Notes: In Greek and Roman mythology, Tisiphone was one of The Furies. They were three powerful divinities that personified conscience, and punished crimes. Tisiphone's name means 'blood avenger'. //written// On the email address. In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Mikado, there is a famous quote. "My object all sublime I shall achieve in time-To let the punishment fit the crime..." and it is attributed to the humane Mikado.

It's a Gift
by Fannie Feazell

The woman sat in the darkened room, smoking. She'd quit smoking seven years ago, but she'd taken it up again recently. She had to have something to do with her hands--something to keep her from picking up a razor blade, or gun. It was late afternoon outside. She'd been careless when she pulled the curtains--she was often careless these days--and a single shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom. She drew in another lungful of smoke, then exhaled slowly, watching the wisps make phantasmagoric patterns in the light before dispersing.

There were five items on the table at her elbow--cigarettes, a lighter, a heaped ashtray, a telephone, and a slip of paper. Cigarette held between her first two fingers, she reached out and prodded the slip of paper with her fingertip. It was very innocent looking; almost identical to thousands of other scraps littering pockets, purses, and wallets all over America. It had been torn off a plain sheet of typing paper, and the eleven digits were printed on it in black felt tip pen.

She remembered when she had received it. It was almost a month ago--the last day of the trial. She'd stumbled from the courtroom, ignoring the friends who'd tried to comfort her, cursing the reporters and newscasters who wanted to talk to her, who wanted to know how she felt. Dear God, how she FELT! If she hadn't been so close to collapse she probably would be facing assault charges right now. But someone had taken her elbow, bulling their way through the crowd. The vultures had faded back, and she was vaguely aware that they were... nervous. Later she would wonder what it would take to intimidate that horde.

She hadn't even looked up as she was moved down to a waiting taxi. She'd thought back over it all later, and for her life she couldn't remember anything about her champion--hair color, eyes--even sex. She just felt an assuring sense of strength and compassion. As she sat in the backseat, she felt something pressed into her hand, and a voice whispered, "When you're ready, she can help you. She'll take care of him."

She must have given the cabbie a destination, because later she found herself unlocking her own front door, walking into the too quiet house. Clutched in her hand was the slip of paper--rumpled and sweat dampened, the numbers slightly blurred. She almost threw it away, but for some reason she instead placed it on the table, beside the phone, and forgot it.

She'd spent the next two days in bed, rising only to go to the restroom. She ignored the phone, letting the answering machine pick up. There were messages from reporters, wanting interviews, but there were also increasingly anxious messages from friends. "Joan, how are you holding up?" "Joan, give me a call." "Joan, where are you? Pick up! You're worrying us." "Joan, for God's sake! You can't just bury yourself... Oh, Lord. I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."

On the third day a friend came and pounded on the front door, yelling that she was going to call 911 and have them break down the door. She finally got out of bed and staggered to the front door. Her friend hissed in dismay when she saw her. She was fed, bathed, lectured, and cried over. Her friend demanded that she 'see someone'. Joan told her quietly that she was all right, that she just had to work through this somehow. She promised to eat, to bathe, to answer her phone. "But I'm not ready to deal with the world again--not yet. I need..."

"What, hon? What do you need?"

"Justice."

Her friend almost cried. "Joan, the men who hurt Angie are in jail. They'll never get free again--they promised us that. No parole."

"Not all of them."

"You... you're not thinking of doing anything silly, are you?"

"How can I? They're watching him all the time. I'd never get anywhere near him. Look, I appreciate your concern, but... I just need some time. I have to think."

She'd thought. Long and hard. She thought about Angie.

Beautiful Angie--only nineteen, and so full of life. She'd been working at a sports bar--her very first job, and she'd been invited to a party at a lavish house just outside of town. She'd been bubbling with excitement when she'd come home to get ready. Joan had tried to persuade her not to go. "You don't know these people, Angie."

"Oh, Mama! If I don't trust people, I'll never get to know anyone. Besides, there'll be a lot of people there, and I'll leave if it starts to get wild--I promise."

At the trial, she'd found out that Angie had tried to keep her promise. She'd drunk a little, but when she saw that others were doing drugs, she'd asked to be taken home, and had been refused. She'd tried to call for a cab, but one of the men had taken the phone away, laughing as if it were a joke. She'd declared that she would walk home if she had to, and the host had asked her if she knew what happened to hitchhikers. Then he'd grabbed her breast. She'd slapped him... and he became angry.

When she wasn't home the next morning Joan had called the police. She'd been advised not to worry--that Angie had probably just gone home with someone. When Joan had protested that Angie wouldn't do something like that she was informed that the girl was of age, and she couldn't really be considered missing for forty-eight hours--Joan should call back then. Joan went in the next morning to file the report. She was filling out forms when the call came in about a body found in the woods outside of town.

Joan had sat in a small room, staring through a monitor at the still, sheet draped figure. The sheet was lowered, and Joan felt a wash of relief. She started to say, "No, that isn't Angie..." and then she'd seen the earring. It was a tiny silver clam, set with a pearl. She remembered giving them to Angie for her fifteenth birthday. There was only one earring. Where the other should have been there was a ragged tear in the earlobe. She stared at the battered features more closely, not wanting to believe, but she could tell. It was like looking at a picture through a lens that distorted beauty into something ghastly, but it was Angie.

It wasn't hard to find the men responsible. The lost earring was found under the couch in a basement room of the home of a prominent family. The parents had been out of state, and their twenty-three year old son had thrown a party. There were several young men who looked suspicious, but no one wanted to talk. "I didn't hear anything. I didn't see anything," became a litany.

It was complicated. The investigation went on for more than a month. The only concrete proof they had was on the host--Duane Hollis, but they knew that at least two men had been involved. They leaned on Duane. They told him that if they couldn't get the others, they'd settle for him. His lawyer spoke to him. He claimed that he had not participated in the murder--he'd just watched. He'd give them the boys who had actually committed the crime--for a deal.

The two were tried together. Duane testified, giving sickening detail about the death of the young girl. He said that the other boys had done it to curry favor with him, but that he'd never wanted the girl to be killed. Joan had stood up in court and screamed that she was, "Angie! She had a name, you monster!" She was removed from the courtroom by sympathetic, but stern, bailiffs.

The other two were found guilty, and sentenced to life without parole. Duane Hollis received ten years probation, and was required to enter a psychiatric facility for an evaluation period, then complete whatever therapy was recommended.

Joan ground out the cigarette, her eyes still fixed on the scrap of paper. She'd noticed it not long after her visit from her friend. At first she'd been puzzled by it, but then she'd remembered how she'd gotten it. "She can help you," she murmured. What did that mean? Who would this number contact? A grief councilor? A psychic, who would try to contact Angie? A lawyer who would urge her to file a civil suit against Hollis? A publisher who wanted her to write about her grief and loss?

But they'd also said, "She'll take care of him." In Joan's mind, that could mean only one thing.

"People go to jail for that," she said to the empty room. "The guilty live, and the bereaved go to jail." She stared at the paper, thinking a bit more. "But sometimes it works." She thought some more. "Jail wouldn't be so bad."

She reached for the phone. It rang three times. Joan almost hung up, berating herself for her foolishness, but her eyes fell on Angie's graduation picture, proudly framed, sitting on the mantle, and she waited. The phone rang again, then was picked up. A woman's voice said, "Yes?" Joan sat silent. Now that she had actually made contact with someone, she had no idea what to say. This was probably a wrong number, a stranger who would have no idea of why she had called, and Joan would never be able to explain it. Perhaps it was better to cut this short. She started to put the receiver back down, and the voice said, "Don't hang up, please."

Joan hesitated. Her voice was rough as she said, "I'm sorry. I don't even know why I called."

The voice was soft. "Someone has hurt you. They hurt someone you love."

"How... how did you know that?"

"You called me." The tone said that this fact made everything clear.

"I'm..."

"No. Don't tell me, please. I want you to do something for me. It may hurt a little, but I need it."

"What?"

"Say the name of the one you've lost."

Joan closed her eyes in pain, and choked out, "Angie."

In the silence that followed Joan couldn't stop the memories that flooded back--the sweet, the bitter, and the horrific. She wasn't sure how long she sat there, but she finally realized that there had been nothing from the other end of the line for two or three minutes. She was about to ask if she was still there when she heard the quiet susurration of breath on the other end of the line. She waited a moment longer, and there was a deep sigh, and the woman said, "I'll meet with you. Name a place, and I'll name a time."

