Chapter 1 – July 5th Into the Morning

When the applause died everyone at the party crowded around Erica and Matilda to shake their hands. They asked Matilda to speak like Erica with her Tenpole Marrilian accent and especially say 'tis' or 'pardons' and act like Erica with her casually sexual movements and expressions. Matilda reveled in the attention and the unusual aspect to the attention. She was usually the well-liked claimant's daughter or the owner of the old SDD metal survey reports. Today she had a talent of sorts.

She found it titillating to look like someone else too, rather than have someone else look like her. She was Matilda Kinsley. She was the one people recognized. She was the one people pointed at and it wasn't because she had the easily recognizable Kinsley features; a narrow nose, an oval face, wavy dark hair, a full mouth, and large green eyes. They knew her because she owned the SDD surveys but tonight they knew Erica. It was a great deal of fun for Matilda since Erica had lost her voice and Matilda got to act like her. It was like a party game and Matilda adored party games.

Erica watched Matilda and laughed without making a sound. Betty had sprayed some kind of elixir down her throat to be certain she didn't use her vocal cords and strain them further. Erica liked that. She had no reason to speak. She preferred to be quiet at gatherings.

This gathering felt loose and easy to her, in all probability a side effect of the drug. Matilda chatted with her claimant friends while Erica drank and listened to the SDD banter around them. Erica pulled away from Matilda on occasion to get drinks or see James but he, like all the rest of the SDD, was engaged in telling jokes and stories. She didn't feel a part of his group. She was welcome as were all claimants but she preferred Matilda's company at this party to that of the raucous, tables of slapping, gambling, QSDD.

Marcus intercepted Erica when she made a trip to the bar.

He was the first claimant Erica had ever met. He represented everything a claimant should be; well dressed, well groomed, well spoken, educated, and a smile that could make anyone trust him. His wife and co-claimant, Ella Mois, was all those things as well, the perfect couple, and yet they had become fast friends and the strongest supporters of Erica Kinsley, aka Eljay, one of the most successful criminals Marril had ever known.

"Open up," he ordered when he stopped her.

She opened her mouth and he squirted a dose of Betty's medicine down her throat. He looked at his watch. "Your next dose is at thirteenth hour." He slipped the watch and bottle into his pocket. "Now be a good girl and go back to your cousin. She is having the time of her life acting like you. She deserves it."

Erica took her new glass of wine and went back to following Matilda.

By thirteenth hour the partiers began to fade. They were all busy people and rose from bed early. Many of the SDD were gone shortly after them. Soon only generals, a few majors, and the Moises remained. Matilda gave the barkeeps their pay along with a bonus and excused them then joined what people were left.

"I am so happy," she gushed at Erica. "I have never had such a wonderful night." She squeezed Erica's hand. "You are quite possibly the second best thing in my life." She clung to Roger's arm to let everyone know who was first. He was a tall, thin man with curly dark hair, sad eyes, and a gentle smile. He was originally from Sirrus, grew up on Marril, and then came to Quirni to work for the High Lord Byrne. It was in that position that he had met Matilda. They were now married and enjoying the society of the claimants together for the first time as a couple.

He grabbed Matilda, swung her over and kissed her. When he put her upright again she calmly but breathlessly remarked, "I think it's time to retire. Good night." She kissed Erica's cheek then took Roger from the room. She giggled at something he said as they left.

Erica smiled after them then looked for James. He spoke with Commander Powell and General Pearl. He had no idea where Erica was. All of the generals and those left of the colonels and majors sat at his table and discussed the ships Erica had just donated to the QSDD as well as plans for the new base that would be on Kinsley Claim, James and Erica's claim, and many other things Erica didn't understand or want to understand.

Elsbeth, James' old partner and still his superior, caught her eye. She left the table and came to Erica. She brought the Moises with her.

"We are going to have a short military meeting. The Claimants Mois have agreed to see you to your room."

"You may call us 'Marcus' and 'Ella'," Marcus told her.

"Thank you, Marcus," Elsbeth replied with a bow and returned to the meeting.

Before Marcus led Erica away, he pulled out the bottle of medicine. "Open up." After he gave her a dose, he held out the bottle. "I don't need to get up at four in the morning do I? You can take this yourself."

