St Clair 4: the Angel

by Todd_d172

Caution: This Thriller Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Fa/Fa, .

Desc: Thriller Story: A Flight of Angels

This is the current endcap for the St. Clair series. It certainly won’t be the last one, but it is the last one I actually have planned. The readers of the St. Clair series have been very supportive and very, very patient. The first story in this series was originally intended to go in Romance, but since the two leads in the couple happen to be female, it ended up dropped into Lesbian; I learned to keep the series together in the same category the hard way. There is no graphic sex in this storyline, it just doesn’t suit the occasionally heavy subject matter. Special thanks to sbrooks103x for beta reading and edit; all remaining errors are mine, probably added after his able assistance. He really makes this readable.

Saint Clair: The Angel

Cindy closed the door with the same sense of panic she did every time. But this time, she was sure it was real.

Six latches. Six different latches. She snapped and twisted them as fast as she could, finally pulling the always-waiting chair over and jamming it under the doorknob.

She slumped gracelessly to the floor in an odd cross-legged sitting position facing the door.

Waiting.

### Four Years Prior: Atlanta, Georgia ###

“Anybody seen Ramon?”

Mostly blank faces on her fellow dancers.

Cindy – Cyn - wasn’t too surprised by that – she knew she wasn’t exactly popular with the others. When she’d started dancing, she’d decided it was about money, and she’d stepped on a few toes.

Mostly blank. Except for Karen. “I think he’s back in the storeroom with ‘Sofi’.”

There was a hint of snide amusement in her voice. Karen was a floor hostess, a little older than the rest of the girls. The girls all seemed to like her a lot; even though she’d only been there a few months, she seemed to fit in better than Cindy.

It was also obvious Karen couldn’t imagine being enough of a sucker to let a guy treat her badly. She’d been baiting Cindy for weeks about Ramon and “Sofi.”

Cyn glared at her. She knew Ramon wasn’t exactly the faithful type; hell, they’d met at the club. But she was still convinced she could change him. In the two years since their whirlwind marriage, she knew he’d slipped a time or two, but he at least seemed to be trying. She even considered quitting dancing; but Ramon liked the club and he was here all the time, so it was better to be up on stage in front of him rather than sitting at home wondering what he was doing. And it seemed to be working.

Until “Sofi” – whose real name was Amy – had started working at Gemini a few months ago.

Now Ramon seemed to be constantly “working late” and going on “business trips” that everyone knew were code for banging the ass off “Sofi” and taking her on little vacations.

That was bad enough, but screwing “Sofi” in the back while she was doing a set? That was too damn far.

Karen’s voice was softer. “You don’t need this Cyn, you’re too good for him. He’s never gonna be worth a shit. And your sister’s a bitch, she’s doing it on purpose to hurt you.”

Cyn dropped her bag of clothes on the floor by Karen, shot her a glare, and stomped her way down the hall toward the store room.

The fucking door wasn’t even locked. She shoved in and slammed the door behind her striding forward in fury.

For all of two steps.

Amy sat slumped and bloody, hands tied behind her to a folding metal chair.

Ramon and his constant companion, the hulking, stooped, Levi, stood over her; Ramon’s ever-present jacket was off, hanging on a wall hook, exposing the series of ornate baroque cross tattoos that covered his arms. She’d always thought her angel wings and his crosses meant they belonged together.

“Ramon?” Cindy felt completely lost.

“Goddammit.” Ramon glared at her.

A tall, lean figure stood fully up from leaning on the wall. “Nothing for it Ramon, just do them both.” He spoke in a low, purring, accent.

Ramon’s mouth twitched and he drew a small handgun smoothly from the center of his back.

Cindy was too stunned to even talk.

Levi grinned with crooked, yellow teeth, the fluorescent light gleaming off his bald head. “Saves time.”

“Stupid bitch. I was gonna drop your useless ass anyway.”

The gun in his hand centered on her and snapped loudly, twice; she felt her legs give way.

Black clouds were beginning to edge her vision as he swiveled toward Amy, touched the gun barrel to her forehead and pulled the trigger.

Someone screamed and Cindy was vaguely puzzled that she could even hear it as far away as it obviously was.