Joan was blank for a moment. She knew she should have anticipated this. A hit man wouldn't make arrangements over the phone. What was the appropriate setting to contract a murderer? "What sort of place?"

"Public." There was a trace of humor in what she said next. "Not a movie theater, though. People tend to notice and object when you talk during a movie."

"Uh... How about Jackson's Diner?"

"I'm sure it would be fine, but I'll need more information, dear. Address?"

"It's on Fifth Street, near the bowling alley."

Again there was that trace of humor. "Very good, but I was thinking more along the lines of city and state."

"State?" She glanced at the slip again, and realized that the area code was unfamiliar. "I'm sorry. I didn't notice."

"Don't apologize," she said gently. "The details have a way of fading into unimportance sometimes." Joan gave her the full address of the chosen meeting place, and the other woman said, "I can be there... let me think... Either Thursday, or tomorrow."

"Why the difference?"

"It depends on if I fly, or drive. I hate to get down to materialistic concerns, but I have to warn you that the later date would be less expensive for you."

*Here it comes,* Joan thought. *Price.*

"You see, I usually expect to be reimbursed for expenses, though sometimes I waive that. I can't say for sure if I will in your case till after I meet you. The later date is if I drive over--the price will include meals and motel rooms. Don't worry--I favor Best Western" Again there was the hint of humor. "No room service or pay-per-view. The earlier date would be more expensive, since I'd fly both ways."

Joan thought. She didn't want to spend another day like this if she could help it. "Please come tomorrow."

"That's the usual choice. Let's see... I need to allow for travel from the airport, possible delays... I'll meet you at the diner at... seven o'clock. You'll need to bring in cash... Wait a moment. Calculator, calculator..." There were a few clicks, and she quoted a figure. "That may be high by a few dollars," she said apologetically. "I tend to round up, to cover the unexpected.

To Joan it sounded remarkably reasonable for a paid murder. "Should I wire you the money?"

"I never accept payment till after I've met with those who need me."

"But what if they won't pay, even after you make the trip? What if... what if they want to report you to the police."

There was a pause. "None of those I've met with have ever refused to pay what I ask. And as for being reported... You'll understand it better after we meet. It's just not something I worry about. I'll see you tomorrow." Her voice was warm, compassionate. "I know it's hard, but try to get some sleep. You'll need your strength, Joan." There was a click, then a dial tone.

Joan slowly put the receiver back down. She closed her eyes, wondering what she'd gotten herself into. *But at least you're doing something, Joan.* "Joan?" Her eyes snapped open. "I never said my name."

~*~*~*~*~

Joan sat in the corner booth, looking around the brightly lit diner. It was retro... No, you couldn't really call it that, because it had never been purposefully designed with nostalgia in mind. The place had been built in the mid-fifties, had been owned by the same family since opening, and had been meticulously maintained.

She had arrived as six-thirty, and it was just past seven. She'd already gone outside twice to smoke a cigarette, and was considering doing it a third time when the woman entered. She paused near the door, scanning the room, her eyes ticking off each customer. They came to rest thoughtfully on Joan, and Joan gripped her coffee cup tightly, staring back. The woman came over, looked at Joan questioningly, taking off her coat. She dropped it and her purse onto the seat, then slipped into the other side of the booth, saying, "I'm sorry I'm late. It took a few minutes to get a taxi."

The waitress, who had been keeping Joan's coffee refilled, approached with a menu and a glass of water. The woman looked up with a smile, saying, "Any specials?"

The girl indicated a card clipped to the front of the menu. "They're running the chicken breast tenders tonight--broiled or fried."

"That sounds good. I'll have the broiled, with potatoes and gravy, and green peas, and I'll take Ranch dressing on the salad. Oh, and iced tea, too." She smiled at Joan. "That's one thing I enjoy about traveling in the South. They really know how to do good iced tea. Joan, anything for you? My treat."

"No, thank you," Joan replied.

The woman's eyes were kind, but assessing. "Are you sure? When did you last eat?"

"This morning. I'm just not hungry."

"Eat something." Joan looked at her. It hadn't been a suggestion, but a directive. "You're going to need your strength--believe me."

"I'll have the same." The waitress made notes, then bustled off. "You know my name." The woman nodded. "How? Was it the person who gave me your number?"

"Who did give you my number?"

Joan frowned. "I don't know. I've tried to remember."

"Don't bother--you probably didn't know them. People pass along my number when they think it is needed." She cocked her head. "You may do the same some day."

The waitress brought salad, tea, and rolls, and they were quiet till she left, then Joan said, "You know my name. What's yours?"

"What do you think my name is?"

"I have no idea."

"Well, what do I look like to you?"

Joan studied her. She was younger than Joan herself, older than Angie had been--somewhere in her twenties. She wasn't a particularly pretty woman, but Joan couldn't really categorize her as plain, either. Her complexion was fair, features regular, eyes a clear, medium blue. She was medium height, no more than five foot-six, and very slightly plump. Her dark, curly hair was too long to be short, and too short to be long. It looked like it was just growing out from a styling, and she was several weeks over due for a trip to the salon. Her clothing was nothing that you couldn't find at J.C. Penney's.

The only unusual thing was the gloves. It was a little chilly outside, but nowhere near glove weather, in Joan's opinion. But then, these weren't the sorts of gloves you usually saw. They weren't leather or wool, but white cotton. Joan remembered wearing those sort of gloves on Easter when she was a child, buttoning them at the wrist. Now the woman was pulling them off, dropping them on her purse. Then she opened a pack of sweetener and stirred it into her tea. She didn't seem at all annoyed by Joan's perusal. All in all, the word 'ordinary' was what first came to mind. She certainly didn't look like La Femme Nikita. "Nikki?" she ventured.

The woman smiled. "There's a first for that one. I get Jane a lot, or Linda. Sometimes Mary. I was a Charice once. Nikki will do just fine."

"So you're not Nikky?"

"I am for now."

Joan reached for her purse. "I have the money..."

Nikki reached for her hand, but stopped before touching her. "Don't. There's plenty of time for that later. Let's just have our supper. I want you to talk to me." She picked up her fork and speared a piece of lettuce.

"But... I don't understand."

"I know. You're very tense, and you're not really sure if you haven't made a dreadful mistake. You need to relax, and get a sense of me." She ate a cherry tomato. "You may decide you don't even want what I have to offer. Some people don't."

"I don't know what to say."

"Just talk." She pointed with her fork. "And eat. You don't know how many people I see who are slowly killing themselves with neglect. Angie wouldn't want that."

It stung, mostly because Joan knew it was true. She began eating, and talking. Later she'd never be able to recall exactly what she said. She thought that she'd spoken of her job, how supportive her employer had been. She was eating her last bite of peas before she realized that she must have been talking for at least a half hour. They had been discussing a movie, and Joan found herself saying, "Angie just loves that Johnny Depp. I suppose he's a good actor, but he just looks a little fragile to me. Angie says that's because I keep remembering him in Edward Scissorhands, and she..." Joan dropped her fork, suddenly numb. "She's dead."

"Yes," Nikki said softly. "She was taken away from you. There has been some retribution, but no justice. Two of them are behind bars--they'll never breathe free again."

"They should be dead."

"I don't disagree, but the thing is, I can't help you with them. They're beyond my reach, do you understand?" Joan nodded. "But the third one--I think I can do something there. It may take a few days for things to align properly."

"You can stay with me, if you need to."

Nikki smiled. "That's very kind of you. Joan, do you visit Angie's grave?"

"Yes," Joan whispered.

"It's good that you can do that." She was pulling on her gloves again. "I need to go there tonight." Joan gave her a startled look, and Nikki shrugged. "I just need to. It's part of this. You don't need to get out of the car if you don't want to."

She paid the check, then they went out to Joan's car. The cemetery wasn't too far away, but it was full dark when they arrived. The caretaker was preparing to swing the gates closed. Nikki rolled down her window and said, "Couldn't we go in for just a few minutes, please? I'm visiting from out of town, and I won't have time to come here again." Her voice was sad and distressed.

The caretaker peered in at Joan, recognizing her. "Oh, sure, sure. I can take another quick turn around the grounds. Try not to be more'n fifteen minutes, huh?"

"That should be plenty of time, thank you."

