DISCLAIMER: I do not own the characters from Star Trek: Voyager. Paramount does. Iím just having a bit of fun with them and will receive no remuneration of any kind, except fun.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Any similarity between this story and film noir/detective fiction is completely accidental.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
To Sleep with the Fishes
I. Of All the Gin Joints . . .
I had to start facing it. Sitting in my second-floor office in a rundown section of the waterfront of the thriving metropolis of St. Paul, Minnesota, with my feet up on my desk and a cigarette hanging out of my mouth, reading back numbers of True Crime, was getting me nowhere fast. My secretary, Susan Nicoletti, a nice Italian kid from Duluth, was filing her nails out in the anteroom, probably wondering how she was going to get up the nerve to tell me she was moving on, out of this nowhere job. I couldn't blame her.
Business had been slow. Guess what everyone'd tried to tell me was true. No one wanted to hire a private dick who looked like mea dark-skinned half-caste in out-of-date black suits with skinny ties and skinny lapels and a herringbone newsboy cap. I looked like I couldn't decide if I wanted to be a preppy or a punk, but really it was because I liked what I wore. Besides, it was all I could afford at Neelix's Second Hand Shop and Vintage Clothier over on Third. Heavy on the second hand, light on the vintage. Oh, yeah. I'm also a dame. That didn't help, either.
Oh, I'd had the odd woman scorned come in wanting the goods on her cheating bastard of a husband, the cautious widow wanting me to check out prospective suitors, fearing the scam artist. They liked working with a woman and my rates were cheap. But I'd had nothing very steady, and certainly nothing much lately. It was getting so I couldn't afford the rent on my office, even one in the most dilapidated building of the crumbling warehouses lining the Mississippi waterfront. The only thing that kept the city from condemning the whole shebang was the Mob. A little grease in the right palm kept the building inspectors looking the other way. YepSt. Paul was lousy with Mob corruption. One Mob, in particular.
You've probably heard of them. The famous Swedish crime family, the Borgs, direct descendants of old Ludovic Borg, himself. They had a stranglehold on all the Moosehead beer distributorships, iron ingot manufacturing, and walleye fishing in the entire State of Minnesota. They'd had their own sweet way for twenty years now, practically the only players left in the Twin Cities. Two decades ago it looked like the entire metropolitan area was going to go up in all-out gang warfare, but suddenly the other crime families either left town or changed their names or . . . well, best not to speculate. You don't want to think too hard about what happened to rival family members who ran afoul of the Borgs of St. Paul. Suffice it to say that Superior is a cold graveyard. Since gang war had been averted, things had settled down to nice, quiet graft and influence-buying, with old lady Rigmora Borg at the helm.
Rigmora, named after some ancient Swedish queen, reigned as matriarch of the Borg clan. I'd never laid eyes on her, myself. She never ventured out of her Italianate Renaissance mansion up on Dayton's Bluff. But I'd heard tell of hercold, icy eyes that'd freeze you where you stood as she calmly and irrevocably pronounced sentence upon you. "Chum him," is what she's rumored to say. And that's ityou're fishfood.
Yeah, I was two seconds away from walking out to Susan's desk and gently letting her go and then blowing this popcorn stand when she knocked on my door and looked around it, her hand on the door knob.
"Someone to see you, Boss," she said with a little smile. She always gave me that smile. I knew she kind of had a thing for me.
"Yeah? Tell him we're closed," I said crossly. I hated having to rethink my decisions.
"Oh, you'll want to take this one, Boss," she said coyly, backing out of my office. She stuck her head back in. "And he's a she." Emphasis on the she.
Great. Another round of spying on some middle-aged creep who decided he needed to make a last-ditch grab at his lost youth by sneaking out on his middle-aged wife and college-aged kids with some addle-brained bimbo too young and stupid not to realize he'd never marry her. So the wife'd get the goods on him, confront him, cry, recriminate, tell him that she'd given him the best years of her life, and on and on. He'd bluster, deny it, try to explain that it wasn't what it looked like, that it didn't mean anything, and finally puddle up and tell her he loved her and would never leave her. Then he'd dump the bimbo, settle back into the bosom of his family, and all would be forgiven. Till the next time.
I plastered my patented look of non-judgmental sympathy on my face as I got up and walked around to the front of my desk and waited for her to enter my office.
I was expecting Mrs. Mall of America. What I got was a Nordic Valkyrie. She had the longest gams I'd ever seen, and they went from her black stilettos all the way to heaven and back again. Her blonde hair was pulled into a severe bun, but this had the effect of making her look young and somehow vulnerable rather than harsh. Her sky-blue eyes were set off nicely by her tailored navy suit. She wore a long A-line skirt and a fitted jacket with shoulder pads over a white silk blouse showing just a hint of cleavage. Her ensemble was finished off with a tasteful diamond pendant and diamond stud earrings. If I looked like a Reservoir Dogs reject, she looked like she just stepped from the set of To Have and Have Not.
I must have been staring slack-jawed because she raised her left eyebrow skyward and spoke.
"May I sit down?"
"Oh, yeah!" I started. "Sit downsure! Of course!" Moron. I finally stopped my yammering and moved from where I'd stood rooted, pulling out a chair from in front of my desk for her.