The sound of running feet, a million miles away at the bottom of a well.

Sirens.

### Rising through something, to ... somewhere.

Soft hissing. Steady, quiet machine hum, a steady whirr. She managed to open one eye. It only took a thousand years.

A woman in nurse’s scrubs was at her side almost instantly, matter-of-factly checking her out and scratching notations on a weird plastic clipboard.

She squeezed her eyes shut hard, then opened them to try to clear her head.

Amy.

She struggled to speak, her voice coming out in a dull croak.

“Amy?”

The nurse looked over at someone to the side. It took a monumental effort, but Cindy was able to turn her head enough to look.

Karen. But a different Karen. She was wearing a starkly conservative dark grey skirt with a matching blazer. And a badge on a leather holder hung off the breast pocket.

She shook her head, sadly. “I’m sorry Cyn, I didn’t make it in time for her. I really thought...” she paused, “I thought she and Ramon were back there alone. I didn’t even have my gun, I was expecting a catfight, not a gunfight. I had to run back to the dressing room and by the time I had it, they were out the door.”

Cindy closed her eyes or a minute. Amy might have been a bitch, but she’d still been her sister.

“How long.”

“Three days.”

“Why am I alive?”

“He just missed the heart. Those .22s are a little unpredictable. One rode the ribs on around, the other was deflected into your lung.”

“So you’re a cop.”

“FBI, actually.”

“The FBI. Great. I’d ask what Ramon was involved in, but I’m sure I don’t want to know.”

“Drugs.”

“He shot me without a second thought.”

“What’d he tell you he did for a living?”

“He’s a manager at INSITE, they make vitamins and weightlifting supplements.”

“INSITE’s a front for a one of the Central American cartels. They move their product up through the Caribbean, distribute it along the East coast. You had to know he wasn’t just an office worker.”

Cindy looked away embarrassed. “I thought, you know, he kind of dabbled in tough guy stuff. Maybe a little gambling, not real stuff.”

“I get it, the ‘bad boy’ thing. I know a lot of women like that. The cartel moves hard stuff. Mostly cocaine.”

“Ramon’s a drug smuggler?”

“No, Ramon’s an enforcer. He collects payments, gets rid of rivals, that sort of thing.”

“Gets ‘rid of?’ He’s a hit man?”

“Close enough.”

“I’m married to a hit man who tried to kill me.” She sat quietly for a second. “I should probably get a divorce.”

“Once we round him up and send him to trial, that won’t be a problem. We have him cold for Amy’s murder. I actually saw him pull the trigger. Besides, your marriage isn’t legal – he’s still technically married to a woman in Rio.”

Cindy closed her eyes. “Well, that’s ... something.” Her eyes shot open. “Wait, what do you mean ‘round him up?’”

“Um, yes. We think he’s out of Atlanta already. We can’t find his creepy friend, Levi, either.”

Cindy shivered.

“He’s not a very good hitman, using a little gun like that.”

“It was a .22 magnum revolver. Only real pros use the .22s and they use the revolvers so they don’t leave evidence laying around; normally he’d have finished you off, but I interrupted that.”

“Oh.”

Karen shifted in her seat. “Who was the third man in the room? We only got his back on video when Ramon brought him in the back door.”

“I don’t know, I never got a chance to look at him. But he ordered Ramon to shoot me.”

“So he was in charge.”

“Yes.”

“Can you describe him at all?’

“He was tall and thin. Had an accent. I think. But I never saw his face.”

“Probably Francisco Gutierrez. At least that’s who the analysts think it is. He’s a consular officer at the Venezuelan office in Miami. He’s probably back in Venezuela by now. We know he flew out of Miami-Dade headed to Mexico two days after the shooting.”

Cindy tried to pull herself higher, and immediately regretted it. “So why did Ramon do that to Amy anyway?”

“We’re not sure, but it looks like Amy might have stolen a couple keys of cocaine. Or at least they think she did.”

“She wasn’t that stupid. I mean she did stupid things, but not like that.”

“It doesn’t matter whether she did or not now.”

“So now what?”