They drove into the dark cemetery, winding slowly down narrow lanes to a section near the center. Joan parked the car, and turned her gaze toward a grave that was still a mound of bare earth. "I wish they'd smooth it out. It looks... I don't know."

Nikki patted her shoulder. "It looks bad now, but this will keep it from becoming sunken. Wait here."

Joan watched as she got out and made her way to the grave. Nikki stood before it for a moment, hands clasped, staring at the stone. Joan knew ever inch of it by heart--gleaming white granite. ANGELA RENEE THOMBALL. Underneath it were the dates, then ANGIE. Below that, flanked by carved roses were the words. AN ANGEL IN MORE THAN NAME.

Joan watched curiously as Nikki took off her coat, spreading it on the raw earth. Then she knelt down and tugged off her gloves, dropping them to the ground. Nikki reached out, and pressed her hands flat to the smooth stone. Her eyes drifted shut, and her head fell back. In the dim moonlight, Joan could see her lips move, then be still. She stayed that way for a while, then she began to tremble--a tiny, full body shake. The woman's hands slid, and she bent forward. Soon she was embracing the stone, her cheek pressed against it. Joan saw the glint of tears on her cheeks.

Five minutes. Eight. Twelve. The woman's back was rising and falling, and Joan could hear soft sobs. Then there was the crunching of footsteps. Joan looked in her rearview mirror and saw the caretaker approaching. He passed her without a glance and went directly to Nikki. "Lady, are you all right?"

"Wait... wait..." Nikki's voice was strained, distant.

"Miss, do you need me to get your friend?"

"Almost. Let go now. Go on." Her voice was trailing away. "Rest, sweet spirit. No, I think she'll be all right once this is finished. Good-bye." She opened her eyes, looking up at the caretaker with a tired smile. "I'm okay--just a little sad." He offered her his hand, and she paused to pull on her gloves before accepting the help.

He picked up her coat, brushing it off, and helped her into it, then escorted her back to the car. "Will you ladies be able to get home safely?"

Nikki was wiping at her cheeks. "We'll be fine. Thank you."

They drove away. Once they were back on the street, Joan said, "What were you doing?"

Nikki tipped her head so that her forehead pressed against the cool glass, and turned her eyes up to watch the stars rushing past. "Gathering ammunition."

They had to make a quick run to the airport to pick up Nikki's suitcase. She explained that she always stored it till she was sure she'd be staying. "Not everyone can go through with this. They've fantasized about taking action, but seeing me face-to-face makes it real to them." At home, Joan led Nikki back to a pretty, airily decorated room. Nikki walked in ahead of her and stood, turning in a slow circle, taking it in. Her eyes skimmed over the Johnny Depp poster, the collage of concert and movie ticket stubs, and a framed portrait of a high school girl's volleyball team. Nikki walked over to it, studying it. She reached toward it, finger extended, hovering. Then the fingertip settled on a tall girl with a long, bright blonde ponytail.

"Yes," said Joan. "That's Angie. They never published her photograph. I was spared that." Nikki turned her head to look at her, saying nothing. "I won't ask how you know."

Nikki nodded. "Better if you don't." She smiled faintly. "Some things I'm not sure of myself." She looked around again. "You've kept it as she left it."

Joan's voice was defensive. "I picked up the clothes she left on the bed," she gave a watery chuckle, "and the floor. She was in such a hurry, so excited about..." She trailed off. "I guess I shouldn't. I should pack things away."

Nikki went back to her, gripping her shoulder. "It's still raw," she said kindly. "Give yourself time. No one ever really recovers from something like this, but you can reach a point were the ache fades enough to let you remember all the good things."

"You seem to know a lot about this."

"I've been doing it for a while. I deal with a lot of people in almost exactly your circumstances."

"Will this be all right? It won't bother you?"

"The ones I'm working for don't bother me." The smile faded. "There was only one... The man had been murdered--nastily. But I learned that he'd also killed--more than once--and he enjoyed hurting people. I had to refuse the commission." She shook her head. "The one who'd contacted me wasn't pleased. In fact, at first they threatened to report me to the police. I'm not sure exactly what they would have accused me of. I'd done nothing illegal."

"What happened?"

She spread her arms. "I'm here. They were persuaded to see reason." She smiled. "Somehow, they were afraid of me. I'll be going to bed now. I'll have a full day tomorrow." Before Joan could ask, Nikki said, "Reconnaissance."

"Can I come with you?"

Nikki hesitated, then said quietly, "No, dear, I don't think so. Remember, you're 'the mother'. There are going to be people who will recognize you. I'm not saying that would scuttle the operation, but it wouldn't make it any easier for me. If you want it done right, you'll let me get on with it." Joan was chewing her lip. "Joan, be sensible. If anyone gets suspicious, for any reason, that someone is interested in Hollis, they'll lock him away tighter than the crown jewels." She gave her a crooked smile. "They'll be very concerned about his safety."

"All right," Joan said reluctantly.

"You've endured so much, Joan," said Nikki softly. "A little more patience. Just a little more."

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

Joan was awakened the next morning by the scent of brewing coffee. She pulled on her robe and followed the aroma out to the kitchen. Nikki, fully dressed, looked up from a newspaper, smiling at her. "Coffee?"

"Please." Joan sat down while Nikki poured her a cup of coffee. She took it, and as the other woman sat down, said, "I slept last night." Her tone was a little surprised.

"Good. It should get easier after I'm done. Joan, do you know where this man is being kept?"

She shook her head. "I know it's a private local facility, but they won't say which one." She sneered. "They're afraid I might make a scene."

Nikki hummed thoughtfully, then got the telephone book off the counter. She sat down with it and began flipping pages. "I wonder if they'll have a listing in the public book? Let's try the yellow pages first." She flipped to Mental Health Facilities and began to slowly run her finger down the pages. After a moment her finger stopped on one entry, and she stroked it a few times, frowning in concentration. She pulled a tiny cell phone from her pocket and punched in a number. "Hello? Yes, this is Mrs. Hollis. I wanted to check and see if my son had received the books I sent him. Well, could you check, please? Yes, that would be wonderful, thank you." She glanced at Joan, her expression enigmatic, as she waited.

She suddenly sat a little straighter, eyes flicking away, then narrowing in concentration. Joan heard the faint gabble of someone talking on the other end of the line, but she couldn't decipher what was being said. Nikki remained speechless, and the noise increased in volume and vehemence. Nikki's expression became strained. Finally Nikki folded the phone. She said, "I don't want to make him too upset. If he's agitated, they might restrict him. That wouldn't do at all."

"That was him."

"Yes. He's at the Lonnigan Clinic. I hope that they have an open waiting room--it'll make things so much easier." She went to her room, and returned with a box of stationary. She sat at the table and opened the box, setting out a calligraphy pen, then pulling out a stack of paper, many different colors and styles of paper. She began sorting through them. "Let's see... What will intrigue him?" She passed over one that had a watermark of fluffy kittens. When Joan picked it up and examined it, she said, "That's what I usually use for pedophiles." Joan put it back down quickly. "I don't feel good about it, Joan, but I do what works." Another sheet had dramatic red and black designs. "If they like goth, or hard rock type girls." A plain sheet with a reserved watermark. "If they like business women, or women with power, and control." A floral sheet. "The sweet suburban matron." Sheets torn from a yellow legal pad. "College students. Now, for Angie..." She considered. "She was young, athletic, out going..."

She held up two sheets, looking from one to the other. One had a border of seashells and sand dollars. The other had a bottom design of a horse galloping along a beach. Nikki showed the second one to Joan, giving her a questioning look. Joan covered her mouth for a moment. Nikki waited patiently. When Joan could speak again she said, "Angie went riding every week, since she was eleven. How do you know...?" Nikki was just looking at her, but there was something... old in her eyes. Joan said, "It's perfect. But why do you need it?"

"Because he's going to have a groupie."

Joan's eyes widened, and she gasped. "Oh, God! I've heard of that. Women become fascinated by... by monsters."

Nikki nodded as she unscrewed the cap from her pen. "Bundy, Ramirez, the Menendez brothers... There are many very damaged people out there, Joan. I try not to judge them, because most aren't vicious--just misguided, and sick. But the very fact of their existence is useful." She considered, then put the pen to paper, and began to write. "You'd be surprised at how quick the monsters are to accept the adulation, and trust. Of course," she said delicately, lifting her eyes to Joan, "most of them see such correspondence as something that may lead... to something else."