"What can I do for you?" Why did that sound so dirty? I tried again. "How can I help you?"
I moved around to sit behind my desk, trying to regain some control over the situation. Putting the desk between us helped.
"Thank you for seeing me, Ms. Torres," she said, her voice a sultry siren's song. I was really going to have to concentrate if I didn't want to make any more of a fool of myself than I already had.
"I know I should have made an appointment, but . . ." she trailed off, waiting for me to absolve her of her transgression against private investigator-client protocol.
"Well, normally I don't see any clients on a walk-in basis," I said, "but since it's so late in the day, and I've finished with my scheduled appointments, I'm happy to squeeze you into my dayon my schedule." I casually moved the phone book so that it covered the stack of True Crime magazines lying on my blotter. Her eyes, which had missed nothing of my furtive attempt to camouflage the evidence of my excess free time, slowly moved to take in the sparsely-furnished office around us.
"I see," she said finally, her eyes coming back to meet mine, that left eyebrow arched again.
I held her gaze, holding my bluff. She had come to me, after all. I didn't like being put on the defensive like this.
"How can I help you?" I asked again, this time with more of my wits about me.
"I'd like to hire you, Ms. Torres," she said.
"To do what?"
"To find someone."
This was getting us nowhere.
"Who? And why not just go to the police? Why do you need a private investigator?"
She got up and made a circuit around the room, stalling. This was fine by me. It gave me a chance to observe her. She crossed her arms as she made her way around the office, pausing a moment at the ancient hall tree and frowning at my cap hung carelessly on one of the hooks before continuing her stroll.
Something about this picture was all wrong. Dames like her just did not seek out broads like me. We lived in parallel universes. She reeked of money, class, and privilege and I, well, on certain days I just reeked. I surreptitiously sniffed my left armpit while her back was turned. It occurred to me that I didn't even know her name.
"I would prefer that we keep the police out of this," she said as she turned to me, clasping her hands behind her back. Ah, that was better. Now we were back on unequal footing, where she liked it.
"There are several private investigators that I can recommend for you. I don't think I'm what you're looking for," I said as I stood up and made as if to close up shop for the day. I was taking a gamble here. I wanted nothing more than to be what a dame like her was looking for, but I didn't like being played. Besides, I needed more information. Maybe this would shake some out of her.
Her cool demeanor vanished. "Oh, no, please! You must help me!" she rushed up to me and put her hand on my arm. Now we were getting somewhere. I gazed at the long fingers encircling my forearm for a moment. Then I let my eyes slowly rake over her body as I raised them to look into hers. We were standing so close together that I practically got a crick in my neck looking up at her. Once our eyes met my eyebrows shot up. Two could play at this game.
The silence lengthened.
"I'm sorry," she said as she pulled her hand from my arm and walked away from me, hugging herself. "You must think I'm such an idiot." Her voice cracked, and like a real idiot I fell right in.
"Oh, hey, now! No, I don't think you're an idiot!" I said as I rushed to her side. I put my arm around her waist and my hand on her arm and gently turned her toward the chair, walking her to it.
"Would you like some water?" I asked, helping her into her seat.
"Could you put a little scotch in it?" she looked up at me with those enormous shimmering baby blues.
"To take the edge off the water?"
"You do understand," she smiled.
I smiled back a second before I turned to the battered credenza and poured us both a scotch, a little more for her than for me. Maybe it'd loosen her tongue. I paused in mid-pour, frozen with the thought. I shook my head. I really had to stop doing that.
"You know, it would help me if I knew one thing," I said, handing her her drink and moving back to sit behind my desk.
"And what would that be?" she asked as she took a sip, looking at me over her glass.
She took another sip before she answered. Then, looking away and taking a deep breath as if she realized that she had reached her point of no return, her eyes met mine.
II. A Bird in the Hand
"Shit!" I spilled my scotch. "Sorry, Ms. Hansen. Just let me clean this up," I said as I blotted the spilled drink with my handkerchief. I made a big to-do about my getting up the spilled liquid to cover my shock. I was jolted down to my 10-year-old Doc Marten oxfords. The Hansens were one of the crime families that had melted away twenty years ago when the Borgs consolidated their power in the Twin Cities. What had happened wasn't exactly common knowledge. Like all crime syndicates, the Borgs kept their operations hush-hush, preferring to keep it all in the family.
I couldn't keep up the pretense of cleaning any longer, so I walked over to the credenza and poured myself another scotch.
"May I freshen your drink?" I asked.
"No. Thank you," she replied. One thing I had to say about her, she was no Chatty Cathy.
I sat back down with my drink and stretched the moment further by lighting a cigarette.
"Please, Ms. Torres," she frowned, "I can't abide cigarette smoke."
I blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of my mouth as I put the cigarette out in my butt-filled ashtray. I was careful about how I snubbed it out; I'd finish it later. Besides, I wanted the extra time to think. Did I need work this badly? Did I want to take her on? I glanced up at her as I moved the butts around in the ashtray, making a relatively clean spot for my unfinished smoke. She was observing me with those eyes that promised everything but gave away nothing. Then she sat back and crossed her legs. Okay, so I knew the answer to those questions. The one that bugged me, though, was why me?