Karen’s mouth twisted. “Look, off the record, we screwed up. We missed the grab. You’re not safe; Ramon and Levi are probably going to come after you. The fact that you’re alive is a black mark on their record, it will make everyone doubt them. And that’s bad news in their world. Besides, if Guiterrez thinks you can identify him, he will want you taken care of.”

“So what? You guys are going to just let him find me and kill me?”

“I don’t think you’re important enough for WITSEC. But I worked out a deal. We can get you moved anywhere you want, get you a new social security number and maybe six months’ rent so you can get a new job. Can you do that? Is there anyone back here you wouldn’t cut ties with?”

Cindy stared down at her toes. Nobody would miss her. No family left. Hell, the girls at Gemini would probably breathe a sigh of relief when she left. She’d poached off the tip rail and acted the vulture at the door, catching big spenders before they even sat down. She’d known it pissed them off, and she’d even thought it was kind of funny. But she’d ended up the outsider. She glanced around, there was a distinct lack of the flowers, balloons and stuffed animals that she’d seen in hospital scenes in movies.

“Not really.” She paused. “Has anybody from the club asked after me?”

Karen shook her head. “Teddy asked if I thought you’d be coming back.”

“So he can make the schedule.”

Karen nodded.

“I guess I didn’t make any friends here.”

“Not really.”

“You did, though.”

“Some. We’ll see how it holds up now that the girls know what I am. They’re great girls though, you should have given them a chance. They’d have been here for you if you had.”

Cindy wanted to defend herself, but she knew it was pretty much cold truth. She decided to change the subject. “A new job. The only skills I have are taking off my clothes to music and grinding on guys in the VIP room.”

“You could do better.”

“Name one job I can make this kind of money with a high school degree and no training.”

Karen held a hand up in defeat.

“I need to get off the East Coast – all the girls know each other. You think Vegas is safe?”

Karen looked pensive. “I think it’s a really bad idea. But this cartel is strictly East Coast; if you stay out of the big clubs, you might be alright. I imagine someone looking for a stripper in Vegas would be a needle in a haystack. Still, I’d rather you changed your job though. It’d be safer.”

“Living on minimum wage. I’d be better off dead.”

### The Blue Diamond sign was a dull placard in the bright light of day.

Vegas, she decided, should lock down the streets during the day. The brilliant lights and spectacular images of the night were worse than dead during the day. Exposed as cheap tricks and plastic illusions. All blanketed in suffocating heat.

She walked in with her bag over her shoulder, looking over at the single daytime bouncer, a husky guy with a shaved head.

A lot of them did that, it made intimidating out of control customers a little easier.

“The house mom in?”

He gave a slight smile. “I was wondering when you’d come by. Saw you hanging out and talking to the girls.”

“Just wanted to see what kind of house you guys were running.”

“Clean and above board. No bullshit, but none on your end either.”

That’s what the girls had said. She’d been scoping clubs for two weeks. She’d laid up for a while, living on the money she’d gotten for relocation. Six months was enough time to heal, and she had new angel tattoos to cover the bullet scars. The artist even managed to match the style of her angel wing back tattoos and neck-and-cuff tattoos she already had. She’d looked for an off-main-drag club with a good through-put of customers, reasonable house fees and tip outs, and bouncers who did their jobs.

The Blue Diamond was all that, and the girls all seemed to get along, which certainly would make life easier. The Diamond also used a house mom to manage the ‘talent,’ and the dancers all seemed to respect her. Another plus. She probably wouldn’t have to put up with a skeezy manager looking for “special favors.”

“You’re a pro?”

“Three years. East coast clubs mostly.”

“Some of the rules here are a little different.” He paused. “And we follow them. Like I said, it’s a clean house. No ‘extras.’”

“Never did that anyway. I’m just a dancer, but a damn good one.”

He nodded. “Trish is in the office, you can go on back.”

In the back office, Trish, a tall blonde woman in her late 40s looked her over. “We can use a side stage for the audition.”

“I’ve got three full sets if you need them.”

“You’ve done this before. What’s your name?”

“My name is Cindy, but for the stage, I’m kind of stuck with ‘Angel.’ I’ve got angel wing back tattoos.”

