviously sure they weren't all that special, but bright enough not to insult the well dressed visitor. "I'll take care of it."

"Thanks again." With that, Luce waved, then did her best not to run out of the office.

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"It's done, Miranda," Luce spoke into her cellphone once the other woman had answered her own.

"Great!" Miranda responded. "Are you sure all the letters will go out?"

"Hey! I personally delivered them, along with some real correspondence the jerk had, to the mail room. Don't worry, they'll go out this afternoon."

"Thanks, Luce. I owe you one for this."

"That's the truth," Lucia grumbled after closing the connection and putting the phone back into her bag. "Maybe I could talk her into getting someone to kidnap me for a few days. Just for the weekend?"

"Nah," she shrugged to herself. "I got myself into this. I'll just take several looong, really hot baths on Sunday night."

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Harrison worked the room for a moment, and then saw his wife, fussily arranging the hors d’oeurves. “Ah, Honey, are you sure that you know all these people?”

“Actually, dear, I’m just meeting almost all of them for the first time.”

“And exactly HOW did you manage to lure all these people to this little do?”

“Well, let’s say that that’s ‘need to know’.”

“And if I say that I need to know?”

“Sweetie, if this goes sour, you’re gonna need all the plausible deniability that you can get.”

“Does this have anything to do with that boob Royce, who’s been riding my back for the last few weeks?”

“Has he been that big a pain?”

“The idiot’s come in and done everything except put a ‘Reserved’ sign on the corner office.”

“Not to worry, Sweetie, it’s well in hand. Or at least it will be…” Then Connie opened the door, and Charlie came in. Charlie scanned the room, spotted Miranda, and held up a manila envelope. “Finally! Show Time!”

Miranda walked over to the staircase, which made a handy podium. “Excuse me! EXCUSE ME!” When she had everyone’s attention, she resumed. “I’d like to thank you all for showing up tonight. Now, I know that the reason that you’re really here is a trifle embarrassing, so I’ll break the ice by reading something to you.”

Miranda took a large book out of her secretary table and pulled out an envelope that was familiar to everyone there. “I got this in the mail a few weeks ago.” She opened the letter and read her blackmail note aloud. When she finished, she looked around her and said, “So, obviously, I’m being blackmailed for allegedly being a Transsexual. Now, I have here,” she held up the book, “my High School Yearbook. If anyone wants to see it, they will find both listings and photos of Miranda Carstairs and Mitchell Powell. But, I can’t go around and show everyone in Philadelphia my Yearbook. And, in the grand old tradition of Journalism, Linda Everett’s more interested in a nasty bit of scandal than she is in anything resembling objectivity or fairness. When I got this letter, I was sweating bullets. Then my friend Lucia told me-” Miranda gestured to Lucia.

Lucia stepped up on the staircase and produced a letter. “I got a letter saying that he had proof that I was a lesbian, and that I’d been carrying on same-sex affairs with notable members of society.” Lucia took a sharp look at one part of the letter, “Some of whom, I wouldn’t share acabwith, let alone a bed!”

Connie mounted the stair beside Miranda and Lucia. She also waved an envelope. “And _I_ got a letter claiming that the incident in Afghanistan, where I was wounded, and for which I received a Silver Star, was a complete and total fabrication. The writer of this letter claims that my father arranged the whole thing, so that I could get a medal for which I’d done nothing.” Connie tapped the letter against the palm of her hand. “Now, I have an entire Division of Army Reservists who would love to take the writer of this letter out back of the motor pool. But, like Miranda and Lucia, my reputation would take a nasty beating, just because there are filthy minded types, who love nothing more than to be able to point fingers.”

Jocelyn Gannon, an up-and-coming designer, stepped forward. “I got a letter, too. My letter said that my ‘real’ name was Joseph Gardner, from New Jersey, that I made my ‘seed money’ selling drugs in Newark, and that I’m a fugitive running from a Murder Rap for killing a rival dealer. I have a degree in Design from Columbia!” she ended, almost screaming.

Isaac Damicke, a sixty-ish figure in the Commodities Exchange came forward. “And _I_ got a letter saying that I’m an imposter, who took the identity of the *ahem!* ‘real’Isaac Damicke when he allegedly died in Viet Nam. The letter says that I did it both to get out of ‘Nam because the McCoy’s time was just about up when he died, and to get my hands on his - I mean MY - money. Load of God-damned bullshit!”

