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Excerpt for Daughter of Fire by , available in its entirety at Smashwords










DAUGHTER OF FIRE





Jennifer R. Povey





























Copyright © 2019 Jennifer R. Povey

SMASHWORDS EDITION

All rights reserved.















Table of Contents

Chapter One

Author's Notes and Acknowledgments

About the Author

Other Books by Jennifer R. Povey















Chapter One


"For crying out loud." The voice carried across the canteen, raised to a pitch that turned several heads. It came from a young brunette woman, but then, most of the people there were young. Tables and chairs were scattered across the room, and the posters on the walls advertised student associations.

She glared at her cell as if it had bitten her. "If this...boy...doesn't leave me alone, I'll..."

One of the other girls nearby made a suggestion, "Push him in the lake, Laura?"

"I wouldn't want to poison the fish." Laura flickered a grin at her.

"Like there are any fish in the lake. The chemistry department took care of those years ago."

That was an article of faith at the small college...that the state of the artificial lake (namely completely free of life,) was a result of chemicals leaking from the science building. Laura privately thought it more likely that nobody had ever got around to stocking it. There was also supposed to be a car in it, but she knew full well its depth was not sufficient for anything but, maybe, one of those new smart cars to be hidden. Besides, there was supposed to be a car in every single small lake in North America and most of the ones in Europe.

"Point, Dana," was all she said, not voicing all of those thoughts. "Still. He won't stop texting me."

"Block him?"

"I tried. He changed his freaking number. I'm this close to just calling the..."

"Police?" Dana flicked a finger towards the canteen entrance.

Two men came into the room. They were strangers in suits that screamed police to anyone who was used to being arrested or watching arrests. And this was a college campus.

Laura rolled her eyes. "Okay, who got caught with drugs again?"

Dana laughed. "Probably Dennis. He's going to be expelled if so...he's already on probation over it."

"At least it's only pot." Laura twisted in her seat to see the cops. "They're heading this way. Anything you want to tell me?"

"I am absolutely innocent of all charges." Dana batted her eyelashes at her friend. "Maybe you can ask them what it would take to get a restraining order against Petey-boy."

Laura laughed. "Well, it's not Dennis, they walked right past him. I hope it's not something...really bad."

Like, say, a parent or sibling being murdered, or... She shivered a bit. Her parents were safe. Safe in their exclusive gated community. Where they had bought everything they wanted...the perfect house, the perfect car. She wished she could be the perfect daughter, but she never quite managed that.

Well, no, they had not bought Laura. That was illegal. But she had known most of her life that she was adopted. That her mother was not capable of producing children. Clarice Maxwell saw it as a way of walking the pro-life talk. She wondered if her mother was satisfied with what she had: A daughter who did not want to be rich, could care less about the money. A daughter who wanted to teach school.

But the cops were definitely there, and something in her stomach sank. Had they found out that she had illegally downloaded some music? Or was it Dana who was in trouble?

"Laura Maxwell." The leader of the two cops put only the slightest trace of question in his voice.

"Am I under arrest?" She could not think what for. Yes, she had done a couple of illegal downloads, but they did not send the cops after you for that. They just sent you nasty letters demanding money.

"No. We need to talk to you, that's all. You're not in any trouble."

"You might have called me," she started to say, then recalled that she had turned her phone off because of 'Petey-boy' and only just turned it back on. She turned it off again. "Never mind. You know anything about restraining orders? And...people are going to think I did get arrested."

"I'll take care of that." The cop sounded gentle, even sympathetic.

Laura kept her head high as she followed the two men out. Hopefully not everyone would realize she had left with the police.

They opened the back door of an unmarked car for her. Inside, she turned on her phone again. Ten voice messages from Petey-boy...she was going to have to ask her mother to introduce her to a lawyer. Three from her mother, yelling at her to turn her phone back on and to cooperate with the cops. One from a Detective Ross, telling her to come to the station.

He'd apparently lost patience. Her phone had been off for a while. The hundred plus texts from Petey were enough to make her very glad she had an unlimited plan. She deleted them as she got her head together.

Why would the cops want her? Her mother had not said anything, her voice holding worry, not information. But she did not feel up to asking questions yet.

* * *

Laura had never been inside a police station. She had always avoided such. She was not the type to do drugs or start fights. It didn't look much like it did in the cop dramas.

A lot more modern. Maybe the cop dramas went for a retro look. The squad room was open with cubicles, but the two led her through it to an office with "Detective Ross" on the door.

An older man sat behind the desk. With little talk - she had wondered if any of them other than the lead one had tongues - her escorts left. She studied him for a moment. Greying, a little weather beaten. Too overweight for the television image of a detective, but not what she would call fat.

She sat down without waiting to be asked, claiming a little bit of power over the situation. Just a little, to keep her from losing all control.

"Miss Maxwell..." His gaze turned towards her. She saw the bags under his eyes and the way his skin drooped.

The poor man looked exhausted. She kept her gaze even, though. She had come here willingly. He had no power over her. But she was in a police station, and her father would never forgive her for embarrassing him. He still hadn't forgiven her for the butterfly tattoo she now had on her left shoulder. It made her less of a perfect daughter. Not that he would punish her. Just give her those disapproving looks. Her mother, of course, liked the tattoo.

She always wore long sleeves at home. "What's...up?"

Her voice sounded uncertain in her own ears. The words seemed ill chosen for the occasion. She was in the freaking cop shop! Her life was not going to recover from this immediately. How could it?

"This is not going to be easy." His voice was gentle as he opened one of the files on his desk. There was a photo inside; he slid it over to her.