"Okaaaay," I began, somewhat recovered. "Would that be those Hansens? The ones with the cement shoes and slow boats to China?" They had had the reputation of ruthlessly dispatching the competition, which included anyone who had the temerity to so much as open a dry cleaning shop in their territory.
"We can't choose our families, Ms. Torres," came the reply. She spoke with a hint of asperity and something else, something I couldn't pin down. I made a mental note to think about this later, like when I finished the barely-touched cigarette I was eyeing longingly.
"No, I suppose not," I said in a conciliatory tone. Well, another blank was now filled in. There was no way I was going to come out of this clean. I just hoped I'd come out of it with my kneecaps intact.
My decision made, I got down to business.
"I'm going to need some information from you, Ms. Hansen. Do you mind if I tape our sessions?" I was already opening a drawer, pulling out a legal pad and tape recorder.
"Well, I . . . ." She was clearly disturbed by the idea. She either didn't like the sound of her own voice on tape or she didn't want to leave this kind of tangible record. My money was on the latter.
"I assure you that I keep all of my conversations with clients in the strictest confidence. At the end of my investigation I turn over the tapes to the client to do with as she chooses."
"Notes too?" she asked.
"Notes, too. I'm working for you, Ms. Hansen. You will have essentially paid for all materials I collect in the course of our contract." I really wanted to put her at ease. Who was she afraid of? And why no cops? I was going to have to tread carefully with this case, not step on any toes, not draw any undue attention to myself. It was a tall order. Well, she was a tall client. Mmmm, yeah. My eyes drifted down her legs again, then up, up--. When I finally raised my eyes to hers, she was giving me the stink-eye, her full lips twisted in a pouty little smirk.
"Do you like what you see, Ms. Torres?" she asked archly.
I felt the blush rise from the soles of my shoes.
"Please excuse my manners, Ms. Hansen. But you have to admit that you're slumming here. Why me? Why not someone more in your, er, station in life?"
"You came highly recommended."
Now I knew she was desperate. Nobody, but nobody I'd worked for ran in the same circles as she did. My worst fears were confirmed. Forget the kneecaps. I now worried about my hide.
"Right," I let the word hang a moment. "So, the tape recorder? Do I have your permission?"
She nodded her assent and I began our interview, such as it was. Like I said, she was no chatterbox. She'd been abandoned by her parents at the age of six and raised by a foster family. Her parents were the Hansens, members of the Hansen crime syndicate. Their part in the family business wasn't clear. She didn't have any memories that could shed any light on their business dealings. She'd had a happy if solitary childhood, the usual thing for your average American upper-middle-class crime family child. She didn't know what had happened to her parents. All she knew was that one day she went to school as usual and the next thing she knew she was being hustled into an unfamiliar car by unfamiliar people. She was told that her parents didn't want her anymore and that she was being adopted by a nice family that would love her and never leave her like they did. She didn't want to tell me the name of the foster family because she didn't want me sniffing around them, raising fears that she was ungrateful and didn't appreciate how much they loved her and cared for her well-being. She had teared up a little at this point, pulling out a hanky from her bag. That bag alone would have made a nice down payment on a new car, I'd thought. And oh, yeah. The foster family was loaded. What were the odds?
And that was it. She wanted to find her birth parents and confront them or at least to hear their side of the story. She wanted to do it now because she feared that if she waited too much longer she might never know. Anything can happen, she'd finished.
The story was as thin as the morning newspaper, but it was all I could get out of her. Something told me not to press for more at this point. I wanted to help her, but I didn't want to spook her. She acted all cool and collected, but I got the feeling that any sudden move would frighten her off like a startled sparrow. I figured that she was in some kind of trouble. And trouble in the Twin Cities usually meant the Mob, which usually meant the Borgs. I didn't want to think about that just yet.
It was just past six when we finished. When she realized that it was going on to dusk, she seemed to get the jimmy leg.
"I must go now," she said suddenly, rising abruptly to her feet. She put her hand out for me to shake.
"Do you have to leave now? Couldn't I get you another drink? Maybe a bite to eat? I know a nice little diner on the next block . . . ." I really didn't want her to leave. I could look across the table into those eyes all night. "There's so much more we need to talk about, information I need"
"No, I have an urgent appointment." She tried to withdraw her hand. I hadn't realized I'd been holding onto it.
"Thank you for helping me, Ms. Torres." She turned to leave.
"Wait a minute!" She paused at the door and looked back at me. "How do I reach you?" I wanted a phone number, an address, a p. o. box, anything.
"I'll be in touch," she said. And she was gone.
That was supposed to be my line.
III. And It's One, Two, Three Strikes, You're Out
"Morning, Boss!" chirped Susan bright and early the next day as I came into the anteroom, my arms full of packages. She saw that I had my hands full and got up to help me with my burdens. She opened the door to my office for me and started taking the bags from my arms and putting them down on my desk.
"Liquid diet, Boss?" she asked wryly as she took two bottles of Scotch from one of the bags. "And unblended, too! You rob a bank on the way to work?"
"Sort of," I answered. "You know tall, blonde, and beautiful who was in here last night?" At Susan's ironic "mmhmm," I went on. "This morning I found that a thousand bucks had been transferred into my checking account, sweet as you please. No muss, no fuss, no unsightly electronic addresses. Just a transaction number."