A raised eyebrow. “Not the most original name, but the last ‘Angel’ we had left about four months ago, so you’re in luck. Anything I should know?”

Cindy paused for a second, and decided on a half-truth. “I can’t give any references. My ex-husband might be looking for me and he’s violent, but he won’t be looking for me here.”

Trish’s eyes softened a bit. “Mine was too. You should get him locked up. That finally put mine off.”

“Cops are already looking for him, but they can’t seem to find him.”

“In that case, the only reference I need is the audition.”

### _Francisco Gutierrez was more than a little upset with the stripper’s survival and subsequent disappearance. FBI inquiries after his location, dutifully reported by a Cuban agent within the United States Justice Department’s enormous bureaucracy, were passed on to the Venezuelan government and on to him. His rather rapid departure through Miami-Dade was looking more and more like a wise decision. While his superiors had overlooked his activities on behalf of the cartel, they weren’t interested in another full blown international incident involving drug smuggling.

Ramon’s inability to locate his “wife” had proven quite inconvenient for Gutierrez on both a financial and personal level. He’d really enjoyed the nightlife in Miami and Atlanta; his superiors in both government and cartel had also made it clear that they were less than pleased with his handling of the situation._ ### Las Vegas, Nevada ### The club proved a better choice than Cindy would have ever expected. Trish was easy to work with, and she kept a tight leash on the vultures and poachers that could make things toxic at the club, like Cindy had back at Gemini. This time, though, with Karen’s comments in her mind, she’d decided to be different. No more vulture, no more poaching off the tip rail. She even deliberately pointed customers at other girls on occasion. It worked beautifully. In just a couple months, Cindy had carved out her niche, without pissing off anyone. She’d even managed to find a roommate, a tall thin black girl named Jade who worked at the same club.

Jade peered out from the ready room. “New girl ain’t gonna last long.”

Cindy looked up from the mirror where she’d been fixing her make-up. “What’s wrong?”

“Completely off the beat, scared as shit. Got about as much sex appeal as a trash can. She’ll leave here owing money tonight. Ain’t even getting mercy tips from pervert row.”

Less than a minute later, a wild-eyed blonde figure bolted into the ready room and started stuffing things wildly into her bag.

Cindy sighed and perched herself on the nearest make up bench. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s wrong?”

“I can’t do this, I’ll figure something else out.” She held up her take from the stage show. All seven dollars of it. “I’m no good at this.”

“Amber. You’re obviously a total newbie, customers love that. Milk it for all it’s worth.”

“I can’t ... I’m done.”

“I thought you told Trish you’re about a week from eviction.”

“I am. I’ll just live in my car.”

“It’s 104 in the shade out there.”

Amber’s eyes were glassy with tears. “I tried, I’m just no good at this.”

Cindy glanced over at Jade who raised an eyebrow. “Your audition was fine, it’s just nerves. I’ll show you.”

“It’s too late, I can’t go back out there.”

“You can’t go back out there alone.”

“What?”

“It’s a slow night, I’m bored, and we’re short two girls. So we might as well have some fun and earn some money.”

She looked over at Jade while she quickly wrapped her hair up into a bun on top of her head.

“Can you pull down that ‘hot teacher’ outfit?”

She looked through her own locker and pulled a schoolgirl outfit out, handing it to Amber.

Amber’s eyes grew huge as Jade handed Cindy the outfit, then horn-rimmed glasses and a giant paddle with the words “Board of Education” in huge letters on it.

Catching her look, Cindy grinned. “It’s just hard foam, makes a helluva noise but you’ll barely feel it. We use it for bachelor parties and stuff.”

Amber poked the surface of the paddle dubiously, then relaxed a bit when Cindy’s words turned out to be true. At least it wouldn’t hurt much. “Okay.”

“Jade, tell Mike to completely play up the newbie angle, you know the song. Amber, just walk out with me and do what I tell you to do.”

Jade slipped out then stuck her hand back in to give a thumbs up.

Cindy adjusted the glasses on her nose and begin to spin the paddle by the wrist thong in time to the opening strains of “Hot for Teacher.” She reached over and grabbed Amber’s hand.