Erica put out her hand. He gave her the bottle and his watch. The yards of green velvet in the skirt of her dress hid deep pockets. She slipped in both.

"I didn't think so," he smiled.

She felt content and happy for both herself and James as they left the party. She had enjoyed herself and James had the attention of his commanding officers, which meant a lot to the Kennedys. Everything had turned out well.

She almost wanted to thank Yule for choking her. Mati's version of Erica's speech that night had sounded very different from what Erica had planned, sad and pitiful. Matilda's inflections made her sad speech sound hopeful for the future. The tables had kept everyone broken into groups and that had stopped any crush of bodies. That had helped Erica manage the party without any comments from Zoe, an inner voice that was the most annoying reminder of her dissociation disorder.

"Claimant Kinsley," the desk manager called as she and the Moises crossed the lobby. Erica paused to let the man walk over and hand her a letter. "This was delivered while you were in the party. The messenger asked us to give it to you tonight." He nodded to her and went back to his desk.

The plain envelope only had the initials for her office written on it, C of KC. She opened it and found a handwritten letter.

LJ, you have one hour after your party to come to us. We will be near the place where you marked me. You know what I look like. Find me or a child will die. If you really want to stop the killing like you always said on Marril then now is your one chance. We can talk and I will tell you the cost of life. Capture me and she will die. JJ

Erica's stomach rolled. The girl she had marked on the street that day when she and James were passed by the three men and women was BMC. She thought she had recognized her.

It wasn't easy to mark a person that had changed with age, travel, and the hardships of Quirni, but JJ still exuded a sense of sweetness and trustworthiness and that had been the reason Erica had invited her into the BMC. Jeda Johnson, JJ, was not either of those things, however. She was a criminal at heart. And even though she wasn't particularly smart she took directions well. Now she was here on Quirni and taking orders to blackmail Erica.

"What is wrong?" Marcus asked. He took the letter from Erica.

She hurried to the desk. A pencil and notepad sat behind the high counter. She took them and wrote quickly, 'Who delivered the letter?' She showed her note to the night desk manager.

"A young woman in a messenger's uniform," the manager answered.

'Dark straight hair, shoulder length, big eyes, pretty, about my height?' she scribbled and held it up so he would read it.

"Yes," he answered with a worried tone. He pointed at the agent by the front door. "He escorted her over."

Erica hadn't noticed the agent standing by the door. Marcus touched her arm and she spun. She didn't have time for him. She took her letter from him along with the paper and pencil, and hurried to the closed ballroom door. An agent guarded that door as well. Erica wrote again. 'Take this letter to Claimant Kennedy. Interrupt his meeting. It is urgent.'

He nodded, took the note and letter, and went inside, closing the door behind him.

Erica paced before the doors as Marcus told Ella what was in the letter.

Ella's hands covered her chest in horror. "You can't go!" she warned Erica.

Erica stopped. She stared at Ella. Certainly, they wouldn't stop her from meeting Jeda. 'I have to go,' she wrote. 'The first step of blackmailing is to set up the means. They will only talk. They will not hurt me. They will hurt a hostage if I don't go. We might catch them if I go.'

"You can't!" Ella insisted.

Marcus shook his head too but at least he wasn't yelling at her like Ella. He squinted in confusion, as if he couldn't understand her wanting to go.

'They may kill a child to force the blackmail,' Erica explained.

Marcus read her note and still shook his head. He grabbed her shoulders. "LaDunc said they want to kill you. You can't go to them. And this isn't blackmail it's coercion."

Erica frowned. She had no idea if that mattered.

"There are SDD and police all over this town right now," Marcus told her. "No one will be killed. You have to rely on them. You are too important to us."

She started to write a reply but her hands shook. The pencil lead broke. She gave up and stuffed the pencil and paper in her pocket. She knew the large number of SDD in town wouldn't make a difference. The killing could take place anywhere and they wouldn't be there.

"This isn't your problem," Ella told her sternly. "You cannot stop the BMC. It is an SDD problem."

Erica leaned back and squinted at her, as if she was crazy.

"Oh, Marcus, talk some sense into her," Ella whined.

"I won't let you go even if they do," he informed her. "Which I doubt they will. They will find this person. You don't have to."

James pushed through the doors so hard they crashed into the walls. The generals followed on his heal. "Erica!" he called and in three steps he took her from Marcus. "Was this the girl you marked?"