"So you decided to splurge?" she asked, unwrapping the carton of smokes and new issues of True Crime and Freshwater Fishing. "Real cigarettes! No generics, huh?"
"You got it, dollface. Just laying in a few supplies. And there'll be a little something extra in your pay envelope this week," I winked.
"Boss, don't you think that maybe you ought not to take this case? I mean, what do we know about this woman? Why is everything so cloak-and-daggerish with her?" Susan was always looking out for me. Frankly, I was glad someone was.
"Don't you fret, Susan," I told her, lighting up and taking a deep, appreciative drag. It had been a while since I'd smoked anything this good. "I want you to do some research for me," I said as I put the Scotch away in the credenza and put the cigarettes in my desk drawer.
"Sure thing, Boss. What do you need?"
"I want you to check the newspaper archives, county records, deeds offices, anywhere that people leave a public paper trail. I'm looking for anything you can find on Magnus and Erin Hansen. Disappeared off the face of the earth about twenty years ago."
"Got it. Can I get you a cup of coffee, Boss?" Susan asked.
"Thanks, doll, but I've got some research of my own to do," I said as I headed for the door. If Stretchthat's how I'd begun to refer to the mysterious Ms. Hansen in my thoughtshad the heebie jeebies about going to the cops, I sure didn't.
Whenever I needed to deal with St. Paul's finest, I went to Officer Talia Celes, Tal for short. We'd been cadets together at the St. Paul Police Academy. Our paths in life had taken distinctly different turns. Tal had gone on to finish up and graduate. She was a beat cop and known to be a straight-shooter on a force where you didn't know if you were dealing with your average, honest dirty cop or some real slimeball, like a Borg plant. Twelve years out of the Academy and she was still just a flatfoot. What did that tell you?
Tal worked at the Third Precinct, which was headed up by another old acquaintance, Captain Kathryn Janeway. One of the first women to rise through the ranks all the way to captain, Janeway'd been one of my instructors at the Academy. Her father had been a deputy commissioner in his day, and little Kathryn had worshipped him as if he were Harmon Killebrew, Fran Tarkenton, and Hubert H. Humphreyall rolled into one. To make him forget the fact that she'd been born female, she'd worked harder than anyone ever had to before just to make it in this male bastion, and she had the reputation of being the toughest, most by-the-book precinct captain on the force. Guess she'd never learned the lesson that taught that a father's love, especially in the face of unrealized expectations and dashed hopes, could be an elusive thing. I oughta know.
Janeway and I got along just great at the Academy. If she wasn't busting my chops for insubordination, she was ordering me to drop and give her twenty, fifty, a hundred. See, I couldn't keep my big yap shut, and I hated being told what to do. What made me think I'd wanted to be a cop in the first place is another tale of woe for another day. I don't know. Maybe Katie and I had more in common than I'd realized at the time. I just hoped I could avoid running into her as I made my way to the squad room to see Tal. I wasn't in the mood to stroll down memory lane with Janeway.
"Officer Celes! How's tricks?"I said as I caught her coming out of roll call.
"Lanna!" she gave me a big smile. "Long time no see. How ya been? How's business? Still chasing after runaway teenagers and philandering husbands?"
"Yeah. Throw in the missing cat or two and you've summed up my entire professional life."
"To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?" she asked. "I'm guessing it's not to pick up where we left off." She and I'd done the deed a few times. Ancient history. I'd broken it off. Too many ghosts, too many reminders of unfulfilled potential--mine. It was an old joke between us now.
"Some other time," I said. "Let's take a walk." I didn't want this to be overheard by any Borg family representatives or their cronies. Like I said, on the St. Paul police force, you never could tell.
"This must be serious," she said as she grabbed the keys to her squad car from dispatch.
Once out on the sidewalk I relaxed and lit a cigarette.
"Still with the coffin nails, I see," was Tal's choice observation. Everyone gave me shit about my little vice. Anymore, smoking was on a par with public urination. I was waiting for the city ordinance that decreed that smokers would be forced to shave their heads and walk naked down West Kellogg Blvd. Sounded like something I might get into, but only if I could smoke while I did it.
"Yeah, I'm a lousy example of a human being," I replied tersely. "What do you know about the Hansen family?"
"Hansen, Hansen," Tal looked thoughtful. "That was before my time, but weren't they some minor players in the organized crime scene in the Twin Cities?"
"Maybe not so minor, but yeah. They played pretty rough from what I'd heard. They disappeared some twenty years ago. Just dropped right outta sight," I told her.
"So? Why the sudden interest in defunct crime families? You writing a book in your spare time?" she smirked at me.
"Something like that," I hedged. "I need a favor, Tal. I need anything the police have on Magnus and Erin Hansen. They seem to have gone the way of all the Hansens back then."
"Hey! Aren't you sticking your nose into something where you could pull back without a face? I mean, aren't you afraid of whanging up against the B."
"Shhhhhh!" I shushed her, looking around furtively. "Jeez. You want to keep it down? I don't want the last words I hear to be 'chum her.'"