That broke the ice. The guests started talking busily with each other, avidly exchanging outrageous blackmail stories. Miranda looked over the crowd at Harrison. Harrison cocked an eyebrow at her. She just smiled and winked back at him.

Besides Miranda and Jocelyn, there were three other ‘Transsexuals’ in the bunch. The rest broke up in to three basic stories: frauds, crooks and sexual deviants, each with its own crass little detail. Miranda let them stew in their own - and each other’s - juices for a while.

Then she clapped her hands briskly. “People! People! Your attention, please! There IS something that we all can do! That’s why I’ve called you here tonight!”

“Hold on,” Madeline Pasternel, the ‘trophy wife’ of the Police Chief, said. “How did YOU know about this? I know that _I_ didn’t exactlyadvertisethat I was being blackmailed!”

“Actually,” Lucia purred, “you sorta DID.”

Miranda headed off what looked to be a catfight brewing. “Lucia and Connie are friends of mine. When I told them about this highbinding by mail, they told me about their letters. Now, I know that Lucia isn’t a lesbian - and even if she IS, she certainly isn’t the sort who’d sleep with women just in order to get information for her Society Page! - and I also know that Connie really was very badly injured in Afghanistan, and she reallyEarnedthat Silver Star. And-” Miranda held up her Yearbook. “So, it immediately became obvious that our blackmailer was on some sort of fishing trip.

“But, as I’m sure you’ve all figured out, there’s the very real chance that if he doesn’t get any money, that our blackmailer might start throwing mud, or come up with something even nastier, just to get us to fall in line. So, he’s still a threat. It occurred to us that someone trying this trick wouldn’t waste his time with just three bluffs. This kind of trick is a ‘I only need ONE sucker to make a fortune’ thing. So, it occurred to us that our blackmailer would maximize his chances of hitting the jackpot by targeting people in the area who were just enough vulnerable so that the trick might work, and rich enough to make it worth his while. So, Lucia here put out feelers for a couple of weeks, and her sources spotted all of you, hiring private detectives, nervously consulting with lawyers and so on.” Miranda knew this, because the people there were only three-fifths of the people that they’d sent letters to; the other two-fifths were either playing it cool, or had left town. Miranda had made sure that she only sent invitations to people who had been doing things that Lucia had spotted as possible reactions to the blackmail threat.

“So, now we all know. But what are we gonna DO about it?” Conrad Wingate, a wheel in the Insurance industry growled.

Miranda smiled broadly. “Well, our blackmailer made TWO mistakes. First, unlike the letters that Lucia and Connie got, MY letter had certain personal details that our blackmailer couldn’t have gotten by just doing a little snooping. Second,” she held up the letter and tapped the space where a stamp should be, “the idiot forgot that Postage Meters all have Registration Serial Numbers that are printed on each letter that’s sent out. My friend Charlie Turner-” Miranda indicated Charlie who gave the assembled throng a friendly wave, and mentally started calculating the increase in her business, “-is not only a Lawyer, but a Bonded Private Investigator. She tracked down these serial numbers to the Law Firm of Clancy, Gibson & Houghton.” Of course, the fact that Lucia had slipped the ‘blackmail’ letters into the outgoing box at Clancy, Gibson & Houghton’s mailroom had helped immensely.

There were a couple of outraged sputters from the crowd. Probably clients of Clancy, Gibson & Houghton.

“There is only ONE person with whom I’m friendly,” Miranda continued, “or more to the point was romantically connected to, once upon a long ago, working at Clancy, Gibson & Houghton. With that to go on, Charlie also managed to confirm a fingerprint that we got off of my blackmail note. It belongs to Mason D. Royce, a former beau of mine.”

“Hold ON!” Madeline Pasternel objected. “My husband subjected that letter to a very close forensic examination and found NOTHING on the letter! Why would he conveniently leave prints on YOUR letter? And how did you manage to track down those serial numbers so quickly?”

Miranda smiled. “Well, as for the prints, I DID say that Mason and I had been- *ahem!* ‘romantically associated’, didn’t I? My guess is that he sent me that letter mostly as a way of getting at me because I wouldn’t, well, ‘trifle’ with him. With all of you, it was strictly business, so he took greater care. And as for the serial numbers, well the Postage Meter companies do keep those numbers confidential, but Charlie does have her ways---” Miranda trailed off, as if to say, ‘You don’t know, you don’t wanna know, and I’m doing you all a BIG favor by not telling you’.

Charlie smiled enigmatically, as befits a dangerous Woman of Mystery.