“C’mon, Newbie, let’s have some fun.”

Two sets, a half dozen lap dances, and hours later, they finally sat down in the back as Mike closed the club down.

Amber stared at the pile of bills in front of her. “Oh my god. I don’t even know how to thank you.”

“You don’t have to, you earned your half. We can only pull this off for about two months before it starts to lose the impact. We only get that long because it’s Vegas and we have more tourists than regulars.”

Trish walked in, laughing under her breath. “That was brilliant. Wish I could have recorded that. They damn near broke the tip rail trying to squeeze in there”

Jade was grinning from ear to ear. “I get her the next night she works. That whole ‘I need volunteers so I can teach this naughty girl how to do a lap dance’ ... damn. How much did you rake in anyway?”

Cindy gestured smugly at the pile of bills. “A lot.”

### Las Vegas: One Year Later ### Amber strolled in off her stage set. “Slow crowd tonight.”

Cindy shrugged. “Looks like you did okay though.”

“Yeah, group of soldiers came in just before my last set. It’s a ‘heartbreak tour.’ You’ll see them to the left of the main door. The leader of the pack is that half-Cuban chick – she made a point of that – with the black hair in the sleeveless Def Leppard shirt. Got a rose tattoo on her shoulder. She’s throwing money like a fountain. Sings along with every song. She’s got wild written all over her.”

Cindy walked over and looked through the gap in the curtains and began watching the group.

Shasta, a relatively new dancer, looked over at them. “What’s a heartbreak tour?”

Amber, who could barely remember being the “new girl” after almost a year at the club, smiled gently. “It’s usually a military thing. One of their guys gets dumped or divorced, they drag him through strip clubs and pour booze into him, usually end up finding him a hooker. The broken-heart patient is the serious looking woman with the short brown hair. I overheard them talking. Her girlfriend dumped her. They’ll probably buy her a couple of lap dances.”

“Oh.” Shasta looked decidedly uncomfortable.

Amber shook her head at Shasta’s naiveté. “What’s the difference? They’re just buying a dance. Money’s money. Pays the rent. She doesn’t seem like the grabby type.”

Cindy pulled back from the curtain, eying the soldiers with a wicked grin. “Bet you ten bucks, I can get that Cuban girl up on the stage with me.”

Amber snorted, then pulled ten out of her tip box and tossed it on the makeup table. “I know I’m going to lose this, but if you do that, the crowd will amp way up and I’ll make it back anyway. I’ll tell Mike what you’re up to so he can warn the bouncers. And tell Trish.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. “And make sure this one knows she has to keep her clothes on.”

“I remember the last time. Tell Shelly I’m changing the song.”

“What do you want?”

“‘Funky Cold Medina.’”

“Oh Lord.”

By the time Cindy was halfway through her set, she’d won the bet.

As they stepped down off the stage, Cindy grinned at the dark-haired woman, who grinned back with almost manic exhilaration. “What’s your name?’ “Marina.”

Cindy nodded toward the woman with short hair, who looked like the tequila might just be starting to take the edge off her misery. “I’m Angel, in case you missed the introduction. What’s the story?” She had to almost shout to be heard over the noise of the club.

“She’s our squad leader. Best ever. Her puta of a girlfriend just dropped her for a civilian - a guy. So, since she takes care of us every day, it’s our turn to take care of her.”

“What’s her name?”

“Tina. Goes by TJ.”

Cindy waved Amber over. “I think Amber and I can make her feel a little better. The first lap dance is on the house as long as we can do it right out here, and we’re making it a double.”

Marina Pruitt grinned even wider. “That works, but I won’t be a tightwad – we collected money from the whole squad and most of the rest of the Company. Everybody loves her. The Brigade Command Sergeant Major even kicked in a bill. You make her smile, and I’ll make your fuckin’ week.”

### Luck. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less. It was luck that kept Cindy late at the club that night. Which made her run late heading home, which made her take the longer, but better lit route to the nearest RTC bus stop. The odds of running into anyone in particular in a city of over half a million with over 36 million visitors per year were astronomically low.