A dark-haired woman, dark eyes, exquisitely attractive. Not young, Laura could tell that. Forty, maybe, but a forty that knew how to defeat age. It looked almost like a promotion or glamor shot.

It was, almost, her own face that looked back at her. Older, the nose set a little differently, the hair in a different style. But those were her eyes, and a shock ran through her. Who was this woman? The wilder side of her envisioned some kind of time travel plot. Time travel was, of course, impossible. She focused on the nose, which was not quite her nose. It was clearly a relative of hers. One she did not know about.

"Have you ever met that woman?" The cop's tone was sympathetic, no hint that she was suspected of anything.

"No." The word came out despite the fact that she was not sure. She knew her. She did know her, but they had not met. The sense of familiarity had to come from some other source.

"Have you ever been contacted...phone, email or text...by a woman calling herself either Jane Lawson or Ella Miracle?" The cop rested his hands on the desk. His entire manner radiated intimidation, but closely held, leashed. As if he was more used to interrogating suspects than innocents.

"No..." Her voice tailed off. Realization flowed through and into her. "She's my mother." Her birth mother. The physical resemblance, the near recognition. The woman she had never been permitted to learn anything about. Had been protected from.

"According to adoption records, yes." The detective took off his glasses. He reached for a wipe, cleaned them.

"I don't know where she is." So that was what this was about. Ella Miracle. That was...well. She supposed she should not be surprised. Her birth mother being a hooker was one of the high probability possibilities she had considered. It would explain her father's attitude toward the matter...that odd mix of forgiveness and disgust that had always accompanied her requests to learn about her. She folded her hands into her lap.

"We do." The glasses were perched back on his nose. It took him two attempts. "Jane Lawson was murdered two weeks ago."

Laura tried to find the sort of pain that should have accompanied that news. She could not. This woman was not her real mother. She had given her up...perhaps for good motivations, perhaps bad. But still, she had given up the right to be her 'mom' when she made that choice.

Two weeks ago. He'd said two weeks ago. She shivered.Two weeks ago she had woken up at five am in a cold sweat for no reason. She had forced her way from a dream in which she had been fighting against faceless enemies with a sword, something she had never done. Something she would not know how to do. But that she would not mention to the cop. He would assume it meant she knew something, when she did not. Of course, she had heard of such incidents, such apparent precognition. She knew that it was a psychological illusion. She would have forgotten the nightmare had it not been for the coincidence. One remembered only the predictions which 'came true'.

Or was it? Sometimes she seemed to have an awareness most people did not. This was not the first nightmare, the first dream of fire and war that had turned out to reflect something in reality. And she had heard all kinds of stories about mother-daughter connections. It was entirely possible she had somehow felt her mother's death. She was still not going to mention it.

"I don't know anything. She gave up her right to be my mother." Her voice was even. There was no pain, but there was a hint of sorrow. That she had never met her. Regret. That was the word she was looking for. She felt only regret.

She expected that to be the end of it. The cop hoped she made contact, heard something that might lead them to the killer. "Although," she added. "I was planning on contacting the agency and trying to get the records this summer. When I didn't have school to worry about." Her father would not have approved. Her father thought that his perfect daughter should not reach for her obviously common roots. Her mother... They disagreed on that, too, but disagreements were, it seemed, part of marriage.

It was not over, though. "The thing is...before the murder two men were seen asking around after Lawson. They specifically asked about a 'boy' or a 'child'. According to all the records we can find, Lawson only had one child..."

"Oh come on. They're not going to come after me." That was the kind of thing that happened in thrillers. Badly written thrillers. Although, if she was inclined to write, it would make a good start for one.

"Most likely not. But we may want to put some protection on you. We asked the agency to destroy the computer records of your adoption, but it is against their policy and by the time we got a court order..." His voice was as serious as handcuffs and bullets.

"Can you tell me who my father was?" She had to ask, had to know.

He frowned. "Lawson apparently didn't know or didn't want to say. There's no father listed on the birth certificate. Given..."

"Given her profession," Laura interrupted, "She most likely had no clue." Even with condoms and the pill, pregnancy had to be an occupational hazard of hooking. Either she had felt Laura would cramp her style or, more charitably, that it was unfair to raise a child in a brothel. Or perhaps she even truly believed a child needed two parents.

"Most likely not." The detective studied her. "You're taking this too well."

"I didn't know her. But...is there any chance I could have a copy of that picture?" She suspected the answer would be no.

"I'll see what I can do." Not a direct no. A polite I don't think so. It tempted her to snatch the one in front of her, evidence or no evidence.

There was an odd, almost empty feeling within her. Her birth mother was dead. "One more thing. Do you know anything about restraining orders?" She shouldn't ask. She couldn't quite resist.















Chapter Two


Going home for spring break instead of away would not have been Laura's choice. But spring break started a day after the incident, and she canceled her plans. No Cancun for her, not this year, the flight tickets paid for, but unused. She felt as if she would be too exposed. Besides, Petey-Boy said he was going there. He was bad enough sober. She did not want to even be in the same country as him when he was drunk.

Laura went home. Home was protected and safe. If there really were bad guys after her, she felt it was a fortress in which they could not touch her. Of course, it had been made that way.

Truthfully, the security could not have kept out anyone determined. It would, though, keep out Petey-boy...and by the time she got back, she would be armed with a restraining order, thanks to her mother's lawyers. She hoped he really was going to Cancun.

Her real mother. Ella Miracle, or Jane Lawson or whoever she really was, was not her real mother. She was a gene donor. And whoever her father was had been even less. He did not even know she existed.