She nodded. She showed him what she had written.

"No," he replied. "You can't go. We'll go. We'll find her."

She shook her head and showed him the note she had written to Ella and Marcus, holding it before him angrily with both hands.

He wrenched the pad of paper from her. "You can't go! LaDunc made it clear enough. They want to kill you."

She grabbed the paper back angrily and tried to write but the pencil was broken. She jerked away from James and went to the desk for a new pencil. She threw the first one down, grabbed a new one and wrote furiously. 'He had no option. He was caught. These people are free and they are only beginning blackmail! You don't kill your mark!'

He read it but shook his head before she even finished writing. He reached for her and she backed away.

"Don't," he groaned and stepped towards her.

Despite being six inches shorter than him and close to a hundred pounds lighter she knew she could take him down and get out the doors. She could jump and kick as high as his chin and she was quick but it was James. She could take down a man his size but not this man. She needed him to stop.

She backed up again as he stepped forward.

He did stop. He didn't want to press her into fighting. Erica thanked him silently but then she noticed Elsbeth started to circle around. James had stopped so other agents could get into position.

Elsbeth stood tense, ready to spring.

Erica knew Elsbeth could fight well. She would avoid any kick. Erica glanced at the guard by the front doors. He watched and was ready. If she could meet with the club members she knew she could save the little girl. The club members didn't understand the club was dismantled. If they knew they would quit or at least some might. No one had to die. She edged away from James.

"Erica you can't go," Ella moaned.

Erica took several more steps towards the door. She put the paper and pencil in her pocket. She would get past these fools. She refused to let more murders take place. All that the club members wanted to do was talk. She knew that. They were following her old rules except for the threating a child crap. That had to be Ken's influence. All she ever did was threaten to reveal the information she had on her marks and she supplied enough in the first letter to let them know she actually had information. Other than that the letter read as hers did. It was exactly as they used to do when she blackmailed people on Marril.

"Stop, Claimant," Commander Powell demanded.

Erica didn't even look at him.

"We can't lose you, Eljay," Pearl pleaded with real fear.

That got Erica's attention enough that Marcus caught her arm. She turned on him angrily.

"Hurt me and I will press charges." He snarled. "We will put you in the brig."

Of all the things to threaten! They needed to help her not threaten her! She knew how the BMC could evade them, they didn't.

"Come here, Doll," James begged and tried to take her from Marcus.

She would never get free if James got his arms around her. He was too strong. His arms were the size of her leg. She twisted her body and hit Marcus away. He grunted in surprise and fell back. She bolted for the door. The velvet of her dress trailed behind her. The guard stepped into her path. She ducked his grip, rolled twisted around him, and pushed into the glass doors. She was past!

Her dress snagged. It jerked so she tripped. She came down hard on the cement halfway through the door.

She twisted to free the fabric and found Elsbeth had her skirt. She grabbed Erica's legs.

Erica rolled and kicked to break free but Elsbeth dragged her back with the heavy fabric of the dress. She flipped her and wrapped her dress around her before the doors even closed. The velvet tied Erica's legs as effectively as a rope.

Elsbeth dragged flipped her over again and pinned her face down. She leaned on Erica so hard she pressed air from Erica's lungs. Then someone grabbed her arms. She craned her neck to see who and found James. Elsbeth's grip lessened and Erica, feeling that, struggled to get free of him. He dragged her to her feet. He forced her arms behind her back painfully and dragged her back into the lobby. Erica fought to get away before he could wrap his arms around her. She pushed and wind milled her legs but she wasn't able to break his grasp, not without hurting him…

Elsbeth turned Erica and forced her to face James. As hard as Erica fought Elsbeth and James were able to turn her towards him. She was nothing to them. He pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her. He knelt and collected Erica on his lap. His arms were so tight she couldn't move at all. She tried to push out of his grasp with her legs until Elsbeth sat on them, pinning them between her own. Only her lower arms and hands were free and when she tried to pull at James' hands General Pearl held them.

"Stop it!" James demanded when they finally secured her but she still struggled. "You are acting like a child!"

She wasn't! It was not dangerous for her to go. She tried to tell him that again but she couldn't. The damn medicine kept her from making any sound whatsoever. She took a breath then gave a mighty effort against him but only managed to strain her back.