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

Joan was happy to loan Nikki her car--she had nowhere she wanted to go these days. Nikki drove to the address of the Lonnigan clinic. It was a good-sized building, near, but not in, a medical complex. She parked in the visitors lot, near the entrance. Shutting off the car, she opened a newspaper and simply sat. She stared at the paper, but an alert observer might have noticed that she never turned a page, and her eyes were slightly unfocused. Whenever someone approached the entrance, she sat just a little straighter, her expression becoming more intent.

Finally she folded the paper, put it away, and entered the building. The lobby was well appointed--no molded plastic chairs or metal racks of out of date magazines here. The carpeting was lush, the lighting subdued, and the furnishing more suited to an upscale lawyer's office than a mental health facility. Instead of a counter, there was a nice oak desk, with an efficient looking, but chicly dressed receptionist working at a computer.

Nikki's demeanor had changed as she entered the room. Instead of the placid, assured aura she'd exuded before, she seemed nervous and self-conscious. The receptionist watched her as she hesitantly approached the desk. "Can I help you?"

"I... I want... Is this where Duane Hollis is staying?" The young woman's voice was deferential, but eager.

"We can't give out information about our clients," said the receptionist firmly.

"Oh. I mean I know this is where Duane is. I just... I'd like to see him--if I could."

"I see. I haven't seen you before."

"No."

The receptionist tapped on the keyboard. "Are you a family member?"

"No, not really. I'm..." she paused, "a friend."

The receptionist studied the screen. "Your name?"

"It's Nikki Tisiphone."

She checked the monitor. "You're name isn't on the visitor list. I'm afraid you can't see him unless you have permission. You'll have to speak to his doctor, and I have to warn you that he's very careful about who he allows to visit with his patients. He believes that the first couple of months of treatment are crucial, and the client should not be agitated."

Nikki let her shoulders slump. "Oh. I guess I'll have to talk to him, then. Is he here?"

"No, I'm afraid not."

"Well... can I leave something for Duane?"

"Miss, surely you realize that we can't just pass along..."

"It's just a letter." She pulled it out of her purse and showed it to the receptionist. "I just wrote him a letter to tell him how sad I was for his troubles." Her eyes were soulful. "I want him to know that there's someone out here who understands that he really didn't want that girl to get hurt." Her voice was speeding up, rising a little. "I bet he really tried to stop those other guys, and he feels really, really bad about what happened. I bet he cries every night because he couldn't save her. I saw his picture in the paper, and... and... he looks so sweet and sensitive, that he couldn't..."

The receptionist held out her hand. "I suppose that a supportive letter wouldn't be a problem. In fact, it might help him. I can pass it along to his nurse, and I expect she'll let him have it."

Nikki's face lit up with a huge smile. "Oh, thank you! Bless you! You're doing God's work, giving him this!"

"Ye-es." The receptionist took the letter. She watched as the young woman bobbed her head, smiling with the bright, vague expression of someone who lived more in their own world than the one that surrounded them. She left, and the woman examined the envelope she'd been handed. It was addressed to Duane Hollis, the script loopy, flowery--with a tiny heart dotting the I. She shook her head, then got a manila envelope out of the desk and slipped the letter in with the rest of the mail that had come that morning. Someone would be out shortly to collect and distribute it. She'd worked in a larger, public psyche unit before, and there they had always opened and examined all mail before passing it on. She'd learned that things were done differently when the patients had enough money to pay the fees.

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

Duane Hollis was watching television, fuming a little. All they had was basic cable, and the television in his room was a portable. It was ridiculous. He'd asked his doctor to let them bring his own television from home (he knew they wouldn't allow the big screen, but surely the next smallest one would be all right), but the old fart had told him that the other patients might become jealous. He snorted. As if he gave a crap.

There was a tap at his door. This was one thing different form the public institutes--there were no locks on the inside of the doors, but the staff didn't just walk right on in. "C'mon in."

"One of the nurse's aide's opened the door. "Mail, Mister Hollis."

That got Duane to sit up. He swung his legs over the bed, putting aside the remote, and held out his hand for the letter. As he took it, he said, "What are you waiting for--a tip?" The aide, left without comment. Duane wasn't the worst patient they'd ever had, but he wasn't a staff favorite. They all knew why he was there, and more than one of them had muttered about wanting to do something to his food.

Duane examined the envelope. There was no return address--no address, really--just his name. He noticed a faint, sweet scent, and held it up to his nose, then smiled. Roses. Whoever it was had perfumed the paper. He smirked when he saw the little heart-dotted I. Duane ripped it open, removed a letter, and began to read.

//Dear Duane,

I hope you don't mind that I used your Christian name. We've never met, but you see, I feel as if I already know you.

I have read about you in the newspaper, and seen you on television, though that was when you were being taken to and from the courthouse when you were a witness against those two who killed that girl. I have only seen you as a captive, wearing handcuffs, and it was so sad seeing you chained like that, treated like an animal. It broke my heart.

It was so brave of you to get up and testify. I'm so glad that the district attorney was smart enough to see that you don't belong in jail, but I still think he shouldn't have made you stay in this hospital. You didn't hurt that girl! It was the other guys. I bet you even tried to stop them. I bet they would have killed you, too, if you had fought with them. It's sad that the girl died, but you couldn't be expected to get yourself killed too for nothing.

I can tell by looking at you that you are a gentle person. You must not blame yourself for not being able to save the girl. You look really intelligent. I bet that's one reason why you weren't killed. Only a very smart person could escape from something like that.

It's just terrible; them making you stay locked up. You should be free. It's very hard for someone as smart and good as you to be locked up. Don't they ever let you go out, even for a little while? You didn't hurt anyone; they even said that in court. They would have put you in prison with those other men if you were violent, or were a danger to anyone.

I hope they let you go out on, like, passes. I've heard that sometimes places like the one you're in do, sometimes letting you go home to spend the night with your family, or just walk around, or see a movie. Do you think they'll let you do that?

Please don't think I'm being pushy, but if you get to go out, maybe you would like to meet and have coffee, or see a movie, or something. I know you must not have much money in the hospital, so it would be my treat. Please don't think I'm a stalker or something. It's just that I think we would get along good. I think I could understand you. If you would like to contact me, my email address is thehumanemikado@yahoo.com. If you don't want to, I'll understand, but I hope you do. I'd like to be your friend.

Yours with affection,

Nikki Tisiphone//

Duane sat back and chuckled. "I don't believe it. I have a groupie." He reread the letter. *A stupid groupie, but a groupie nonetheless.* Duane examined the signature. *Greek girl, huh? I don't think I've ever been with a Greek girl. Aren't they usually pretty sheltered? I bet her family doesn't know she's writing to me. It might be a kick to meet her.* He frowned. *But what if she's fat, or ugly? I don't want to waste my time on some cow. The doc said I could have a pass this week, but only for a couple of hours, and I don't want to waste it.*

His finger traced over the email address. *Well, I can always ask her to send me a picture. If she isn't worth the time, I can just ignore her.* He considered it. *Yeah, I'll write back to her. After all, it's going to be a while before I get out of here, and nookie is going to be scarce.* He gave a dirty snicker. *If I work this right, she might be good for a steady piece of tail till I get back in the real world.*

He got up and went out into the common area, headed for the common computer. They had one of those stupid filters on it--the kind that made it hard to get porn sites, or pages with 'objectionable material'--but it did have an Internet hookup.

He set up his own Yahoo account, the began.

//Dear Nikki,

Of course I don't mind if you call me by my first name, as long as you don't mind if I call you Nikki. :) After reading your sweet letter, I feel that I know you, too...//

He muttered, "That's right, you stupid bitch. I know your kind, and you can't be any different from any of the others I've ever had..."

Joan didn't question Nikki when she returned that afternoon. She was grateful when the woman volunteered information. "They took him the letter. They almost always do, and it makes things so much easier. There was once when they insisted on seeing every scrap that went through to one of them--a woman that time. Of course, she got a lot of hate mail. That will happen when they murder their own children. That was a difficult case."

"But you succeeded."

"I always succeed, once I accept a commission. Sometimes it isn't easy, though. I almost despaired of her, but I had some unexpected help from someone on the inside. They fed her something--I don't know what--but they couldn't treat her in the infirmary. She was sent to a public hospital." She smiled gently. "You'd be amazed at how little attention people pay to someone in a candy striper uniform."