That finally hit her as she sat in her old room. She had not had it redecorated since she started college, and it was amazing how her tastes had changed in that year. It seemed quaint, young. A girl's room, not a woman's. A place where her childhood daydreams had flowed through her mind. A child, when mad with her parents, when she felt her childhood injustice, might fantasize. Laura had imagined her distant mother swooping in, taking her away. Giving her a new life, one better and more exciting than the life she had. As a woman, she knew better, knew it was a silly fantasy. Yet, as it dawned on her that her mother was dead, the regret came back.

She would never be able to ask Ella Miracle who she was, whether she had any regrets. She was dead and somebody had killed her.

Laura's emotions ran in mixed currents, swirling around and over one another. There was grief and guilt in there, but not as much as there might have been. Not as much as if it had been her the mother who raised her. There was a faint smoldering anger that somebody had messed with her family. There was relief...that she would never have to face that woman. She knew now that her initial reaction in the office had been protective numbness.

She opened her bag. The detective had sent her a copy after all. Ella Miracle. Jane Lawson. She was beautiful, Laura thought. Not all of it was real beauty, though. Some, she could tell, was stage beauty. The false loveliness of well applied makeup and a careful coiffure.

Ella Miracle had not been a cheap prostitute. That was the other emotion. Curiosity. The desire, strong and clear, to find out exactly who Jane Lawson had been. It warred with fear of what the cops had said.

Laura was not used to feeling afraid. Was it really fear she felt, or something else? All her life, she had been good at everything she tried, attractive, always that bit ahead of her peers. Her teachers expected her to end up CEO of something. None thought she should waste herself teaching.

But she also remembered the spike of cold. She had known her mother was dead. No. Jane was not her mother. Her father? Somebody reasonably wealthy, somebody who could afford such a woman. Somebody who was not satisfied with wife and home or, perhaps, had none. Not important.

She got up, left the room, left the house. There was a model farm in the middle of the community. Black and white dairy cows grazed peacefully, intermingled with black and white dairy goats. They sold the milk and cheese at a little store right there. Laura liked goat's cheese. It somehow came over, in her mind, as more like cheese than the cow's milk variety.

She leaned on the fence, watched them. They had no troubles. A cow could not possibly worry about anything but the next blade of grass and when milking time was. Did they, though, wonder about their calves, taken away so that humans could have the milk?

Great, this wasn't going to work. Right back...and as she turned away, she saw another reminder. Children in the playground next to the pasture.

"For crying out loud." Her mother's favorite euphemism. Nice girls did not swear. Somehow, Laura had never picked up the habit. Maybe that made her a nice girl. Pheh. No, it made her a girl who did not swear.

Nice girls did not get tattoos or hang out in night clubs, or own fake IDs so they could drink.

She turned to walk away from cows and children alike. There seemed to be some kind of argument going on at the gate. She glanced over. It was Petey-boy...the security guard refused to let him in. Good. Her mother said she had asked them not to. Turning away pointedly, she made her quick route home.

Her mother was cooking dinner. She did that a lot, Laura noticed. In some ways, her mother's kitchen was her self, her soul. She had always been disappointed that Laura cooked only for the results.

"Hi, Mom." Normal. Mundane. Still 'Mom'. Nothing could change that. As much as she had wanted to know who her birth mother was, this was her real mother. She was the woman who had made her who she was. Not some high-class hooker.

Clarice Maxwell turned and then put a wooden spoon down to hug her daughter. "I'm glad you still call me that."

"She gave me up. She probably had her reasons, but she gave up the right to be Mom." That, Laura clung to, even if she wished she had met the woman. Even if she grieved for her, in an odd way. A twisted way.

Clarice moved over to the kitchen table. "Sit down."

Laura did so, fidgeting with her hands, with the couple of silver rings she wore. "What's cooking?"

"Stew. But we need to talk." Clarice sat down, resting her hands on the table. She positioned herself where she could see the stew pot. Just in case.

"I don't think we need to be worried. Whoever that nut job was, he's not coming here." There was security. There was anonymity. The records would be destroyed. She did not need them. She needed this, her family.

"That's not what I want to talk about." Clarice folded her hands, dusted with flour, into her aproned lap. "I'm honestly not worried either. I wanted to make sure you were alright."

"I'm not." Laura did not lie to her mother. "I will be, but I'm not right now." She wondered if she should have stuck with her original plans and gone to Mexico. Of course her mother was worried. She would have been.

"Honestly, I'd be worried if you were. I was always honest with you because my therapist told me that would be best. That kids end up feeling very betrayed if they find out they were adopted as adults. But this..." Clarice tailed off.

"It's a gut blow. I was going to try and find her this summer. Just to say hello, let her know I turned out okay. Of course, I kinda thought she was like fifteen when she had me or something." Not that she had assumed anything. She had not even assumed her mother would still be alive. One of her lead scenarios had been that the woman had died of a drug overdose years ago.

Clarice opened her mouth, but at that moment the phone rang. She stood, crossing to get it quickly, lifting the receiver.

"It's for you."

For me? Laura wondered. She picked it up. A voice on the other end, a male voice, an unfamiliar one. Her stomach sank.

It was the police again. "What...what do you want?"

"Your help. I promise, it won't be horribly dangerous."

She glanced at her mother. She took a deep breath. "What do you need me to do?"















Chapter Three


Laura walked along the street quickly. She did not know the man next to her beyond his name....Patrick...and the fact that he was a cop. "Are we sure this is a set up?" The street ran through a canyon of skyscrapers, their glass walls towering above her. It was a place she was not familiar with, or comfortable in.

Patrick shook his head. "No, but we have good reason to think so. Yes, Jane Lawson had money, and her leaving it to you is feasible, but this particular lawyer doesn't seem like one she'd use."