He held her tighter. "Stop it!" He demanded through his teeth. She was happy to know it took some effort for him to hold her. "We can't let you go. It's too dangerous."

Erica breathed hard and fast. He only grit his teeth to hold her yet she was out of breath and weak from the struggle. She couldn't get loose. She didn't have the strength. James kept her cheek pressed into his uniform. His cheek rested on her head.

"We have to keep you safe," he told her. His tone had changed but his hold didn't. His arms felt like a vise. His strength didn't waver one bit. Elsbeth was equally as strong.

"God, you're a spitfire," Pearl remarked. She was the only gray haired person in the room, a longtime resident of Marril. She was a four-star general under Commander Powell and responsible for uncovering Erica's past. She squeezed Erica's hands. "I understand your fears but you must be kept safe. You mean everything to Quirni."

James held so tight Erica couldn't even shake her head to disagree. They wouldn't hurt her. 'Let me go!' she mouthed at Pearl. She tried to break James' hold again but no part of his or Elsbeth's strength failed. She couldn't do it. She relaxed. She did not give up but waited.

"That's better," James told her quietly. He relaxed slightly.

She took deep breaths to replace the air they had squeezed out of her.

"Claimant Mois, you intend to press charges so we can incarcerate her do you not?" Commander Powell asked.

Erica stiffened. She glowered up at them.

James' grip tightened again.

"Sir, I would advise against that," argued Pearl. She looked over her shoulder at them.

"Please remember, sir, she is a master at escape," warned Elsbeth. She kept her eyes on Erica the entire time.

"She cannot escape our brig," returned Powell with certainty.

Erica worked hard to keep her face still because she knew better.

"Claimant Mois, will you press charges?" asked Powell again.

"For her own safety, I most certainly will," replied Marcus.

"That is a bad idea," muttered Elsbeth to Pearl.

"Claimant, you know her reputation. You should not-" Pearl tried to warn again.

"Clair, it would take the three of you staying up all night to keep her in this hotel and even that might not be enough," Marcus interrupted.

"My thoughts exactly," Powell replied. "Can you get her over there?" he asked James.

He stiffened. "I would rather stay up with her, sir. I agree with General Pearl."

"My opinion on that is clear," replied Powel. "Can you move her to the brig safely, Major?"

"I don't believe so," answered James.

"She can be sedated to move her," Ella suggested darkly.

No! Erica twisted as hard as she could. She freed her legs and hands, twisted again and pushed James' arms up as she slid down and out of them. Elsbeth was so surprised she fell back.

James grabbed Erica's waist as she gained her feet. He pulled her down and laid on her. His sudden weight crushed the air out of her completely. She was stunned and winded, too much so to realize she had use of her arms and could poke James in the eye to make him back off. Her hand was inches from his face. By the time she was thinking, Burk and Marcus held her. Elsbeth grabbed her feet again.

Erica began to accept she wasn't going to get away. James weighed far too much, was far too strong, and he was too persistent. His orders were to stop her. He would and a child would die. They didn't understand her world, how things were done. These claimants and SDD feared lawless people like her. They didn't understand them.

"God," James complained in her ear. "You have to stop this. You'll hurt yourself."

Erica couldn't breathe. Her sight dimmed. Her eyes drifted shut.

James noticed and lifted up slightly.

She inhaled hard and long several times.

"You have to go to the brig. Accept it," James told her but he didn't sound happy about it.

Her cheek crushed against the carpet. She didn't try to move since he hovered over her. She saw more people in the room now. All of the SDD that had stayed for the meeting were watching. James might relent if he thought she had given up. She relaxed and continued to fill her lungs. He lifted a little more to allow her that.

"Don't trust her," Burk warned.

"She's afraid of drugs," James told them. "She's afraid it will make her change into Sal or Zoe or even Lynn. That is why she reacted to Ella's suggestion." No one replied. James sat up but pressed a hand on her back. He sat with just enough weight on her bottom to keep her pinned. "Will you walk to the brig?" he asked.

Go willingly? Not a chance, Erica thought but she nodded. She still had time to get to the meeting. Fifteen minutes might have passed but she also knew the club members would wait the night. That was the rule. Anything could hold up a mark. You gave them a time to meet and if they showed up late it only strengthened your case. By waiting the whole night the mark couldn't claim they had arrived while you hadn't. They would always try that and a session would end up listening to their whining instead of business. The BMC would be there. If she could stand then she would have a chance to fight and she would fight with everything.