"Okay, okay." She laid a hand on my arm, stopping our walk. "I'll get you what you want, but just be careful, okay? I'd miss our little têàê you know."
"Yeah, so would I, Tal," I said. "And thanks. I owe you one."
"I'll put it on your tab. You know, one of these days I'm gonna want to collect," she said, only half-jokingly.
"Well, maybe if you're a good little peace officer, the tooth fairy'll leave a little something under your pillow one night," I said as I turned back toward my car.
"Don't tease me like that, Lanna. It's cruel," she said after me. I waved.
Yeah, I know. I'm a shit.
On my way to the parking lot I ran into Detective Third Grade Tom Paris, another former classmate of mine. What was this, old home week? He was not someone I'd wanted to be seen by snooping around the station house. At the Academy Paris had been known to be too smooth by half. He was a chronic partier, never studied, yet passed all his tests with flying colors. He wasn't in the best shape and couldn't hit the broad side of a barn on the shooting range, yet here he was, on his way to his gold shield. Whaddaya figure?
"Lanna, my love! Come to your senses and ready to go out with me finally?" he oozed.
"Yeah, sure, Tommy-boy," I replied easily. "Lose the dick and grow some tits and we'll talk."
"Ah, Lanna, Lanna. When you gonna learn that the real thing's better than plastic?"
"When you can beat me on the target range, you toady." I was known as one of the best shots in my class.
"Still trying to overcompensate, huh, Lanna?" he snorted. "Too bad you couldn't have stuck it out at the Academy. You coulda written your own ticketa Spic, a cunt, and a dyke, all at once. An affirmative-action officer's dream."
I had to get away before I belted him. I shouldered my way past him and stalked off, his mocking laughter ringing in my ears.
I was still shaking as I approached my car.
"Why hello, Torres." I knew that voice. "What are you doing hanging around the Third? Trying to bask in reflected glory?"
I was unlocking my car in the precinct parking lot when the blood froze in my veins. Could this day get any worse?
I slowly turned to face my new tormenter. "Hello, Katie," I smarmed. "The years have been kind to you, I see."
Captain Kathryn Janeway stiffened ever so slightly, but the flinty smile never wavered. She'd gone a bit gray around the temples, but I had to admit that she looked impressive in her captain's blues. Not that I'd ever tell her that, of course.
"Just paying a social call to an old Academy buddy,"I said, trying to deflect her.
"Uh-huh. Just get this heap out of here before the trash pickup or the city'll have to charge you for disposal and fine you for littering."
I knew she was bluffing. My car'd been properly licensed after passing inspectionbarely. "Oh, that's low, Katie, even for you," I taunted as I opened the door to my '88 Buick LeSabre and got in. It was as close to an urban commando vehicle as you could get away with in St. Paul. Anything more outré and people looked at you funny.
I was feeling a little bit better as I put the station house in my rearview mirror.
My cell phone rang as I pulled away, leaving Janeway staring after me, frowning. It was Susan.
"What do you have for me, dollface?" I asked.
"Zero, Boss. There are plenty of records on lots of Hansens, but nothing on Magnus and Erin. It's as if they'd never existed." I'd expected as much.
"Thanks, Susan. I won't be back today. Take the rest of the day off and I'll see you tomorrow. I've got a game to catch."
"I'm heading down the Atlanta highway / Looking for the love getaway . . ." sang the B52s as I motored across the Mississippi toward the Metrodome, home of the Minnesota Twins. I was meeting an old pal who might have some information for me about the Hansens. There I was in enemy territoryMinneapolisthe bigger twin, the better-looking twin, the twin mom always liked best. Poor St. Paul, forever doomed to stand in the shadow of Minneapolis, always trying to overcome its inferiority complex. They might just as well have named the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings the Minneapolis Twins and Minneapolis Vikings and been done with it. They said the names were meant to be inclusive of the entire state, but we knew better.
It was a beautiful late summer day, not that you'd know it sitting inside the Metrodome. What genius decided that baseball should be played indoors? And football! I swear, the Vikings lost a lot of their fierce reputation when they moved to a domed stadium. I mean, how could you fear a team from the frozen north who ran inside at the first snowflake? Vikings fans used to be known as some of the hardiest sports fans in the country, next to the Packers fans, that is. At least they still played outside. Look at the Packers. They'd won a Super Bowl recently. And how many Super Bowls have the Vikings won, huh? Zippo, zilch, nadda.
I was getting myself worked up. I grabbed my six-dollar Moosehead and found my seat among the box seats on the third base side. No sense sitting in the nosebleed section with the thousand bucks Stretch had sent me sitting in my checking account.
The Twinkies, a worst-to-first and first-to-worst story in the American League, were putting up a pretty good showing this year. After a dismal start they'd caught fire and were in competition for the wild card slot in this year's playoffs.
"Hey, Tamale," said Harry as he slid into the seat beside me. Harry Kim was a Korean-American who'd found his life's calling as a runner for one of the Vietnamese families that had settled in the St. Paul area and grabbed their share of the American dream by specializing in running a little numbers racket and getting people smuggled into and out of the area on the QT. For some reason the Borgs took a live-and-let-live attitude with the Vietnamese gangs. Only in America. It brought a tear to my eye.