They spent a quiet afternoon. As dusk fell, Nikki went into her room and returned with a laptop computer. She unplugged the phone, and plugged her computer into the wall jack. "I'm afraid you're going to have some long-distance charges on your bill, but we can deduct it from the fee."

"Don't worry about that, Nikki. I'd sell my kidney to kill that bastard."

Nikki gave her an enigmatic look, and sat back from the laptop. "You don't understand, Joan. It's my fault. My situation requires a certain amount of secrecy, and I don't explain any more than I have to. Sometimes I err too much on the side of caution. I'm not going to kill him--I'm going to punish him."

Joan felt her heart drop. "But the court has already..."

"You don't believe that, or you wouldn't have contacted me. I'm not a murderer, Joan."

Joan's jaw firmed. "I don't believe it would be murder."

"I'm not an executioner, either."

Joan's voice rang with frustration, "Then what good are you to me?"

"I won't kill him, but I promise you, Joan," she laid a hand over the older woman's hand. The cotton glove felt soft and cool. "he will wish he was dead." She patted Joan's hand. "And dear? They usually commit suicide, if they can. If they can't..." Her smile was a little chilly, "they end in a state that I'm pretty sure will satisfy you. Now," she powered up the computer. "Let's see if the eel took the bait."

Her finger skimmed over the touch sensitive pad, tapping. "Here we are." She snorted. "Sensitivesoul." She cocked a head at Joan, who looked as if she had smelled something foul. "No, this is a good thing. He's buying into it." She opened the email and read. "Oh, yes, he's buying into it."

She read aloud. "//Dear Nikki. If you're going to call me by my first name, I claim that privilege with you, too.//" She showed her teeth in a small smile. "Oh, how cute. He's put in a smiley face. //I can't tell you how much your sweet letter has meant to me. My parents believe in me, but the rest of the world has turned its back on me. Even my doctors, who are supposed to help me, don't seem to believe that I'm completely free of responsibility for what happened to that poor girl.//"

Nikki glanced up at Joan. "You'll notice that Angie is 'that poor girl'. She simply isn't significant to him. As far as Duane is concerned, he's the only real person in the world. Everyone else is a hindrance, an obstacle, or something to be used. I played to that in my own letter. I didn't refer to anyone else by name. I doubt if he'd realize it, even if it was pointed out to him, but that's going to interest him greatly."

She looked at the monitor again. "//The days here are long and boring. They call this a 'therapy center', but it's like being in a prison.//" She snorted. "Not nearly like enough. //I'm surrounded by neurotics, and worse. I have no one to talk to, except during the sessions with my therapist, and then I can't talk about anything interesting. It wouldn't be so bad if I could discuss movies, or music, or perhaps even philosophy, but all he wants to talk about is my childhood, and how I feel about women. I love women. You are the kindest, gentlest creatures God ever created.//"

"Oh, God," sighed Joan.

"Oh, yes," agreed Nikki. "It is nauseating. The sad thing is that there are deluded souls out there who would believe that drivel. A would could watch as a girl was raped and killed, and then wax sentimental about the wonders of womanhood is too much to stomach. But it's another good sign. He's making an effort to charm Nikki. Very promising."

"//You say you have seen me in the papers and on television, but I can only imagine what you look like. Is there any way that you could send me a photograph? I'm sure that your outside must be just as beautiful as your inside.//" Nikki stood up abruptly, pacing back and forth. "I'm sorry. I've been dealing with these people for a long time, but they still astonish me with their duplicity, and their willingness to believe in the stupidity of everyone else in the world but themselves."

She sat back down, glancing at the email. "Oh, but he doesn't want to expend too much effort till he's sure it will be worth it. That's pretty much the end of the letter..." Her eyes widened, and she laughed. "Except that he said that he's looking forward to talking with me about anime, because he can tell from my email name how much I must like Japanese animation."

They exchanged looks, and suddenly Joan found herself laughing. For a brief moment the darkness lifted, and the pain faded as she laughed with Nikki at the man's blatant ignorance. After a moment Joan said, "I don't have a scanner."

She waved. "It's no problem. I have a tiny website. It has a fake home page, with a photograph." She smiled at Joan's apprehensive look. "It's an anonymous one, and it will be taken down as soon as this is over. I'll just direct him there, with many a pretty cyber-blush. I just have to go in and change the name and a couple of bits of fake information. It should prove very attractive to our Mister Hollis."

Joan watched as Nikki accessed a site on Yahoo, or Angelfire--one of the free ones, one that could be easily set up with false information. She brought a file into the editor and typed rapidly, and saved. She paused, then said, "Would you like to see what I'll be using to capture his interest?" Joan nodded, and she clicked on PREVIEW.

It was a very simple page. There was a photograph centered at the top. It was Nikki. She looked a little younger than she did now. She also looked clean, open, and innocent. Her shy smile said she was hoping to find the best in everyone. Below that was a simple profile, giving very vague information about school, family, friends, pets, interests. It was no different from a thousand other personal pages on the web, but there was no information that anyone could link or trace--no addresses, locations, or names--aside from Nikki Tisiphone.

"Well, I see no reason why I shouldn't answer right away. I'm sure that eagerness is an attraction for him." Nikki opened her email program and began.

//Dear Duane. I can hardly believe that you answered me! I'm so excited that I wouldn't be surprised if this mail is full of typos. Since I've already seen you, of course it's only fair that you see me. I have a home page at

~*~*~*~*~*~

Duane checked his email again just before going to bed. There were a half dozen porn spam emails, but he couldn't visit those because they had a damn decency filter on the program. Just another way they had of making his life more difficult. What he did find in his inbox might prove to be just as good--if he were lucky.

It was another letter from that Greek groupie. *Oo, she's an eager little thing. That's good. I should be eligible for a day pass real soon, and it would be nice to have something waiting on the outside. None of the girls I know are going to want to see me for a long time, and it could get messy if one of them recognized me half-way through the encounter. They might get all reluctant, or mouthy, and I'm not sure how far I can trust my temper. If I hadn't gotten so pissed, that bitch might still be alive. Of course, if she hadn't been so stupid, too, she'd still be alive. I could go to a pro, but where's the fun in that? Nah, one who knows the situation, but it already interested is best.*

She'd sent a link, and he quickly clicked on it, almost holding his breath in suspense. When the page loaded, he cocked his head, studying the picture that gradually appeared. Finally he nodded. *Not bad. Not what I'm used to, but not bad. She'll do. I'll start pushing the doctor for a pass tomorrow, but I'd better set the hook tonight, and get things set up.*

//Dear Nikki, and you are a dear girl...//

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

They settled into a routine for the next week. In the morning, Nikki would answer the email that Duane had sent her the night before. She helped Joan with household chores, then went out, borrowing the car. She'd return in the afternoon or early evening, answer another email, and then spend the evening chatting or watching television with Joan.

Joan's friends had advised her to get therapy. She'd never been able to reconcile herself to offering up her deepest pain to a total stranger, but that was exactly what she found herself doing with Nikki. There was such quiet compassion and empathy in the young woman's eyes. Joan had noticed that talking about Angie made most people uncomfortable. She had no doubt that her daughter was loved and missed by others, but they apparently dealt with the loss by trying to push it away. Discussing Angie, even in the most loving way, just made things fresher for them. But it helped Joan, and Nikki was the perfect listener.

One day, mid-week, Joan hesitantly asked Nikki where she went, and what she did. "I've spent a lot of time near the therapy center--gathering information." Joan didn't ask how--she had a feeling that there wasn't any digging going on in files, no employees pumped for information--not in any conventional manner. "I'm also scouting locations." She cocked her head. "I've done this before in public places, but it's risky. It's better if I have somewhere that's at least a little bit sheltered, or a place where a... commotion... won't be too out of place." She hesitated, then said, "Joan... would it hurt you if I chose the sports bar that Angie worked at? I've checked it, and there's a private room. The place gets rowdy on game nights, and if that room isn't in use then it would be just about perfect--private, but the noise outside would cover a lot."

Joan thought about it. Since Angie had died, she hadn't been able to drive past the bar without flinching. Angie had met her murderers there. Joan said slowly, "No, I wouldn't mind. In fact, I like the idea." She nodded. "Yes. It started there, let it finish there."

Nikki reached over and took her hand. Her eyes were sad and kind. "Joan, this won't end it unless you're ready for it to be ended--but it will help. I do know of one thing that might bring a sort of closure."