"I don't trust her," Burk warned.

"Neither do I," Commander Powell agreed. "Clair, call Betty."

"I'm afraid I don't trust her either," James also agreed quietly. "I'm sorry, Erica." He knew her too well.

Erica closed her eyes.

General Pearl called Betty. It took some time for her to answer the phone. No one relaxed their hold even slightly while she told the cureman they needed to sedate Erica long enough to transfer her to the brig. "She'll be here in ten minutes," she announced stiffly and hung up. She then told the other agents what the situation was. They passed the letter around. James described the girl Erica had marked. They hurried away.

"We'll find her, Claimant," one of the men assured her as he passed Erica on the floor. "This isn't for you to do."

"Keep her safe, Major," Jesse bid James as she followed them, which incensed Erica. She of all people should understand Erica knew her business. She had interviewed Erica at length about the club. If she thought about it for a moment she would realize Erica's club members would not be easily caught. No SDD agent was going to run into the night and pick up any BMC anywhere, no matter the planet or city.

"I will," James replied, "whether she likes it or not." He rubbed Erica's back.

The room remained still for a few moments after they were gone then John came over. "Claimant Mois, please, let me take your place there." Marcus carefully backed away as John knelt and took Erica's shoulder and elbow the same as Sophie Burk did on the other side but General Burk's grip wasn't nearly as strong as John's. Erica gauged them both. "James, I think the three of us can hold her and get her off the floor. It isn't fitting for her to be seen like this. If someone should come in or come down the stairs it would look bad."

Erica faced him. She looked up at him.

"Will you be calm?" John asked her.

She nodded.

James sat back so his weight was farther back on her legs. That allowed her to lift her shoulders.

"I believe I can exert more control over her," Elsbeth told General Burk. "May I take her from you?"

Erica stopped herself from frowning as Elsbeth took her left arm. Using Burk's weakness was now lost. James put his arm around Erica's chest as they helped her kneel.

"Now, Claimant, very slowly and nicely, onto one of the sofas over there," John suggested. He nodded his head towards the waiting area. "If you start to struggle, we will force you to your knees." Slowly they helped Erica to her feet.

As they took their first step she considered trying to pull free but as soon as she did they began to force her down. Her teeth clamped in anger. She couldn't even think about escaping apparently. They could feel her tense to fight. They waited until she relaxed then slowly helped her upright again and started moving her to the sitting area.

Erica tried to think without moving any muscles. It wasn't easy.

She considered how she could make use of the three steps leading down to the waiting area. If she got free how many agents would she have to fight? She glanced around. Six surrounded them but they kept their distance. She might avoid them all. She might use the steps if they pushed her down to kneel at them. She could use the kneeling and the fall down the steps to fall right through their grips.

As she considered it they pushed and they hadn't even reached the steps. John and Elsbeth forced her to her knees. James dragged her down. He knelt behind her, holding her at the waist while the other two bent her arms back in positions that didn't allow her to move without pain.

"Don't try it," John warned severely once she was kneeling between them.

Erica glared at him, teeth barred in anger.

He shook his head in exasperation. "Don't you know when to give up?"

Erica wished she could answer him. She pulled against him in frustration despite how it hurt. She still had to test their hold.

John twisted her elbow back until she cringed and bent forward to relieve the stress. He held her there with a sigh. They waited until Erica relaxed once more. They let her stay that way, bent forward, held, kneeling in James' arm for several minutes then John relaxed his hold. He allowed her arm to straighten. She straightened in James' grasp.

"Ready? Do you have her?" John asked James.

"Yeah," James told him without any doubt. They lifted her to her feet again.

James carried her down the steps and ruined any plans she had for escape.

They made it to the sofa and slowly made her sit. James and Elsbeth sat next to her. They held her arms while John and Burk stood ready in front and Pearl behind. If Erica tried to get up they would all be on her.

Yet Erica waited for an opportunity. Sooner or later someone would turn or be distracted.

John stood so close his knees touched hers. He blocked her from being able to kick.

"Good," he smiled. "Very good, Erica, I appreciate your concern for the lives of the tenants but you can't do anything about it. You must be kept safe, Eljay or not. You are a claimant."