I'd called him last night and asked him to do a little quiet digging to see if anyone remembered getting a couple named Magnus and Erin Hansen out of the area around twenty years ago, when the Borg Family Power Grab had gone down.
"Hey, Kimshe," I smiled as we knocked knuckles. We'd met in a Vietnamese restaurant. We'd seen each other in the same joint on several occasions and finally started up a conversation. It had been an easy transition from polite conversation to "How 'bout them Vikes" to sharing a table on a weekly basis. He was a good friend, and a good guy to know in my business.
"What's the good word?" I asked him.
"I got bupkis," he said. "If the Hansens got out of town that night, they didn't go through the Vietnameseor the Hmong." Harry was nothing if not thorough. I was beginning to get a bad feeling about the fate of the Hansens.
We sat and watched a few innings and shot the shit before Harry had to go. It was a good idea to come and go separately, anyway. I was starting to kick up a little dust in my detecting. Someone was bound to start noticing.
During the seventh-inning stretch my cell phone rang.
"Lanna, it's Tal. Bad news. Not only did I not find any police records on anyone named Magnus or Erin Hansen, but Paris caught me digging through the files in the detectives' office. I made some kind of lame excuse, but I don't think he bought it."
"It's okay, Tal," I told her. "He has no idea what you're looking for." I had a sinking feeling, though. He'd seen me at the station house today. Even Paris could put two and two together. If my suspicions about him were correct, I'd just sent the Borgs a special delivery telegram alerting them to my existence. "Keep me posted if he gives you any trouble, okay?"
We rang off. I sat and watched as Cuddyer went oh for four, wearing the collar after striking out on three straight pitches.
I knew how he felt.
IV. White Out
In my years as a private investigator, I'd had better days. My search for anything on the runaway Hansens was stuck in the starting gate, and I had no way to contact my lovely but enigmatic employer. My only recourse now was to do what I was least good atwait. But I knew exactly where to do that.
It was after 10 when I walked into my favorite homo hangout. Loaves and Fishes was a hole-in-the-wall dyke bar down on the waterfront not far from my office. It was named by its owner and operator, an ex-nun who'd kept her moniker but dropped the rest of it after being booted from the Order of the Sisters of Mercy when it became clear that she wasn't going to honor her vow of chastity. So much for the mercy. Sister Mary Immaculata, who'd had no trouble with the poverty and obedience parts, had thought that two out of three wasn't bad, but the Mother Superior saw it differently. So Mary Immaculata had bowed to the inevitable and opened a business in which she could surround herself with lesbian lovelies and where she was the mother superior, proving once again that you can take the girl out of the convent, but you can't take the convent out of the girl.
Loaves and Fishes attracted an interesting clientele, everyone from undergraduates from the College of St. Catherine to truck-driving diesel dykes. It often drew the odd bag lady who'd mistaken it for a soup kitchen. As Mary Immaculata said, they came for the fish and stayed for the floorshow.
And what a floorshow it was. My favorite dancer was named Sugar and called herself "White Out," and for good reason. She dyed her hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows platinum blonde and wore her hair in a full, thick pageboy. Her skin was preternaturally white and covered in silver sparkles. She wore snowflake pasties that revealed as much as they covered and a silver lame g-string. She always ended her set with her signature number, "Let's Do Blow," a parody of the old Sammy Cahn classic "Let It Snow," during which she'd blow a handful of white and silver sparkles out into the crowd. It was a class act.
"Hail, Mary! Still ever-virgin?" I asked Mary Immaculata as I slid onto a barstool. Mary looked like the stereotypical nunsweet-faced, soft-voiced, tiny-bodied, the kind that taught me at St. Francis de Sales School. I'd never recovered from my schoolgirl crushes on some of them. Loaves and Fishes was the closest thing I had to church now. Sometimes Mary would light some frankincense for old times' sake. She was a real pal that way.
"Lanna! Yeah. I had my cherry replaced yesterday, and I'm still a little sore." I blinked. I could never get used to stuff like that coming out of that innocent-looking mouth. "What'll it be?"
"I hope it's me," purred a sexy voice in my ear. White Out had slid onto the barstool next to me. "It's been a while, Lanna. When we gonna get together again for a little venial sinning?"
"What we do isn't what the Church would call a venial sin, more like mortal," I reminded her.
"Oh, yeah," she giggled. "I never can keep my sins straight."
"You got that right, Sugar," I nudged her. She smiled suggestively. I was tempted, but I needed to remember I was working, and so far not very successfully. This case was starting to bug me.
"Oh, Lanna, you're not going to turn me down, are you?" she pouted.
"Sorry, Sugar. I'm working."
"So am I!" she brightened.
"What's it gonna be, Lanna?" interrupted Mary Immaculata, putting a coaster down in front of me.
"Falstaff," I said snarkily. At her dubious expression, I started in for real. "Stag? Pabst Blue Ribbon? Hamm's? Blatz?"
"Red, White and Blue!" chimed in Sugar. She loved this game. "Schlitz!"
"Billy? Shaeffer's? Buckhorn?" We collapsed helplessly against each other, giggling.
"Something from this century, girls," said Mary Immaculata dryly, leaning toward us menacingly, her hands spread out on the bar, looking over her reading glasses at us.