Laura nodded. A dark feeling came over her, something in the pit of her stomach. Was afraid the right word? He was talking again.

"Let's go over this again. If possible, I'll stay inside with you. If not, I'll be right outside." He was fairly tall, dark hair, a face and manner that indicated he would not drink green beer...because real Irish people did not. Everything about his tone and body language gave a strong air of business as usual. As if he did this kind of thing all the time.

" Maybe she really did leave me a small fortune. Not that I need one, but..." Laura tailed off. If there was a fortune, there was nobody else to inherit it. Ella or Jane had given up parental rights, but somebody could leave their money to whoever they wanted to have it.

"It could be. I wish I could say for sure that it was. What I really wonder is the why of all this...maybe we can get that out of them." The detective studied her for a moment. "You're very brave, Miss Maxwell."

"I want to know why they killed her, too." And frankly, although Laura didn't want or need Jane Lawson's money...she might have some nice clothes and jewelry. Laura was not above dressing up, although right now she had dressed as if for a night after school. The cops had suggested looking like she did need the money. Not desperate, but not well off, either.

So, her jeans were designer ripped and she had left the expensive jewelry at home. She wore a tank top that showed off her tattoo. The outfit was dominated by black, with a bit of silver costume jewelry. Almost the goth look. She was even close to having the hair for it.

The lawyer's office, at least, had checked out. Expensive, and, worse, in one of those skyscrapers. Laura did not like that, if she had to run. The cop had a gun, but she did not want him to use it. A lump formed in her throat. It was fear, after all, but it was not fear of what might happen to her. Fear of what she might have to be involved in. Of what she might have to do. Of whether she could do it, and the yes was far worse than the no.

An elevator, upwards, and she felt time seem to slow a little. She had experienced that before. Most likely, it was a result of her being stressed. She glanced at Patrick again. Perfectly relaxed, his hands loose at his sides, his eyes staring at the door as people did in elevators. He was probably remembering that there were a lot of cops, undercover, in the area for when things went south.

Laura was wondering what they could do when the doors opened on the twentieth floor.

Rich lawyers. Like her mother's lawyers. Had it been the same one, she might not have suspected a trap. She knew she did not look like she belonged here. The carpet felt thick under the boots she was wearing. Boots were good for kicking people with.

There were three men in suits leaning against one of the walls, loitering. Laura knew at that moment that it was exactly the trap she feared. She could see no guns, but her awareness shot into a heightened state she had experienced only once before...when somebody had tried to mug her. He had failed because of it, because she had instinctively moved out of his grasp and then fled.

She said nothing to Patrick, but rather reached to grip his hand for a moment. How did she tell him she was worried?

The elevator doors slid closed. She saw no other access...the fire exit had to be somewhere, but it was not visible to her. Where was it likely to be? The map of the building flashed into her mind, clearer than memory normally was.

This lobby area had no windows to the outside. She wondered if the wire she was wearing even worked, or if the thickness of the walls would block it.

Then she was on the deck. There had been no conscious thought involved. Solid object. You were supposed to get behind solid objects. The gunshot had sounded a moment after she moved. She did not know exactly why. Almost as if she had known what would happen, known it and felt it.

"Fuck." That was Patrick. Had he been hit, or was he just pissed off at the general situation? She did not know and could not spare the energy to care.

Receptionist's desk. Solid oak. She was moving to pull herself behind it, except...too obvious. Another bullet, and her shoulder was suddenly on fire. "Fuck." She never used language like that, but it seemed to fit the moment. Weapon. She needed a weapon. A weapon she was not sure she would know how to use. They had said she should not carry one for that reason. Because she would be too tempted to use it.

She had none, thus, except her fists. The snap of another shot impacted on her ears. Patrick was trying to shield her with his own body. No. She could not face the thought that he might die for her.

Two men now. He had, perhaps, already killed for her.

Time slowed even further. Her combat training was limited to a self-defense class, but they were focused on the threat. On Patrick. Another shot. Her shoulder still burned, but the arm worked. It could not be that bad, surely, and then she was on one of them, forcing him to the ground with the strength of desperation. The gun.

Her hand closed around the gun, wrenched it from his. His face was startled, then afraid. Another shot. And she was kneeling over him in a position that might have been, at other times, suggestive.

Everything was quiet. "Patrick?"

"Ugh. Are you hurt?" Genuine, if professional, concern for her.

"Yes, but I don't think it's bad." She could be wrong. She had never been shot before, and the shoulder felt like a dull fire, as if somebody was rubbing a cigarette butt into it.

"My radio's not working. I need to find a window."

The other two men were dead. She trained the gun on the face of the one she had pinned. "You guys thought I was just a little girl, didn't you?"

"Supposed...to be a boy." He stared at the barrel of the gun, each word he spoke pulled out of him by it.

"There's nothing I can't do that a boy can, other than go to the bathroom standing up." She'd always believed that, although normally she would not have put it so crudely. Now she had the power. It felt good, despite the pain in her shoulder. Too good. Something she might get used to, given the chance. Even come to truly enjoy. She shook her head, but she could not let him up. He was the one who knew something and only in stories did people like this have cyanide teeth, surely.

She wondered if the fact that they had, somehow, thought Ella Miracle's baby was a son had slowed them down. Or maybe they had...

...waited until she turned eighteen. Waited until the adoption agency would release the records. Perhaps Ella/Jane had asked for them. Perhaps they had killed her to take them.

Damn. Could it be all about her?















Chapter Four


The hospital emergency room was not a place she wanted to end up. She'd been there before, and every time she promised she would avoid it. The bullet had grazed across her shoulder, leaving a relatively shallow, but long, cut. It needed stitches. It would probably scar.