Erica scowled with as much menace as she could manage.

He regarded her with a wry smile. "You have more pepper in you than any young lady I've ever met. You almost got away from James. Don't ever think you actually will."

Certainly not when he was expecting it, she thought, and the same went for Elsbeth.

John held her legs as he squatted before her. "Will you allow Betty to administer the sedative?"

Erica didn't want to frown at him but she couldn't stop herself. She hated needles.

"Can you talk to her? Can you make her cooperate?" he asked James.

"Only rarely," James replied and sounded upset.

Erica saw the strain in his face. Good lords, how was he going to feel forcing her to take the drug? She hadn't thought of that. It broke her heart to think what she did to him.

All right, there was another way to handle this if Betty did as Pearl asked her and only sedated Erica long enough to transfer her to the brig. She guessed she had to accept it. She couldn't win, not now, not without hurting James and her both. She looked back to John and nodded.

"Really?" James asked.

She nodded again.

James seemed unsure and his grip didn't relax but Erica could hear he felt better.

When Betty arrived Erica didn't move as she injected the drug into her arm.

"What was the problem?" Betty asked afterwards. "She isn't fighting."

John explained as they pulled Erica to her feet. The drug acted so fast she felt weak before they stood.

"Careful," Burk warned. "She could be tricking you."

"No, she isn't," Betty told her. "That is what I gave her, a physical sedative. I had the impression that she was fighting you. She will stay awake so you can talk to her. She will be like that for a few hours."

Erica couldn't imagine what Betty was thinking. This was awful. Her legs and arms stopped responding. She dangled between James and Elsbeth. She couldn't move anything. James picked her up. She felt like a limp doll. Her head sagged. Her arms flopped everywhere. She couldn't even open her eyes.

"John, you take her," Powell ordered. "If she is seen like this it will appear much less interesting to reporters since you are James' father. I still have things to discuss with your son but return as quickly as possible."

"Yes sir," John replied.

James carefully handed Erica over then kissed her lightly on the cheek. "I'm so sorry," he whispered so only she and John might hear him. He sounded choked.

John turned away and took her to the truck. He climbed in. Several doors slammed and the engine started. He curled Erica's body close to his own. He held her head on his shoulder like a baby's. He spoke close to Erica's ear. "You have made James a very important person," he told her softly.

Erica had already figured that out.

"You and Matilda are both vital to Quirni now. We shudder to think we didn't know and put you in so much danger." He hugged her.

So this meant they would never let her see the BMC. People were going to die and the SDD wouldn't let her stop it. Damn her if she would let that happen. Lords knew she could afford to pay them what they wanted. She could afford to stop them. She had to try.

They wouldn't kill immediately. She still had time to find the girl. The SDD certainly wouldn't find JJ tonight. If the idiots had helped her she might have told them how to find her but instead they did this.

There was time.

Erica knew she could get out of that brig.

JJ would hide until Erica showed up.

The truck stopped. They got out. Erica recognized the sound of the buzzer as they entered the brig. They were actually going to lock her up. She found that amazing. She hoped they didn't know the lengths they should use to keep her there. It might take an hour to get out after the drug wore off.

"Is that Claimant Kinsley?" a woman asked when they entered the first door.

"Yes," John answered. "We are putting her here for her own safety."

The second door was buzzed. The rooms were cold. John took her through.

Keys jingled. They entered a cell and John laid her on a cot. "Tie her," he ordered. "Use the Quirni style restraints. I doubt she has had much time to overcome them."

"She is a claimant," Elsbeth stated in protest.

"As I am well aware and I am also aware she will soon become my daughter-in-law so I am not likely to hear the end of this but tie her anyway."

Two agents gently flipped Erica onto her stomach. One of them pulled her arms together behind her back as the other put leather straps around her wrists. They clipped them tight.

"Her feet too," John added. "Tie them to the bed."

Elsbeth sighed as she secured more straps to her ankles. She then pulled the blanket out from under her, put it over her and took the pillow so she might lie flat on her stomach. "I hope you are comfortable," Elsbeth muttered as she pulled her hair out of her face.

"Go to sleep," ordered John. "We will be back in the morning. Leave the BMC to us."

The door shut and everything fell dead silent.