"Tell me."

Nikki shook her head. "If the time comes, you'll know it. It's something that only you can do. I can't do it for you."

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

//Dearest Nikki. It's happened! I'm going to be granted a few brief moments of freedom. My doctor says that I've progressed enough to be given a three-hour pass. We've talked about this before, but now I find that I'm as nervous as a teenager asking for a first date. Nikki, will you meet me? This contact has been precious to me, but it would mean so much to me if I could meet you face-to-face.//

*And maybe body-to-body,* Duane thought smugly.

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

Joan read the email, tears standing in her eyes. "He killed my daughter as surely as those others," she whispered, "and they're going to let him walk the streets. No handcuffs, no shackles, no watching police officers. Nothing." She looked up at Nikki, her expression disbelieving. "He could just leave. There's nothing to stop him."

Nikki's voice was sad. "Why should he? He knows that it won't be all that long before he's released. In the mean time, he has a comfortable place to stay, decent food, cable television, and a pen pal he can manipulate. He believes that he'll be getting sex, too. Why should he risk that by running away? No, Joan. He'll have his little rendezvous, then go back to his sterile nest and gloat... and plan for his next bit of freedom." Joan dropped her head, and Nikki patted her shoulder consolingly. "But if I can maneuver him into the proper place you won't have to worry about him escaping either through running away, or being released."

"How can you be sure?"

Nikki sighed. "Nothing in this world is really sure, not even whether or not the sun will rise tomorrow. All I can do is give you my track record. I've done this many times, close to two hundred." She squeezed Joan. "I've never had anyone who contacted me express dissatisfaction. I haven't failed yet--I don't expect to now."

She turned back to the computer and started typing. //Dear Duane. My heart is beating so fast that I now know what they mean by palpitations. Yes! Yes, of course I want to see you as soon as possible. You say that you can get out this Friday? That would be perfect. All I ask is that you let me choose the meeting place.//

//Please understand. It isn't that I don't trust you, and I want to be alone with you, but a woman has to be cautious these days. I want our first meeting to be private, away from prying eyes, but I'd just feel easier if there were others nearby. I have a suggestion. There's a sports bar here in town that has a private room that can be rented for a very reasonable fee. Let me rent it, and meet me there. We'll have a room to ourselves for the time you're out. The other customers won't bother us, and we can order drinks.//

She glanced at Joan. "They'll have told him to avoid alcohol, of course. This should be even more of an incentive."

//Please, please, dear, write me soon, and end my suspense. I'll be biting my nails till I know for sure this meets with your approval.//

"And here I meekly offer myself in submission."

"You really think he'll agree?"

"I could be wrong," she hit send, "but I think I just put a ring through his nose."

He must have been waiting, checking his emails regularly. She got a response in less than an hour. Joan waited anxiously while the other woman read the message. Then Nikki smiled at her. "I have a date for tomorrow. I guess I'd better pack."

Joan looked alarmed. "Why?"

"I can't stay here after it's accomplished. I'll need to leave immediately. I'll go straight from the bar to the airport. I'll need one more thing from you, Joan."

"Anything."

"It's simple. I just need to borrow your car to get to the airport."

"I'll drive..."

Nikki shook her head. "No. I understand that you want to see what happens, but it isn't possible. We mustn't risk being seen together. I'll leave your car parked at the airport, and you can pick it up there." Joan nodded reluctantly. "I'm not trying to deny you, Joan," she said quietly. "Can you do one more thing for me?"

"What?"

"Just pray for me."

"I thought you said you never failed."

"I haven't yet. But the first time I do, I'll know that it isn't God's will--and I'll stop. I'm selfish, Joan." Her expression was sober. "I want to go on."

Joan watched as Nikki placed the last garment in her bag. She glanced around the room, rubbing her hands together idly, her eyes ticking over all the flat surfaces. Then she nodded her head, and walked into the attached bathroom, coming back with a hairbrush and toothbrush case, which she tucked into the bag. Joan said, "You certainly came prepared."

As Nikki closed the bag and latched it, she said, "I try to bring everything but food..." she smiled, "and toilet tissue. The first is digested, and the second is flushed, so I don't have to worry about it being left behind."

"But why?"

Nikki's gloves had been lying on the bed, and now she picked them up and pulled them on. "Dear, if your sad dealings with the law have taught you anything, it should be that their labs can do fantastic things."

"Oh, I see--no DNA." Nikki nodded. "But why would you worry about that? You say that you're not going to do anything they can prosecute you for, and even if you did--I'd never report you."

Nikki picked up her case with one hand and went to the bedroom door. She patted Joan on the shoulder. "I know you wouldn't, but there's always the chance that someone from the outside might develop a suspicion. While the police usually don't show a great deal of imagination, sometimes you get one who's willing to look at something outside the usual run of things." She shrugged. "And it's never bad to err on the side of caution." She smiled. "That's why I put my sheets in the wash and made the bed fresh before you got up. No curly hairs left behind to muddle the waters."

They went to the front door, and Joan handed over her keys. "I'll leave it at the airport, east parking lot. You should pick it up as soon as possible--no later than tomorrow evening. And you'll probably be contacted after... this happens--the papers, or maybe the police. Just remember that you don't know anything."

"I'll try to act surprised."

Nikki smiled. "I don't think that will be a problem. But don't try to act like you're upset by what happens to Duane, or very sympathetic about him--that would be unnatural." She cocked her head, smiling faintly. "Silly."

"What?"

"Oh, it's just that there isn't really anything about this that's natural." She gave Joan a sober look. "Joan, you may be tempted to call me again, once you see what happens. Don't. You may feel grateful. You may feel that you want to know me, have a relationship with me..." Joan started to say something, but Nikki talked over her. "I'm not being vain. This is simple psychology. What I do is along the lines of grief therapy, and it's natural to want to hang on to a therapist, but this is all I'm going to be able to do for you, and if you try to keep in contact with me, it could endanger my work. You wouldn't want to deny other survivors what you've sought?"

Joan shook her head. "No, I couldn't do that."

"Just remember me, Joan. Remember what I'm going to do for you. Remember--if you ever see someone hurting the same way, for the same reason. Good-bye, dear. God bless you, and send you peace."

She turned and went to the car. Joan watched her drive away, then went to the phone and called a cab.

~*~*~*~*~*

Duane had put a lot of effort into convincing his doctor into letting him have a pass this early in his confinement. Given that all he'd managed was a few hours, he hated to think about what it was going to take to get an overnight pass later. Of course, whether or not he spent that future night with this Nikki girl depended on how this date went. If she wasn't worth the time, he'd have to work on lining up someone else. Of course he wouldn't mention that now--he'd need to keep her on a string, as a fallback. Even if she wasn't a hottie, she was still female.

He found it amusingly ironic that the silly bitch had picked the very place he'd picked up that slut who'd landed him in his current predicament. He knew the place well. Of course, he could just string her along with a few kisses and some cuddling for the first couple of dates--but Duane had never been much for self-denial or deferred pleasure. He wanted what he wanted--when he wanted it.

At this place, no one was going to pay much attention, unless a woman screamed her head off--and there were ways of preventing that. All it took was a quick call to one of his previous suppliers, and he had a few Rohypnol tabs. He crushed a couple, storing them in a twist of paper. He could slip those into her drinks, and in a minute or two she'd be pretty much incapacitated. Everyone at the bar would just think she was drunk. As gullible as this one was, it shouldn't be hard to convince her of that, too. He had a condom, so there'd be none of that nasty forensic evidence. He really didn't see anything that could go wrong--as long as she actually showed up. He paused and checked himself in the mirror over the bar, then smiled. Why shouldn't she show up? He was irresistible.

He caught the bartender's attention, and said, "Someone's expecting me--Miss Tisiphone."

He nodded. "You the first guest?"

"First?"

"Yeah. Usually we rent the back room out to parties."

He grinned smugly. "Hey, I am the party!"

The bartender returned the smile. "Oh, it's that way, is it."

Duane winked. "Has she ordered anything to drink?"

"Just a coke."

"Well, that won't do. Fix us a pitcher of margueritas, double strength." The bartender started mixing. "Oh, and if she gets a little drunk, don't mind her. It happens occasionally."

"Really? I sort of got the impression that this was going to be your first meeting."