“At any rate,” Miranda resumed, “what we want you to do is to send the $100-” Miranda held up a hand against the tide of outrage, “-and somehow ‘mark’ what you send. Put the kind of invisible ink that shows up under ultraviolet light, the kind that they put on ransom payments, on the $100 bill. Take down the serial number on the bill. Or, if you send a Traveler’s Check,” no one in this crowd was simple enough to send apersonalcheck, “then record the serial number on that, and ask that the company that you buy the check from tracks who cashes it. We need this, to prove that money fromourhands went intohispockets.

“The point here, dear friends, is that if any ONE of us stands up, points a finger at Royce and says, ‘He’s blackmailing me for something that I didn’t do,’ then we’re still getting smeared by his vicious lies. BUT, if we stand up en masse and denounce him, our claims are a lot more believable, and his slanders against each of us get lost in the crowd. Now, for every one of you that sends in that money to establish that link, and then stands with us when we go to the Police, our credibility is that much better. We need as many of you in on this as possible. After all, if only, say, six or seven of us go to the Police, then it’s possible that Royce is just a really good researcher, who dug up six or seven bits of dirt. But if THIRTY of us stand up in court, then his ‘fishing trip’ is obvious, and everyone knows that he’s aFraudas well as a blackmailer.”

But Madeline Pasternel shook her head. “No, I’m sorry, but I’m not buying into this. I’m just going to write this Mason Royce a letter telling him that I know who he is, and to back off.”

Miranda shrugged. “That’s your choice, Madeline. But I warn you, Royce isn’t the kind of man who sits still for being told to go fly a kite. And he especially wouldn’t let someone who has such influence in the Police Department as you do out from under his thumb. I don’t know what he threatened you with, but I’m willing to bet good money that the minute that he reads your ‘Get Lost’ letter, that he comes up with something evennastier.”

“And how do you know this?” Madeline raised an eyebrow.

“‘Know’? I don’t,” Miranda responded. “It’s an educated guess, based on how well I know the man.”

Madeline waved it aside. “No. I’m not going to get involved in this. Your Mister Royce may be a sleazebag, but he’s not fool enough to try and take on the Police Chief with a pack of lies and no proof.”

Miranda heaved a weary sigh. “Very well, Madeline. But if you won’t stand along with us, will you at least use your influence in the Department to help us with the Police, when we do make our charges?”

Madeline looked around the room, and you could hear her calculating the value of so many influential people owing her a favor, versus the stock that doing so would cost her with her husband. “Sure. Why not? Why don’t we do lunch Wednesday, and thrash out details?” she put down her drink. “But, in the meantime, it’s getting late.” She headed for the door.

As Harrison helped her on with her coat, a few others looked like they were thinking about taking their chances on their own as well. Miranda addressed them again. “Well, Madeline is going to tough it out alone. Or as alone as you can be, with the entire Philadelphia Police Department backing you. But as for the rest of us?” she gave a rueful chuckle. “Please, don’t make me quote Ben Franklin.”

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Five others decided to go it alone, but the twenty-two that remained made for a merry bunch. While before, they had been a mass of strangers, or at best nodding acquaintances, they now had four things that make for cheery camaraderie. They had shared adversity (namely barely escaping disgrace). They had someone in common to despise (namely Royce). They had amusing stories to share (namely Royce’s slanders of them, which they could now relate in safety). And they had a common goal (namely putting Royce behind bars).

After the last of the individualists was sent off, Harrison came up to Miranda and gave her a hug. “Well, it’s a good scam, honey, and I think that it’ll work. Remind me to never get you ladies mad at me. But, it’s a shame that Miranda Pasternel wouldn’t go along with it.”

“Not really.” Miranda paused to sip her drink. “No, if anything, I’d say that that couldn’t have played out better if I’d planned it.

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Mason Royce had every reason to be satisfied with himself. He had that Main Line bimbo, Lucia Barrington, dangling on the line. He could tell that she was more interested than she was making out, just by the way that she kept making excuses to show up at his office. He was moving in on Sefton, Hadwin & Flint on his own terms. He had the wife of their best ‘rainmaker’ well under his thumb. The little freako had sent him over a thousand dollars in bills and Traveler’s Checks to keep him quiet. And, to top it all off, they were going to have lunch, where she’d probably beg him to help ‘her’ handle the dastardly blackmailer. Well, he thought smugly to himself, if this doesn’t prove that Fortune favors the Bold, then nothing would.