"Okay, okay!" I chuckled. "Moosehead, and one for the lady."
"Thanks, Lanna. So, what are you working on?" Sugar asked as we took our beers to sit at a small table away from the bar.
"Oh, a case," I hedged and then, trying for casual, asked, "Do you remember the Hansens?" I was wondering if she'd heard any loose talk about the Mob. In her line of work, it wasn't out of the question.
"The Hansons! Oooh, I loved them! 'MMMBop' was my favorite song!"
That answered that question. "So, what's got you so excited? Got a new gig?" I asked.
"Only with one of the biggest families in St. Paul! I've had a couple of command performances at 336 Mounds Blvd.!"
I felt my heart lurch. Sugar had been to the Borg mansion? When? And what had she seen there?
"Really!" I said, trying not to tip my hand. "So, what was that like?"
"Really weird!" returned Sugar. "I danced for the entire clan and their entourage a few times. It was a real family affair, including Old Lady Rigamarole or whatever her name is, her nephew, and lots of weird-looking creeps who stared at me with these really cold eyes. Didn't crack a smile the whole time I danced. And Old Lady Borg! She has tendencies, baby! She had this gorgeous blonde bombshell sitting next to her the whole time and kept looking over at her during my performance."
"Really," I said again, every nerve-ending firing.
"Yeah. She kept running her hand down the blonde's body, whispering into her ear. It was creepy. She was sitting between the blonde and her nephew. He really creeped me out. He had this weird tattoo on his forehead and he kept smiling and laughing at what the old lady was doing to the blonde. But the weirdest thing was, the blonde wanted no part of it. She kept looking grossed out every time the old lady touched her. And she didn't really want to watch me. And the creepazoid nephew just kept laughing when she showed how uncomfortable she was. Really weird shit." She paused. "They had really good blow, though."
"This blonde. Did you catch a name?"
"They called her Annie, I think."
I felt a cold chill and shuddered.
"Hey, you all right?" asked Sugar.
"Yeah, sure. I think I might be catching something, is all."
"Poor baby. Why don't we go to my place after the set and I'll make you some nice chicken soup?"
"Thanks, Sugar, but I think I'll head home and try to sleep it off."
"Okay, baby. Catch you on the flip side!" she called after me.
I shivered and turned up the lapels on my suit jacket as I stepped into the St. Paul night. What I'd just heard hadn't made me feel any better about my clientor my part in this case. I jammed my hands into my pockets and headed toward my car. I hadn't taken but a few steps when I was grabbed by two goons and hustled into an alley beside the bar. I tried to get a good look at them before they got down to business and saw that one of them was an infamous leg-breaker for the Borgs called the Pinch. He could put some kind of twisty hold between your neck and shoulder and send you into oblivion. Somehow I didn't think I was going to be that lucky tonight. The other guy, I was to find out later, was called the Doc. He was an MD on the Borg payroll. His job was to keep Old Lady Borg from kakking out before she was damn good and ready. He had cold, beady eyes and ice water running through his veins.
"So, what kept you boys? I was expecting you sooner,"I said. I knew I was in for it. I might as well get a few smart-ass remarks in while I was still conscious.
"You know what happens to pipsqueak detectives who mess around where they shouldn't be messing, don't you, Torres?" crooned the Doc in his best bedside manner as the Pinch punched me in the gut. As I was rolling around in the alley, trying to catch my breath, the Doc got in a few kicks to my kidneys. He knew just where to make them count, too.
"That. . . all . . . you . . . got?" I rasped out between ragged breaths.
"Don't forget," said the Doc as he held my head up for a knock-out punch, "Chum, chum, Torres."
Then my world exploded into silver and white sparkles.
V. Sins of Omission
I was coming up from a long way down, and I wanted to stay down, down in the nice, peaceful oblivion where I didn't know anything, not even of my own existence. But a cold rain that had been falling was calling me back, back into the centrifuge that was my head, back into the punching bag that was my body. I might have lain there longer, praying to return to the sweet oblivion, but I was starting to shiver as the rain soaked my clothes.
I pulled myself up into a sitting position, which only exacerbated the pain in my ribs and back where the bastards had hammered me. Blood mixed with rainwater trickled down my left cheek from the cut that had opened beneath my eye from the Doc's well-placed blow. I climbed up the dumpster I had been lying beside until I was standingsort of. I hung on, swaying, getting my feet under me, trying to figure out my next move.
Too fuzzy to think beyond mere survival, I lurched toward my office, which was only a few blocks away. I could come back for my car.
It was an agonizing climb up the two flights of stairs to my office in the dark, my mind slowly clearing, but with the increased awareness came more pain, my brain receiving the new signals my body was sending it. I didn't want to turn on the lights. Better to let them think I wasn't there in case they decided that they wanted to come back and finish the job. The intermittent flashes of lightning lit my way.
Once inside my office I poured a stiff Scotch and drank it off. Then I poured another to sip as I let the purity of the unblended liquor clear out the remaining cobwebs. I stripped off my sodden clothes till I was down to my skivvies. Then I moved around to behind my desk and took out my medic kit and something I hoped never to need, my gun. I slid the mechanism back on my SIG-Sauer P228, checking to see if it was still loaded. As I reached in the back of the drawer for more ammo clips, I was startled by a brilliant flash of lightning and pane-rattling clap of thunder. But more startling than the sound and fury of the storm was whator rather whomthat flash revealed to me.