Somehow, that didn't bother her. Her mother would freak, and then pay for plastic surgery to remove said scar. Fine. Then they forced her to talk to the ER counselor. She tried to insist she was okay.

She felt fine, even as the last vestiges of the adrenalin rush faded out of her system...or perhaps were driven out by the local anesthetic, by the smell of medicine and death.

They had really tried to kill her. All she felt about that was anger. The one man who had lived refused to talk. The 'supposed to be a boy' line was all, it seemed, that they were going to get out of him.

Patrick came over. He had two cups of bad hospital coffee. "Never thought a slip of a girl like you could move that fast."

She scowled at him. "I refuse to dodge bullets for the rest of my life."

"Witness protection..."

"Throws away everything. That's letting them win." There was a cold feeling inside her at the thought. She would not graduate, would lose all the money she had, would end up waitressing somewhere. She would never hear her mother's voice again. She would not exactly rather die, but...

"Better than dying."

"I'm not backing down to these people. I just have to demonstrate I'm not who they're looking for. Do you think it's possible that they think I'm the offspring of some regular of hers?"

"Or they..." Patrick frowned. "This one's beyond me. None of it quite makes sense."

Including what I did, Laura thought. Of course, she had never had any problems doing whatever she wanted to do, physically. But she had never pushed herself that hard. "The one we captured?"

"Nothing. He's not talking, no matter what interrogation techniques we try."

"Heck, maybe they think I'm some kind of ubermensch." She hadn't realized she was speaking out loud until it was too late.

"No such thing." The cop's tone was firm. "Let's get you somewhere safe."

Laura realized she might well not make it back to school for the rest of the semester.

* * *

In fact, the police now seemed determined not to let her go anywhere or do anything.

Her style was beyond cramped. At this point, she was sitting in a corner of the freaking squad room, wondering why anyone became a cop. Certainly, the food was no reason. She'd bet the prisoners in the jail ate better.

She still had not declared a major. But criminal justice was most definitely not on her list. She would teach, but she had yet to decide what, where, and to whom. History, perhaps.

Nobody was looking at her. She wondered if she could at least sneak out into the street, get some air. Standing, she made her way to the door. The cops were all focused on computer screens, those that were here. Most were out on the beat.

She made it to the door and stepped outside. The building was set back from the plaza, screened by a bit of grass and trees. She wanted to go home. She wanted to go to Mexico.

She wanted to be anywhere but here, hiding from some unknown enemy. From somebody who sought her life. For no reason. The sky was very clear, and the faint scent of some kind of flower reached her nostrils. She didn't seek it out. Something in the colored bed that rested along the wall.

Think, woman. There had to be a reason. Could it be her...well, there was one obvious possibility. Somebody thought she was their half-sister, competition for a father's fortune.

That could be easy to prove one way or another. And if she was that person's sibling, she could well demonstrate that she had no need of the family money. Buy them off with words that were no more than the truth. It should not be hard.

That was the most logical explanation, but nothing explained...and her thought was interrupted.

The woman who approached, stepping into the plaza, did not exactly look familiar. The vibe that swept through Laura was not recognition, it was something else.

Laura shook her head. Almost sexual, but she was seldom attracted to women, and this woman did not fall into that narrow type. She wanted to flee back into the building. She knew that this woman was a threat by deep instinct. Or an ally. One or the other, certainly nobody to disregard.

No. She would not let them win. "Hello?" The woman had not reached her.

"Good to see that you're alive." The woman's long dark hair fell in curls over her slender shoulders. She was truly attractive, even her voice, which was deep and rich. Her eyes were almost black and pierced right through Laura. Not quite enough to intimidate, but enough to give... Vibes, yes. Laura was definitely getting vibes.

"It's a good state to stay in," Laura informed the stranger, keeping her tone as light as possible. So, was this some kind of trick, or did she have allies as well as enemies?

"I was a little worried I would be too late."

Laura reached up to rub her shoulder. It itched. Probably meant it was healing. "Look, whatever you have to say, say it. I'm not in the mood for any more games."

She half expected the stranger to pull a gun.

"Only that you need to stay alive. Whatever it takes. There will be somebody coming for you."

"Right, and how will I know he's not another trap." Laura regarded the other woman. She wished she had a joint. The pot would have settled her nerves. And got her arrested.

"How do you know I'm not one?"

Laura frowned, then, "I don't. I want to believe you're not, but...I need more information."

"Of course you do." The woman turned to walk away, without a further word or providing said information. She flicked her hair arrogantly.

"Bitch," Laura called after her. Well, see if she cooperated with people who gave cryptic statements and then left.

No, she was going to find the people who wanted her dead, turn them over to the cops, and then she was going to go back to school. Study something harmless, find a place in the world. Forget this had happened. Forget about Ella Miracle.

Yet, whoever that was had not hurt her. Just played with her head.

She went back inside, feeling no better than before. The next person to anger off was likely to get hurt. Badly hurt.

Had that been the woman's intent? Make her angry? Sharpen her up? It might have worked, but Laura did not take kindly to being manipulated. By anyone.

"You shouldn't go outside." That was Patrick.

"I'm going stir crazy. This is so letting them win. You know that. I can't hide forever."

"Just until we catch the guy."

"Oh, for... I know what you're going to try to push me into. Witness protection, never using my own name, losing my family, my friends, and what? Waitressing?" She finally voiced her fears.

"You'd be alive, which is more than we can say for your mother."

"She's not my mother. She wasn't my mother."

"She gave birth to you. For some reason, that puts you in their crosshairs. Would you rather put your parents through you dying?"