In Las Vegas though, Luck is a religion; a religion with rites, priests, and believers. Maybe even living Gods. Perhaps, if Cindy had ever really thought about it, the odds of something happening in Vegas are not so low as they would be anywhere else.

So as Cindy rounded the corner, bag over one shoulder and her mind on the extra money in her bag – she and Amber really had managed to get “Tina” to crack a smile – she slammed right into one of the two people, out of the six billion inhabitants of the planet, that she least wanted to ever see again.

It took Levi a fraction of a second to realize who she was, and even then, it took a second to process what he should do. And by that time, a terrified Cindy was already around the corner and bolting for a nearby police car.

The officer saw her face as she headed towards him, and with an experienced nose for trouble, he began scanning the crowd. “Are you okay?”

“There’s a guy...”

“That big Uncle Fester-looking bastard?”

“Yeah, that’s him. He’s wanted for killing my sister in Atlanta.”

He’d already keyed his digital radio and began relaying information. Unfortunately, even as fast as the officer’s reaction was, Levi had faded into the crowd and was gone.

Within a few minutes, Cindy was in the police station facing an investigator. “I need to make a phone call.”

“Who do you need to call?”

Cindy dug a creased piece of paper from her bag. “The FBI.”

### Karen shook her head. “I should have talked you out of the Vegas idea. WITSEC would have made you change jobs completely.”

Cindy grimaced. “So now what?”

“We’ll move you again, but this time you really change. You have your choice of Maine, Missouri, or Idaho. No more stripping.”

“I’d freeze my ass off in Maine or Idaho.”

Karen pulled out a folder. “Missouri, then. We’re working a deal with the Victim Protection Office there, trying to get a new program in place. They’ll let you know what options you have.”

“Somewhere away from big cities. I’ll learn to farm or something.”

“We can get you enough money to get you started.”

### PRESENT DAY: Chillicothe Correctional Center, Mental Health Segregation Unit, Missouri ### Angie’s face twisted in a combination of pain and relief. Relief at finally being allowed to do the one thing in the world she wanted to do with every fiber of her being.

“Push!”

The doctor and nurses had been telling her not to push for what seemed like hours and now; she’d been fighting the incredible building desire. Now, finally...

“Push!”

Tammi gripped Angie’s hand. “You can do this Angie.”

One doctor, two nurses, and three armed guards, who were watching carefully from various points in the room.

It was a bit more complicated than the usual delivery; the guards refused to even consider unlocking the cuffs that linked each of Angie’s wrists to a handrail. Tammi agreed with that. Even she accepted just how dangerous Angie could be, though she was convinced Angie would never endanger her baby. After all, she’d refused to consider any treatments for the tumor growing in her brain. Angie would rather die than risk any harm to her baby.

Still, it wasn’t worth the risk.

Tammi looked at the strain on Angie’s face then across her at TJ, who was holding the other hand. Maybe it was to comfort Angie. Maybe it was to make sure she didn’t get loose. Still, TJ wanted this as much as Tammi and Angie. “You’ve got this, Angie.”

A flash of something lit Angie’s face as she looked over at TJ and caught her one eye – something secretive, but smug and victorious. It was immediately erased by the next contraction.

“Push!” Tammi and Angie urged in a chorus.

It was another hour before a sweat-soaked Angie ecstatically pushed baby Courtney into the world.

Tammi held her up to Angie. “She’s beautiful.”

TJ reached over and ran one fingertip along Courtney’s cheek. She was wordless, unable to make a sound. She caught Angie looking at her, as if she was calculating something.

Then Angie smiled at her.

### _More bad luck.

As with all government agencies, even the FBI suffers the indignity of oversight. There are a variety of types of oversight such as legal oversight and disciplinary oversight. Even oversight of intelligence related activities. But, as with most government agencies, one of the most critical pieces is financial oversight. A number of mechanisms ensure that FBI finances are examined to prevent inefficiencies and fraud. And some of those mechanisms lead to Congress. An overworked intern in a congressman’s office, still working on her degree in Economics, received an email at work from a friend, with a link to a webpage of family pictures embedded in it. The link apparently failed to work, bringing up a webpage that apologized deeply for not existing. The intern closed out the webpage and deleted the email thinking briefly to herself that she needed to contact her friend sometime. A small part of her was glad the link hadn’t worked – she was falling behind and with fast approaching deadlines, she certainly didn’t have time to be paging through pictures of her friend’s new son.