He paused at the velvet rope of the Temple Café, and peered through the fashionable gloom. Then he spotted his pigeon, sitting at a table with a sleek blonde, chatting away. Like most avid social climbers, Mason knew most of the movers and shakers in Main Line Society on sight. But it still took him a bit to recognize the wife of George Pasternel, the Chief of Police. Thesecond, recently acquired wife, of the Chief of Police, he thought smugly to himself. But then, there are no snobs like social climbers. He wondered what business the wife of the Chief of Police had with an editor of mystery novels. Or was it that Miranda was the wife of a well-connected lawyer?

His curiosity peaked, he cautiously approached the table. Through the lunchtime babble, he caught something about ‘the resources of the Department’, and ‘helping out’. Then Pasternel put her napkin down and said, “Well, it’s been fun, but you know how it is - never enough hours in the day, and all that.”

Then Pasternel picked up her commodious bag and left the table. Mason barely spotted Miranda’s hand as she took an envelope from the table and tucked it into the side pocket of her own bag. Interesting.

Mason waited until Pasternel was well out of the restaurant before he walked up to the table. “Well, hello, Miranda!”

“Oh! Mason!” Miranda reacted rather skittishly. “You’re early!”

“Well, you know me,” he smirked, “I like to be early and get the drop on the opposition.”

Oh Yes, Miranda thought to herself, that’s as good a description of your performance in the sack as any.

“So, what was all that about?” He indicated the departed blonde with a jerk of his head.

“Oh, you know - ‘Ladies that Lunch’ and all that,” Miranda responded sweetly.

They waded through some preliminary chit-chat. Then Miranda had to go to the Ladies Room. Probably to work up the nerve to ask me to help, Mason thought smugly.

The second that Miranda was through the Ladies Room door, Mason reached his hand into the purse pocket and took out the letter. When he read its contents, his eyes popped wide open for a second. He had to check a few things out, as quickly as possible. But, if he was right, then he’d just lucked out into a Major score!

He got up and told the waiter to tell the lady that he’d been called away on an emergency. But Miranda didn’t need to be told. From the parted door of the Ladies Room, she watched Mason leave, and smiled.

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In his office, Mason put through a call to Harrison Kitteridge. “Hello, Harry?” Harrison really didn’t like being called ‘Harry’, but Mason was too thick-skinned to pick up on it. “Mason Royce. Ah, I need a Pee-Eye to handle a sticky little matter for me. I’ve been told that you know a woman named Charlotte Turner who handles these sort of things.”

“Charlie Turner? Well, she’s more Miranda’s friend than mine, but yes, I know her. She does good work, and she’s reliable.”

‘MoreMiranda’sfriend’, eh? “Reliable, you say? Well, what kind of connections would you say that she has among the, ah, ‘shadier’ circles?”

“Well, yeah, she does know people who know people. But, Mason, I have to warn you - the Philadelphia Wise Guys might not get the big press that the New York mobs do, but they’re every bit as tough as the boys in the Big Apple. Anything on the wrong side of the tracks, I’d advise you to stay well away from.”

“Oh, no, nothing major. Just some small time punks getting above themselves.”

“Well, yeah, then I guess Charlie will do fine for you. Do you want her phone number?”

“No, no, I’ve got her number.” Yeah, and I’ve got your number too, Pal, Mason thought to himself. According to my sources, this ‘Charlie Turner’ is a very dangerous broad. Depending on who you ask, she either rescued the daughter of South Philly crime boss Albert Spear or ‘Uncle Al’ as he was known by many, from a murderous child molester. Or, she killed an undercover informant for the DA, and claimed that he had kidnapped ‘Uncle Al’s’ daughter to cover it up. Either way, she was in solid with Uncle Al.

So, Uncle Al doesn’t know Kitteridge or Chief Pasternel. At least not directly. Pasternel only knows Kitteridge to nod at. But, Pasternel’s wife lunches with Kitteridge’s wife, who’s great pals with Charlie Turner, who’s Uncle Al’s dimpled darling. So, Pasternel gives his wife an envelope to pass along to Kitteridge, and she gives it to Kitteridge’s wife to give to him. Kitteridge tells his wife to pass the envelope along to her good buddy Charlie, who passes it along to Uncle Al. So, Pasternel never actually meets with Uncle Al, and Kitteridge, who probably arranged the whole thing, never lays a hand on the letter itself. A letter, which looked to Mason’s suspicious eye, like a schedule for payoffs. The only name that was clear was Charlie Turner. But the rest of it was very suggestive.