"Than them never seeing me again, never knowing whether I was alive, never seeing their grandchildren?" It wasn't fair. She hadn't met Ella Miracle, she hadn't asked for her life to be torn apart like this. She certainly hadn't done anything to deserve dying.

"It might be temporary."

"It might not." She regarded him, feeling the anger rise within her. She should not target him; he had been willing to kill for her. The problem was, he was the only one there. The only one she could reach.

"The important thing is your life."

"I don't think we're disagreeing there."

"We'll catch the guy. In the meantime, don't wander."

Don't wander. Like she was a little girl. A child. She watched him go, her eyes narrowed a little. Her breath came in, out; she forced it to be slower, steadier. More even. She even went as far as to close her eyes.

The sounds around her were purely human sounds, and the urge to escape returned. The urge to get out of here, to go somewhere there was sun and green grass. There had been something about that woman that had spoken of that to her.

Sun and green grass. "I need to get out of here."

She did not realize she had spoken out loud until she was answered.

"Cabin fever?" A female voice.

She turned. A blonde woman in a grey suit faced her, her hair drawn back from a severe face. "I guess you could call it that. I don't feel safe, I feel imprisoned."

"Oh, come with me." The woman reached to take her hand. "I have a prescription for that."

"Are you a doctor?" Those words came out without any conscious thought attached to them. Of course, this person was not a doctor. She was a cop.

"No, but I know exactly how you feel." There was a small canteen at the rear of the building. "I'd lose my job if I gave you booze, but let's get some iced cocoa and go out back."

It was warm enough to want one's cocoa iced, for sure, and the chocolate did help Laura's mood. "I just feel as if... I'm not a run and hide kind of person, you know?"

"They've already shot you once." The policewoman pointed it out gently. "I'm Barbara." Out back was a sort of yard-garden, partly greened, mostly paved, with a couple of tables.

"I always figured cop stations as small and dark."

"The old one was. We got lucky when they gave us the new building. So, what's your college major?"

"I'm still deciding. And no, I am not considering criminal justice."

Barbara laughed. "You'd always be employed...sadly."

Laura thought about it and decided that was a sad thing indeed. As long as there were human beings, there would be a need for police...short of eliminating humanity or human free will. "Actually, I'm considering schoolteacher."

"Also always employed, but for a better reason." Barbara flickered a grin. "Doesn't pay as well as it might, though."

"My dad's rich, remember. There's enough money in my trust fund that I don't need to work, so I'm looking for something that will make me...well...feel like I'm worth having around." Doctor was too scientific. Besides, she'd always gotten along with younger kids.

"Then why work at all?"

"I'd get bored," Laura admits. "Maybe that's the real problem. Heh, I should get you guys to put me to work."

"Maybe. We probably have some civilian level stuff you could do. But we're going to move you tonight anyway. Safe house."

Laura sighed. "Where I'll do what? Sit around, do nothing, hide? I need to do something." Maybe she just wanted to feel that adrenalin rush again, but she knew she could not just sit there. "And don't give me the 'It's not my job'. It's me who got shot. It's me they want dead. It's me..." She tailed off.

"Maybe you should consider criminal justice after all."















Chapter Five


The safe house was a big old Victorian out in the suburbs, with a high wall around the ill-kempt grounds. It crumbled a little, ivy covering the wall and reaching up between the windows of the house. They looked out with inner lids closed in the form of heavy curtains.

Laura felt the garden wall loom around her. She could not even call her parents. They were getting reassuring messages. Her thought of them caused a cold shaft to pass through her, not unlike that she had felt when Ella Miracle had died. No, not her parents. She turned. "I thought of something. Are my parents protected?"

"I believe they hired some pretty competent bodyguards. We have no reason..." Patrick had accompanied her. "...to think they're in any danger."

Of course not. "Well, if people will abduct kids to get to the parents... Maybe I'm just paranoid." She knew she should not have backed down so easily, but she was oddly tired. She needed rest, sleep. Time. Fresh air.

"Are you sure this place is safe?" She could feel her breathing increase; it did not seem as if she could get quite enough oxygen.

"As close to perfectly safe as anything short of a concrete bunker. Even most of the cops don't know where it is." Patrick's tone held practiced reassurance. He had done this before.

And they had not been followed, or had they? She felt cold again, unsafe. Exposed and contained all at the same time. I can look after myself. A litany, that, she knew, was not true. Not anymore. It would be again. She would make it so.

She would kick their butts again, and the next time she would do so in a way that was decisive. If she had to kill them, she would. She would do whatever she had to do to be left alone.

Patrick perhaps noted the setting of her jaw, for he spoke up, "And be careful. I know..."

"You don't know anything. Have you ever been in this situation?" Laura tried to bite back the words, but they escaped anyway, dogs off the leash.

"I have." The voice came from within the house. A man no longer young spoke. "Come in, please." He had grey hair, but did not stoop.

She felt, not familiarity this time, but a sudden sense of threat. That if she walked into this house, she would never walk back out. Unreasonable fear flowed through her. Why was there anyone there? Shouldn't the place be empty? Was he a caretaker?

Instinct took over and she broke and ran. She could hear Patrick calling her name, but what could she tell him? He was not the type to believe in hunches. Or...what? Did he know the guy? He hadn't said there would be anyone there. He hadn't warned her. He hadn't introduced them. Everything began to say past instinct and into logic that the man should not be there.

She had to put as much distance between herself and that house and that man as she possibly could. On foot, that would not be easy.

She needed a vehicle, but saw no way other than stealing one. Then a red convertible was pulling up at the curb. "Get in!"

Reason told her that was not wise. Reason had, though, told her to go into the safe house. Instinct told her to get in the car. Maybe it was a Transformer.