*Shit.* He covered quickly. "We met on the 'net, and she's told me a lot about herself. Seems like a nice enough girl, just has a little drinking problem," he thought of a clever improvisation, "and she's got a little emotional trouble, but she said she's been making a lot of progress."

The bartender was putting the pitcher and glasses on a tray, and he hesitated. "Are you sure she should be drinking, then?"

"I wouldn't do anything that might hurt her," Duane said indignantly.

"Okay, but remember I asked. We won't be held responsible for any trouble." He started to pick up the tray.

"No need," said Duane. "I'll take care of it. It's in the left corner, right?"

"The door is just around that little jog."

"How do we let you know if we need anything?"

"There's a call button, and you'll have to use it, because we don't check unless the button is pushed. When we say private, we mean private."

"Will do." Duane wove his way through the tables, narrowly missing running into patrons once or twice. But once he stepped into the short hall that led to the private room, he stopped. Putting the tray on the floor, he took out the paper, and emptied the powdered Rohypnol into one of the glasses, then filled them both from the pitcher. He very carefully made sure that the drugged drink was sitting with its rim touching the pitcher, then he once again took up the tray and went to the door, knocked gently, and opened it.

There were a couple of booths, and a dozen small tables in the room--all save one empty. The girl he'd seen on the web page was sitting at one near the back, and she glanced up with eager nervousness as he entered. He smiled. She'd do, all right. "Nikki?"

Her smile was almost blinding. "You know me! Yes, Duane--I'm Nikki."

He went to the table and set down the tray, studying her all the while. He could see the apprehension behind her happiness. She wanted so much to please him. Perfect. He took one of her hands, wanting to laugh at the ladylike affectation of gloves, then bent down for a kiss. She tipped her head quickly, so that his lips brushed her forehead, and he thought, *Okay, maybe not quite as eager as she should be. The Rohypnol should take care of that.*

Nikki's eyes widened, and she quickly tipped her face farther down to conceal any reaction. *Rohypnol. I already knew you're a bastard, Duane, but you surpass even what I expected. Still, this is going to make things a little easier for me. How lovely--you're aiding your own punishment.* She looked up at him, making sure that she glanced through her lashes, and said, "I'm sorry, Duane. That wasn't a proper greeting, was it?" *Let's see how much physical contact you'll allow.* She reached up and brushed her gloved palm over his cheek, then cupped it behind his head and drew him down. Steeling herself, she kissed him. His lips were as warm and dry as any man's--but she knew what he was, and it was akin to kissing a cobra. But she did it, and did it convincingly, judging from the smug look on his face as she sat back.

He sat beside her, pulling his chair close, and indicated the glass of soda sitting in front of her. "Look, babe, we're adults, aren't we? What are you doing drinking that fizz?"

"I... Well, it's a little early in the afternoon, isn't it?"

"Nonsense." Duane lifted the two glasses off the tray, then put one in front of Nikki, and the other in front of himself. "You try that. I had him make them weak--it'll be like drinking limeade."

"You're sure it won't get me tipsy?" she asked doubtfully.

"It shouldn't, but if it does," he smiled, "you're safe with me."

"If you say so. Oh, that reminds me! I need to take my pill."

She started to open her purse, and Duane said playfully, "What sort of pill? The pill?"

She giggled. "You're bad! No, it's a digestion medicine, and if I'm going to be having alcohol... Oh!" Her hands slipped on the purse, it tipped, and several items spilled out on the floor. "Oh, I'm so clumsy!" She began to bend over for them. *But not that clumsy, I hope. If this doesn't work...*

"Let me," said Duane, gallantly. He got out of his chair and squatted, picking up a change purse, a lipstick, a notebook...

Nikki moved quickly and silently. In an instant the table looked exactly like it had a moment before, except that the liquid in the two glasses was sloshing minutely. It had stopped by the time Duane stood up and handed her the items. She smiled at him sweetly as he sat down. Duane watched closely as she popped a Spearmint Altoid into her mouth, then swallowed it with a sip of her drink. She took another sip, and they exchanged smiles. She recognized the triumph in his smile, but he didn't see the same emotion in hers. "You won't make me drink alone, will you?"

"Hell, no!" He drained his drink in two gulps. "Aren't you going to finish yours?"

"Yes, but I don't want to risk a cold headache." She sipped again. "Duane, I know that things have been hard for you. I doubt that you've been able to talk with anyone who really believes you, and understands you. I'm here, if you want to."

"Sure." He gave her his best 'sad puppy' look. "I didn't want anything to happen to that girl, you know. When things started happening, I was scared. I was afraid that those two animals might kill me, too."

"That must have been dreadful. But why didn't you go to the police after they left?"

*What the fuck is this?* "They lived close-by."

"You know, they must have been even more dangerous than I thought if you'd be afraid that they could get to you, even when you were under police protection. They would have protected you, wouldn't they?"

He blinked. "Their protection can't be guaranteed. You know, you're sounding a little accusatory." He blinked rapidly. He was feeling a little light-headed. How strong were those drinks?

"Oh, I'm sorry, Duane. I don't mean to accuse you of anything."

"Right." He loosened his collar. Even sitting down, he felt unsteady, as if the floor might tip at any moment. "I'm feeling funny."

"Dear, dear. I'm afraid you're going to fall right out of that chair. Let's move to one of the booths." She stood, taking his elbow. Duane stood, and swayed dangerously. "Just hold on to me." As she maneuvered him to the booth, he managed to grope her breasts. "Naughty boy, Duane. Just be patient, will you? We're going to be very, very intimate soon."

He dropped heavily onto the seat, then scooted over and patted the seat beside him, leering at her suggestively. She sat beside him, and he leaned closer. "After all, I didn't kill the girl."

"I've noticed--you never use her name."

"What? Are you feeling okay? I think that maybe those margueritas are off."

"I feel fine--just fine. I said that you never use her name. It's Angie. She had a name, and family, and a life--which you were instrumental in taking away."

"Look I told you, I didn't kill her! I was found innocent..."

"No, you were found not guilty--which is greatly different. Shall I tell you something? I believe that your district attorney was very lazy. It wouldn't have been all that hard to convict you of at least complicity."

He stared at her owlishly. What she was saying was just beginning to sink in. He would have been much angrier, if his head hadn't been swimming. "I didn't come here to be insulted."

"No, of course not. You came here to use another woman."

"Look, lady, just who the hell are you, and what do you want?"

"I'm Nikki--for now." She was pulling off her gloves. "And I'm here to give you something. It's not just from me, though. It's from Joan--and Angie."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean? I don't understand you."

"And the pity is, you probably never will." She reached over and cupped his face in her hands. Duane liked that. Her hands were small, soft, and warm. She smiled at him gently, and suddenly her touch became firm, pushing his head back against the wall. "This is a gift." She closed her eyes.

Duane suddenly stiffened, eyes going wide as a wave of sensation swept over him.

The bar was crowded, noisy, and a man--a handsome man--had just asked her to a party after work. It was so exciting. Mother was concerned. She loved her mother, but she was growing up, and Mom had to realized that she couldn't stay wrapped in tissue paper, she had to...

*What is this? Oh, God! This isn't me! I've never worked at... A man? Why would I think a man was attractive?*

The party was wilder than she expected.

Duane tasted alcohol, felt it's burn, smelled the acrid scent of smoke, both pot and tobacco.

*I shouldn't have come. I need to go home, right now. I'll hitch if I have to.*

A man was leering at her, and there was a sharp pain in her breast. She slapped his face, felt the sting in her palm...

And Duane suddenly realized that he had now experienced that slap from both sides--giver and receiver. *This isn't possible! But that... that was my face!* Suddenly he knew what was coming, and the sense of horror that had been rising grew into a towering wall.

Through the images, scents, sounds, sensations, he could hear a gentle voice. "It's a gift--from Angie. The system didn't punish you, Duane, no matter how ill-used you feel. You should have been executed, or at the very least incarcerated for forty or fifty years. But the legal system doesn't always manage justice. Sometimes it needs help. That's where I come in."

Hands. Hurtful fists smashing into her face and body. The wet warmth of blood on her face, the salty, coppery taste of it in her mouth. Crushing weight, bearing her down, stealing what little breath she had. There was burning pain from cracked ribs, and another, sharper flair in her ear, then another flow of blood. But the worst was the pain of the rape--physical as well as emotional. She felt as if she were being torn apart, bodily and spiritually. It seemed to go on forever. In the midst of it there was the crushing pain on her throat, and the suffocating blackness closed in slowly. As she spiraled down into oblivion, her last thoughts were, *Hurts, Mama. Mama, please...*

He was trying to scream, but all he was managing was deep, whooping gasps of air. Nikki knew that was only because of the drug he'd unwittingly taken. The adrenaline he was generating was sure to burn that off, so she had to work quickly, before he could make enough noise to attract attention.