The link had, however, actually worked just fine, and a sallow not-yet teenager in Norway pulled reams of FBI financial data from the intern’s computer. He posted it on a message board used by hackers to show off their latest trophies.

One note, buried in the last field of a string of accounting information referenced a case number and a monetary transfer to the Missouri Witness Protection Office. The odds of it being noticed by anyone were low. The odds of the case number meaning anything to anyone were even lower.

Unfortunately for Cindy, the message board was visited by thousands of entities including governments, and criminal cartels. One of them, well informed in a roundabout way by that dutiful Cuban agent, understood quite well what the information meant.

Cindy’s run of bad luck continued to hold._ ### Chillicothe Correctional Center, Mental Health Segregation Unit, Missouri ### Tammi held another picture up to the visitor room glass. “And in this one, she’s in one of the outfits Swede got her.”

“I can see Jenny had to have a hand in it. Swede couldn’t have put that together. The bow even matches.”

“Yeah, she’s been a huge help. She babysat a lot when she was a teen-ager, so she coaches Swede through diaper changes and bottles when Courtney is over there. TJ was worried he’d diaper the wrong end.” Tammi stopped. Swede and Angie had seen each other for a long time. Weirdly, Angie didn’t seem put off by Swede seeing Jenny, even though she’d tried to kill both of them. Maybe it was because she’d tried to kill both of them.

“They still seeing each other?”

“For now. Swede’s frustrated, he kind of feels like he’s in it all the way, but that Jenny’s kinda treading water a bit. She’s been burned too many times and she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. Maybe she believes in that old family curse.”

Angie shrugged, then examined the next picture Tammi held up. “Is that the Maria you told me about?”

“Marina. Yeah, she was coming through. She stops just for her ‘thirty-four.’ Truckers have to take a thirty-four-hour rest break every seventy hours. She mostly sleeps and does laundry. TJ and I aren’t even sure she thinks anything is real anymore.”

Angie studied her. “She looks...” She stopped, looking for words. “ ... like she’s a million miles away.”

Tammi nodded. “Sometimes, just once in a while, there’s like a real person there, but it only lasts a few minutes at most. She’s like a robot most of the time. She’d sleep in the truck, but we won’t let her. We had Swede help us close up and insulate a section of the back porch and make it into a mini bedroom with no windows just for her. She’s more comfortable that way.”

“Is it safe to have her around Courtney?” Angie’s eyes hardened.

“If she wasn’t, she’d be somewhere else. TJ wouldn’t risk Courtney for anything. Marina doesn’t really react to anything much, but I’ve seen her tuck Courtney’s blankets up like it’s a reflex. Maybe she babysat a lot when she was younger, before everything happened.” Tammi gestured helplessly. “She does react, kind of, to music. She has that pirate radio station in her truck and the last time she came through, she’d stopped somewhere and had a couple used full size concert speakers put in behind the airfoil on top of the cab. A professional had to have done it. It’d be louder than a jet engine if it was turned up. TJ said Marina use to have an experimental sound weapon on her vehicle in Iraq. They used it to break up crowds and riots. Maybe having the speakers is comforting to her somehow.”

“That’s just weird.”

“She also had a huge black ‘bull guard’ put on it. Like a brushguard for a pickup truck but a lot bigger and solid metal. Up north they call them ‘elk guards.’ TJ says they had push bars on the front of their vehicles in Iraq that were similar. They used them to break through barricades. Maybe it makes Marina feel more comfortable, reminds her of the armored vehicle she used to have.”

Angie stared at the picture, studying it for a second them, shrugged. “So how’s TJ doing with Courtney?”

“She’s a machine – Courtney makes the slightest sound and she’s awake and checking on her before I even hear it. When Courtney went through her colicky spell, I thought TJ was just gonna move into that rocker full time.” Tammi held up a picture of TJ and Courtney asleep in a huge wooden rocking chair.