Leather seats. Driven by a young man whose eyes were hidden by shades. "Just in the nick of time."

"Who are you? And don't say a friend or..." She was starting to get tired of the cloak and dagger tricks.

"Clark."

"As in Kent?" She couldn't help it. But his presence somehow relaxed her. "Screw this. I want to go home." So much for the girl who did not swear. She had used more foul language in the last week than ever in her life. She glanced over. He did not look like Clark Kent. He had dirty blonde hair and features that spoke of England or maybe Scandinavia. He was not a small man, either, she noted.

"Are you sure? Home might not be safe." His voice carried a slight accent she could not place, despite the American name.

"If home isn't safe then my parents aren't safe. And if a safe house isn't safe, where is?" She forced her voice to slow down, aware she was babbling.

"Nowhere." Clark's tone was matter-of-fact.

She scowled at him. "That's not good enough. I want out of all of this."

"You don't have that choice. You'll understand once you find out everything." His tone had not changed, his emotions unreadable.

"Which you can't tell me, or don't know, or...how do I even know which side to be on?" She was aware of her voice raising again, becoming sharp, but she found she did not care.

"The one not shooting at you." He made it sound very simple. "You're on your own side, like everyone else. There's no real sides. But I'm not going to try and kill you and they are."

"And your friend from the cop station? Miss mystery girl?" She knew she was jumping to a conclusion.

"Oh, I'll talk to her. Did she scare you?" For a moment he offered a touch of concern.

"No, she pissed me off." He was not hiding the connection. Thus, he was the one who would be coming for her. It fit together too neatly.

"Good." Just that one word, his eyes turning back to the road.

Good that she was pissed off? No, she decided. Good that she didn't scare easy. That was, at least, one thing she had going for her. "I'm at the point where I just want answers. Now. Give them to me."

She knew she sounded like a total bitch. "Answers, or stop this car and let me out." She could dial 911, claim to have been kidnapped. Except she could not trust the police.

Or the police could not trust their own. The safe house had been compromised.

He spun the car up a side street. "Hold on."

He pulled off the side of the road, across a locked gate. "I'm supposed to keep you alive at all costs."

"So, who hired you?" He didn't look like a bodyguard, but she'd seen bodyguards who didn't look the part before. He was big enough, but there was something in his face and manner that was not quite right. She did not sense danger from him, but neither did she sense honesty.

"Nobody hired me. Let's just say I know your father." He removed the shades, revealing eyes of a clear grey-blue

"Can't be sure he is my father, given..." She tailed off. "Short of a blood test." And appearance-wise, she knew now that she favored her mother. "My father could be one of any number of men."

Clark shook his head. "There's ways of knowing."

She could see his chest rise and fall. He didn't want to tell her, that much was clear. He knew something. He knew who she was and he wouldn't tell her. She wanted, for a moment, to hit him. Might have, if he hadn't just rescued her. 'You were supposed to be a boy'. An heir, fathered on a woman who would never want to marry him, tucked away in safety? "Look. I know you don't want to tell me, but I am not going any further until I know what's going on. And who he is."

"I'll tell you what I can. I'm more worried about freaking you out than getting into trouble." He turned to face her, one hand still on the wheel. "The people trying to kill you are afraid of you."

"Even if I am a girl." Why did he think she would freak out if she knew who her father was? He was clearly not going to tell her.

He snorted. "I reckon it probably makes you more dangerous, but then, I've had my ass kicked by more than one woman."

She could not help but laugh at that. "Go on, unless you want to add another one." She was not sure she could kick his ass, but the words came out anyway. She felt angry, but also more alive. Did she really want to go home? Yes and no.

"By killing you they would significantly weaken your father's position. And potentially solve some other problems."

"He's fucking mob, isn't he." Maybe she could convince them she wanted and needed no part of this. Given what she knew of the mob, the only use they had for women was to look pretty on somebody's arm. Supposed to be a boy. Boys were useful. Girls...but this wasn't a thriller. She shouldn't immediately think organized crime.

"Not exactly." Clark was not quite looking at her.

"He's not Triad, or I'd have different eyes, and I doubt he's Russian."

"He's not a criminal. That much I can promise you. Although he wouldn't be above breaking the law to protect you until you can protect yourself."

"I've done a decent job so far."

"For an untrained girl, yes. We can't fix the girl part, but we can sure as heck fix the untrained part. Do you really want to go home?" The grey eyes turned back towards her. There was something in them that she could not read.

"I want to know my parents are alright...and don't tell me they're not my parents. My mother was a hooker and I never met my father. If he knew I existed, he could have..." She tailed off. "Led his enemies to me."

"You're learning. Unfortunately..." His hands had fallen into his lap, off the wheel, at some point. Now they started to lift again.

"I'm guessing that Ella requested my records, they had been watching her and broke in to steal them. She got in the way." It was a guess, but she could think of no other option.

"That's our guess too. So. What do you want to do?" As if she had the choice, his tone still entirely too calm.

"Erase the last few weeks. Failing that...I want to kick their butts and teach them a lesson. And keep my parents safe." She knew now she was going with him, even if he would not tell her the truth.

"I'll find out about them."

He did not sound sure or certain, though. Perhaps he was worried too, now the thought had been brought up. Well, good. His attitude was wearing on her. He didn't seem afraid at all. He didn't seem as if...well. He didn't seem to care. As if this was all a fun adventure for him.

Maybe it would be a fun adventure in the future, when she looked back on it and told her children. Right now, she was learning all about how uncomfortable adventures could be.

"Let's go, I guess." She had nowhere else she could go.

He hit the gas, the car roaring away with scant regard for such niceties as speed limits. Laura sat back. Her head had started to ache. The police would be looking for her. They would never understand why she had broken and run.