Okay, so what to DO with it? There was absolutely ZERO profit in handing it over to the DA. It didn’t implicate Kitteridge in any way, and Mason already had Miranda under his thumb. Uncle Al? No way, Jose! There are people that you don’t even THINK that sort of thing about! Turner? Even if Turner wasn’t a hitter for Uncle Al, she still carried a gun. And that made Mason nervous. And Mason was NOT stupid enough to put the squeeze on George Pasternel. The Chief of Police hadn’t gotten his job by being a nice guy, and the Philadelphia Police Department had a well-earned reputation for a very LARGE bag of nasty tricks.

No, the weak link in all of this was Madeline Pasternel. She was a freaking socialite who’d been duped into being a mule for her husband. If anything, she’d probably be more afraid of her husband finding out that she’d screwed up than she was of the DA. So, that was the angle to play. First, anonymously rattle her cage a bit and make her afraid of both the blackmailer and her own husband. Then, create a rationale for riding to the rescue on a white charger. From there, wing it until you find a position where you can really put the screws to them both. It was working like a charm with Miranda Kitteridge, why not Madeline Pasternel? After all, most great careers revolved around finding a winning strategy, and making the most of them. Mason leaned back in his chair, and slipped into a pleasant daydream of a career of playing ‘Sir Galahad’ to a series of increasingly wealthy and powerful ‘damsels in distress’.

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Charlie spotted Miranda, Connie and Lucia in the window of the downtown coffee shop, as she showed up for their lunch date. “Hey, Girls! What’s this? Slumming?”

“Oh no,” Miranda breezed, “Madeline Paternel just called me and told me to get front row seats for a bit of street theater.”

“Street theater?”

“Yes,” Lucia drawled, “I’m not expecting anything new, probably just a collection of old favorites. You missed the first act. It was that perennial favorite, ‘breaking into the car and planting evidence’.”

“‘Planting evidence’?”

“Yes,” Miranda mused, ‘for some bizarre reason, Mason mistook that Police Athletic League Basketball contributors list that you loaned me, for something illicit. Don’t ask me why, but he seems to think that poor Maddy had something to do with it.”

Charlie groaned a chuckle, “And he put the squeeze on her.”

“Apparently, in his patent pending ‘Knight in shining armor’ guise.”

“YOWCH! And I take it that Madeline had a catastrophic failure to appreciate the humor in the situation?”

“On the contrary! She was delighted! The dirt that we dished at her was purely aimed at her, so she thought that she couldn’t afford to go to her husband. But this-”

“This involved old ‘Golden George’, so she went to him and-”

“And the curtain is going up on Act Two,” Connie cut in.

Mason strolled up to a parked BMW Roadster, and tried his keys, which didn’t seem to work. Charlie leaned over and whispered, “The old ‘Jammed door’ trick.”

Then a Philadelphia policeman in a leather jacket walked up. “Followed by that old favorite, ‘What are you doing, trying to break into that car?’ gag,” Lucia replied.

The officer ‘helped’ Mason get into his car, and then, “And now, the classic, ‘Do you have a license for this gun, Sir?’ routine,” Miranda continued.

Mason looked flustered, said something to the officer, who called for backup and gently but firmly forced him to ‘assume the position’. “And now for the stirring climax,” Connie jeered, “the astounding ‘What’s this phial that I just found in your pocket?’ trick!”

“No!” Miranda corrected her. “Surprise ending! Out of left field, we have the rousing ‘Resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer in the course of his duties’ finale!”

Several Black and White units appeared as if out of nowhere, and Mason found himself under a mountain of Philly PD blue.

Charlie sipped her coffee and sighed, “Pity that we won’t see the wrap-up down at Central. I do love a good ‘We have possession of drugs, possession of a firearm that’s been used in a Homicide, Resisting Arrest, Assaulting an Officer, and TWENTY-FIVE charges of Extortion’ scene. I do hope that they take pictures of his expression as the charges are read to him.”

“Mason may be a lot of things,” Miranda offered, “but I doubt that he’s thick enough not to realize that the boom has been lowered on him. He’ll take the ticket to Pocatello, before the Pee Dee decides to getreallynasty with him.”

As Mason was being forced into the squad car, he managed to spot the four faces in the coffee shop window watching him struggle. As one, Miranda, Lucia, Connie and Charlie grinned widely and waved their fingers good-bye, as his head was crammed into the back seat.

There are days when it’s just good to be alive.

 

* finis *
Read 8517 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 November 2023 08:45
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