“Wow. All three of you could fit in that chair.”

“We do. Luther McCabe brought it over, I’m pretty sure he made it for us, but he says it was just layin’ around in the back room. He also brought over that beautiful pink crocheted blanket from Mae.” She rolled her eyes. “And three quarts of pear brandy.”

“I could use that brandy.”

“I’m pretty sure the guards wouldn’t let me bring any of that in.”

“Yeah. They’re no fun at all. You guys are doing good?”

Tammi held up another picture. “Work’s always crazy busy. But with Swede and Jenny watchin’ Courtney, too, TJ and I still get plenty of time together.”

“Still catching up on those promises you made at Bert’s?” Angie smirked.

Tammi’s eyes narrowed. “You’d think people’d get tired of bringing that up.”

“One of the guards showed me the video on his smart phone and asked if that was you.”

“That explains those looks I’ve been getting.”

“You get those looks all the time. It’s just that much hotter when they know you’re with her. It’s the whole kinky forbidden fruit thing.”

Tammi sighed. “It’s just us being us.”

Angie shifted, a bit more serious. “You having any trouble with people over that?”

“Not really. There’s one Board member who’s not happy about it, what with TJ going to the Board meetings now. She’s made comments to people on the side about our ‘unnatural relationship,’ but they ignore her.”

“Who is it?”

Tammi tried to keep a straight face, but failed, breaking out in a big goofy grin. “Our old middle school principal. Miss Charlotte.”

“Oh my God. She’s still got her mad on about that skunk we smuggled into the school assembly doesn’t she?”

Tammi couldn’t help it, breaking out in a fit of laughter, quickly joined by Angie. “She’s also pissed at the Sheriff for other reasons. You know that huge sugar maple in front of her house?”

“Somebody teepee’d it? She never did have a sense of humor.”

“Nope. Somebody stole it when she was on vacation in Branson.”

“Stole it? How do you steal a tree?”

“Swear to God. She was gone to Branson for a week and came back and somebody had cut that tree down to the ground, took every leaf, twig and stick. Neighbors heard chainsaws, but she’s always having something done over there, so they never even thought to check it out. She’s been pestering the hell out of Shannon over it. But what’s he supposed to do? Search every cord of firewood in a three-state area for incriminating sap?”

“Bug-eyed old bitch. Serves her right.” Her voice carried humor, but there was an undertone of something else. Hunger maybe.

Tammi eyed her cautiously. “You can’t do that Angie.”

“Do what?”

“I can hear it in your voice. You can’t just kill everybody that annoys you.” She thought back to something TJ’d said to her. “Cuts you off in traffic or insults you or whatever. I know it’s that thing in your head, but you can’t let it do that. You can’t just kill people.”

“You tried to kill me.”

“I tried to stop you. I was defending TJ. You made me do it.”

Angie looked at her curiously, then shrugged. “So that’s allowed?”

“What?”

“Defending someone.”

“Of course it is.” Tammi eyed her suspiciously.

“Okay. Remember when we were kids and we wanted to form our own league of girl superheroes?” Angie grinned and held one hand up as far as the chain would allow. “I, Cannibal Girl, solemnly swear, as a member of the Distinguished Order of Superchicks, to only kill bad guys in defense of the innocent.”

“I’m serious Angie.”

Angie tried to keep a straight face, only succeeding halfway. “I am serious, Tammi. I’ll keep that promise. I won’t even try to sneak out and go after Charlotte. She’d probably be all dried up and bitter anyway.” She stuck her tongue out and crossed her eyes. “Yuck.”

Tammi sat still, her tropical blue eyes boring into the floor. “I love you Angie, I just don’t know how to fix this.”

“Isn’t yours to fix. You can’t go around saving everybody, and it isn’t your fault when they fall. Besides, I’m going to try to fix it.”

“How?”

“They said the tumor was inoperable, but there’s a doctor from Saint Louis who wants to try an experimental procedure to remove it. They won’t take me to Saint Louis for it, but they agreed to let him do it in Jefferson City. One of hospitals is supposed to have a new secure wing for treating people like me.”

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