But she wasn't about to say any more to Clark, whoever he was. Strengthened and weakened positions. She wanted to tell Daddy dearest that all she wanted to do was graduate and teach school. Or some other quiet profession. That she would neither help him nor hinder him.

The wind roaring past lulled her, though, if not to sleep then at least to a quieter frame of mind. It made everything bearable.

Eventually, she slept.

* * *

Laura woke with a start, realizing that the car was pulling to a stop. Her thoughts were clearer now. The only evidence she had that Clark didn't intend to kill her was that he hadn't. Most likely, he wanted her alive, as that side road would have been a far better place to do it.

Now, they had stopped outside a house. An old farmhouse, around which a subdivision had sprouted like mushrooms. She was surprised it was not the middle of nowhere. Then again, maybe the middle of nowhere would have been checked first.

Clark got out, then opened the door for her like a gentleman. The air seemed clearer than the city, but not that clear. She wondered where she was. If she asked, would she get an answer?

It occurred to her that they had brought her to a place from which she could walk away. She could hear the sounds of children playing not that far away. It was a real subdivision in a real city. Her cell would probably work, but it would let the cops track her. She decided to leave it turned off. If all else failed, she could go to one of the houses. Say she had been kidnapped, ask to use the phone.

They were giving her an escape route...or the illusion of one. An excuse, perhaps, to say later that she had stayed of her own free will.

Clark pulled out a key and opened the door. Inside, there was a tank full of sea horses on one side of the door. They floated peacefully amongst thin strands of weed, tiny jeweled creatures.

She stopped to watch them. Living art, she thought, for they could have no other purpose. Untouchable, forever apart in their world of water. She felt apart herself. The odd sensation that even if she went home, she would never be able to go back.

Maybe being shot did that to you. The ache in her shoulder had faded away much sooner than the doctors had promised. That disturbed her a little, but maybe it was the adrenalin.

There seemed, right now, to be nobody else here. Nobody but her and the seahorses. Above the tank was the picture of a dark-skinned woman.

Finally Clark stepped inside. "Nancy's probably upstairs."

"Let me take a look at you." That would, she presumed, be Nancy, coming down from upstairs. "Hrm. Good condition, at least."

She turned. Nancy was a woman of Asian descent, who might have been twenty or fifty. Laura couldn't have told exactly what ethnicity she was, but the woman was large and muscular, quite the contrast to the normal image of Asian women as pretty and petite. She was also definitely not the woman in the picture. "You'll do. But we need to get some food into you."

Laura found herself following Nancy into a kitchen very like the one she was familiar with at home.

"Clark...could you make another supply run?"

Laura knew that was a way to get rid of him, but he flickered a grin, saluted her and left. "So, do I get the rest of the story yet?"

Nancy was rummaging in the fridge. "For now, you get a cheese sandwich."

Laura made a face. "I can walk out of here, you know."

"You'd last a week. Less if you went back into police protection."

"Well, you guys need me alive. I'm leaving unless I get answers."

Nancy's eyebrow arched, as she turned from the fridge with bricks of cheddar and Swiss. "You'd rather die than stay ignorant...but what if what you're ignorant of would be just as dangerous?"

"Look. I've been shot at and now all but kidnapped. I'm missing school. And I only have your assurances that this doesn't involve the mafia." Not that she really thought it did. Not quite. Why would they lie to her if they thought she was some mob princess?

"Your imagination is so narrow. The mob? Really? But then, perhaps that's a good thing. It keeps you safe."

"I'm not safe anymore." Laura was trying not to scowl at the woman.

The woman nodded. "Come."

She handed Laura her sandwich, then padded out of the room and down a short corridor. There was a door at the end. Beyond it was a dojo.

A full scale, wooden dojo. Maybe the original designers of the house had intended the room to be, oh, a ballroom or something. Now it had a Buddhist shrine at one end and various weapons arranged along the walls.

"I feel like I'm in one of those martial arts movies where the ignorant gaijin is trained by the master to face his enemies." Or her enemies, in this case.

Nancy's laugh echoed from the walls. "It does seem a cliché, doesn't it?."

"You give me some cliché about facing myself and I'll hit you with one of those staffs." Laura realized she was being smoothly diverted, but she knew she was going to get nothing from this woman.

Nancy just smiled. "Go ahead. Try."

* * *

Laura learned rapidly that trying to hit Nancy with one of those staffs was beyond her. She rather thought this was a horrible cliché. "This is ridiculous. Lawyers setting me up, bent cops, and now Asian martial arts experts?"

Nancy laughed. "Come, let's eat." She offered her a hand up. "And yes, I am an Asian combat expert, but don't expect to be winning any tournaments or learning..." She air quoted. "Kung fu."

"Then what am I?"

"The daughter of somebody I don't entirely trust."

Laura knew she did not mean Ella Miracle. "And you aren't going to tell me." Anger bristled through her words. "I'm not a child anymore."

Maybe to this woman, older, she was exactly that. If not a child, then at least young enough to appear to be one. As you got older, supposedly that happened.

"Not yet. There's a reason for it."

"To keep me safe. I'm not safe. I'm not safe here, I'm not safe anywhere."

Nancy lifted a hand. "True. Which is why we need to ensure your safety. And there's only one way to do that."

She was rummaging in the fridge. She did not pull out any kind of Chinese food, but rather leftover pizza, which she put in the oven.

"What is it?"

"Teach you how to ensure it yourself."

"Great. What's next? The training montage?" she found herself asking.

Nancy laughed. "It is a ridiculous cliché. But yes, we need to train you. To teach you how to be what you were born to be."

"Without telling me what that is."


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