He was making breathy, begging noises, sounds that she knew were pleas for release. "Not yet, Duane. The gift isn't complete. I still have to give you something from Angie."

Worry--concern like he'd never felt for another human being.

*Where is she? She would have called. Why won't they do anything? I told them that she'd never let me worry like this. Dear God, keep her safe. Watch over my baby Angie.*

This was a deeper kind of pain--quieter, but somehow just as intense. Who would have ever thought that love could generate such pain?

Standing under the fluorescents at the police station, filling in a form, when a hand falls on her shoulder, and she looks into grave, pitying eyes--and knows. She knows even before she walks the chilly halls and enters the smell of formaldehyde and death, even before the sterile sheet is pulled down to show a battered face, and the world explodes in a grief so huge that he feels it will shatter him.

Behind this experience there are more words--a woman's voice speaking, "It's condensed, Duane. I've taken only the significant parts. It isn't that the other moments weren't painful also, but this has to be quick. I promise you that later you'll get the full effect."

The funeral is on a sunny day. How can the sun shine through horror like this? The gunmetal gray casket is blanketed in white roses, and she won't let them remove the flowers before they lower the casket, because they were Angie's favorites. Duane feels the moist grit of soil in his hand, then there is the hollow thump of the first clod hitting the casket, as her heart--his heart--breaks.

"But you'll know it all--eventually--because you're going to be living with this, Duane. Forever. Oh, it won't be continual. No, your system couldn't handle that. Your heart would wear out. You'd have a stroke. That would be far too merciful. But you'll have it again--and again--and again. You may go a week without it. You may have it twice in one day. It's going to be completely random, Duane. You see, you'll never be able to get used to it. You'll never be able to prepare, to steel yourself."

Sitting in a courtroom as the testimony rolled. As Duane sat in the box, repeating in sickening detail how Angie--her daughter--had died. Feeling the hatred, the acid rage, the lust for revenge--directed at himself. How was it possible to hate himself like that? *Did I cause that? Did I give that pain? That despair?*

Pushing through crowds after learning that the third man in the situation would receive only probation. The feel of someone pushing something into his hand, and a voice saying, "When you're ready, she can help you. She'll take care of him." Deep depression. The thought of suicide--and then the thought of the slip of paper--and the promise...

...and suddenly he was back in the private room at the bar, slumped in a booth. He was staring in horror at the woman sitting beside him. Nikki was slowly pulling on her gloves, her expression slightly flushed. "What..." he swallowed, then managed to whisper, "what did you do to me?"

"I gave you what you deserve. I gave you the pain that you've caused to others. It's a little talent of mine." She stood up and reached for her purse. Smiling, she said, "It's a gift. Good-bye, Duane. I wouldn't try to stand up for another few minutes. You're likely to fall and crack your skull, and that would be a shame." Her eyes glittered. "I'd hate for this to be cut short." She turned and left.

Duane tried to understand what had just happened. *Maybe I am a little crazy. Guilt, that's it. Useless guilt. I'll talk to the doctor, and... and... And he will think I'm crazy, and it'll be even harder to get out. I'll just have to keep this to myself. Thank God it's over. I'll just wait a few minutes, then go back to the hospital, and start putting this behind me.*

Nikki started toward the exit, then paused, and walked over to a shadowed booth. "Joan." Her tone wasn't accusatory, but it was gently chiding.

The other woman looked up at her. "I had to."

Nikki sighed. "I know." Her voice was gentle. "Most of my clients do." She smiled softly. "It's all right. It's done." She interpreted the skeptical look. "If you need proof, stay a little longer. It won't be more than another five or ten minutes. But when you see... results--leave. Don't linger. They really couldn't make anything out of you being here, but why put yourself through more? You've suffered enough." She bent quickly, dropping a kiss on her cheek. "This time it is good-bye."

"Thank you." Her voice was small, but sincere. Nikki nodded, and left.

Joan waited, nervously twirling her almost untouched drink, watching the minutes tick away on the clock over the bar. Five. Ten. She was wondering if she dared go back to the private room. She was wondering if she'd have the courage to kill the bastard herself if this hadn't worked out. She was just getting ready to stand up when the first hysterical shriek rang out of the back room. Every head in the room swiveled toward the noise. There was a second scream, and the bartender started toward the sound. The third scream seemed to have no end.

People rushed back. Someone came running back out and used the phone at the bar, shouting for 911, telling them that someone was going psycho. Joan leaned back against the cushions, listening to the screaming and babbling, the sobs, moans, and pleas reaching all the way to the front of the bar. She found that she was smiling, while tears ran down her cheeks. When the paramedics rushed in, she lifted her glass, whispered, "Angie, sweetheart..." She downed the drink, gathered her purse, and left, a look of peace in her eyes for the first time since she'd awakened to find that her beloved daughter had not returned from the party she'd been so eager to attend.

A little more than a year later

Joan had been following the case in the newspaper. A little boy, only eight years old, had disappeared from his own back yard. He'd been found in an unused shed on a neighbor's property. The police were working hard to make a case against the man, but forensic evidence was sparse, and the man's lawyer was arguing that since the child had been caught playing in the shed several times, he might have wandered in there himself. "The medical examiner cannot positively state that the death WASN'T accidental. The child had asthma, the shed was dusty--he might very well have had an attack and suffocated..."

The police assured the parents they were doing all that they could, but they couldn't hold the neighbor without solid evidence, and they didn't have it yet. "But we're working on it." One month. "We have some leads." Two months. "This is a continuing case." Three months. "Folks, we're not closing the case--we'll never do that, but we've had four other homicides recently, and we have to investigate them quickly. You know that the longer it takes us to make an arrest, the less likely we are too..." The detective's voice trailed off at the dead look in the parents' eyes. "We're not giving up."

There was a press conference, and the father spoke. "Please, if anyone has any information about what happened to Gregory, come forward. You don't have to talk to the police. Use the tip line. But for God's sake, don't stand by and do nothing."

The parents held onto each other as they made their way through the reporters, who were still trying to fire questions at them. The father felt someone grip his arm, and he turned, hand rising to strike out in rage and despair. But he hesitated when he got a look at the woman. Her expression was compassionate. *No--empathetic. It's like she knows what I'm going through, but how could she?* There was something familiar about her.

He felt something pushed into his hand, and the woman whispered, "When you're ready, she can help you." Her voice held quiet conviction. "She helped me." Then she melted back into the crowd.

His wife tugged at his arm, and they got into their car and drove away. She drove, and said, "Who was that woman who was speaking to you?"

"I'm not sure. She looked..." He suddenly placed her face. "Oh, honey! That's the woman whose daughter was raped and murdered last year. You remember--three men, and only two of them went to jail. The third one weaseled his way out somehow."

She thought. "Yes, I remember. Didn't he sort of use an insanity defense?"

"I think so. He was sick, all right, but I doubt that he was insane."

She snorted. "Well, sometimes there's some justice in the world. If he wasn't insane then, he is now. You remember my friend Mavis? She works at that therapy center they sent him to right after the trial. He's not there anymore."

Her husband growled. "You mean to tell me that they released that SOB already?"

"Oh, no. It's just that they don't keep psychotics there. They had to move him to a secured facility. Apparently he really snapped a few weeks after they sent him there. Had some sort of a psychotic break on his first pass out of the center, and never really recovered. He kept having screaming fits. From what she gathered, he was having vivid hallucinations. It was like he was actually experiencing terrible things. He started pounding his head against the wall, trying to stop them, and they had to put him in restraints. After about a month, he tried to commit suicide. After the second attempt, they sent him to the REAL loony bin. She said by then he was catatonic between screaming bouts, and the doctors didn't think there was much of a chance of him coming out of it. He either thrashes and screams, or just sits and stares... and cries. What did that woman want?"

The man looked at the slip of paper he'd been given. It was a series of numbers--a long distance phone number, it seemed. He thought of the quiet in the woman's eyes, the assurance in her tone as she'd spoken to him. "I think," he said slowly, "I think she wanted to help."