"Jesus Christ!" I breathed. I had my gun pointed right at her, my finger already squeezing back on the trigger. "You scared the bejeezus out of me!" I found myself shaking as I lowered my gun and stared at her, staring at me. Thunder clapped again, making both of us jump. The thunder seemed to break the spell. I dropped my gun on the desk and slumped back into my chair, adrenaline washing through me.
"Ms. Torres! What's happened to you?" asked Annika Hansen as she came quickly to my side. "You're hurt!" she said, gently touching my split cheek. "You're also in your underwear," she observed as I turned my head away from her touch.
"I apologize for not being prepared to receive you, Ms. Hansen," I returned tightly.
"I'm sorry to have caught you with your pants down," she said, looking away from me in alarm.
"More like with my ass hanging out to dry," I shot back. "You want to tell me what's going on now? You better be quick cuz I don't think those goons'll be so gentle next time."
I made to get up to put some dry clothes onI always kept a change of suits in my office. But Ms. Hansen had other ideas. She put her hand on my shoulder and pushed me back down into the chair.
"I'm so sorry that I wasn't entirely honest with you, Ms. Torres," she said in that siren's voice. She picked up a cotton ball and soaked it with betadine and gently cleaned my wound. Her touch was light, but the cut hurt like a mo-fo.
"How 'bout not honest at all?"I grabbed her wrist, staying her hand. "How 'bout lying-sack-of-shit not honest at all? Why me, Ms. Hansen? Why make me your patsy? Was this just some poor little rich girl's game? Did you need someone else to feel as lousy as you do because you hate living up on the Bluff? Or are you flexing some of that Mob muscle, just because you can?"
She pulled her wrist out of my grasp and turned away, moving off a few steps, hugging herself. I got up and began getting into my clean clothes, wincing as I pulled on a dry shirt. I watched her back as I buttoned my cuffs, waiting as she turned toward me, fear and pain registering on her face.
"What I've told you has been the truth, Ms. Torres. I didn't tell you everything because I was afraid that if you knew it all you wouldn't help me. And I wouldn't have blamed you. I don't expect you to understand. I hardly understand it, myself." She shook her head and looked up to stare at the ceiling, as if the answers were written there. She made a small sound, half way between a sob and a laugh. Then she looked at me again.
"I'm begging you, Ms. Torres. Please. Help me."
Seconds ticked by, marked only by the sound of the rain lashing the windowpanes behind my desk. The lightning flashing at irregular intervals, punctuated by rolling thunder, gave our situation a surreal air, as if we were having a standoff across a bizarre battlefield.
I don't know how long I stared into those baby blues, but what I saw there, combined with what I'd learned from Sugar, convinced me that I wantedneededto help her.
"Well," I said, finally. "In for a penny, in for a pound, eh, Stretch?"
She arched her eyebrow. "Stretch?" she asked.
"Yeah, you've got great . . . reach,"I dissembled. "I'll bet you killed 'em in basketball when you were in high school."
She pursed her lips at me.
"I must get away from St. Paul now," she told me, dropping her arms to her sides.
"And I need to know a few things first," I returned, holstering my gun and pouring another Scotch.
"Ms. Torres, please. We must leave now if I'm to escape the," she looked away.
"The Borgs?" I suggested.
Her eyes met mine. "Yes," she said simply. "They must know of my unwonted absence by now."
"Okay," I said, arriving at a decision. I handed her the bottles of Scotch. "Put these in your purse, okay, Stretch? We might need them later." I looked around the office where I'd made my living for ten years. "Let me make a quick phone call and you can fill me in on the road."
It was well past midnight by the time we'd cleared the suburbs of St. Paul, heading north on I-35. I'd wanted to go by my apartment to pick up a few things, but Stretch had recognized a big black sedan with darkened windows driving near my block, so stopping was out.
I'd checked the rearview mirror often as we got out of town and seen nothing untoward, except for a stronger than usual police presence on the streets. I was starting to relax into the drive. I turned to my passenger.
"So. Start talking."
"As I've told you before, my parents abandoned me when I was six. What I didn't tell you is that the foster family that took me in was the Borgs."
"I was starting to get that picture," I told her. "Where'd you go to school?"
"I didn't. Rigmora wanted me close at all times. She hired tutors to teach me, and she has a well-stocked library. Nobody in the family goes in there much, so that's where I spend most of my time. I do a lot of reading. And of course, there is always the Internet."
"So, why wait twenty years to try to make a break for it? And why do you want out in the first place?"
"You obviously do not know the Borgs, Ms. Torres,"she told me with not a little asperity. "But I need to get away now, because Rigmora is forcing me to marry her nephew, Charles."
"Wait a minute," I told her, thinking back. "You mean tall, dark, and tattooed? Got a twisted sense of humor?"
"Yes," she turned her body to me in surprise. "How do you know this?"
I chuckled. "I'll tell you later. What's this guy's story?"
"His name is Charles Kotay. He's a member of the Chippewa Nation and is highly placed in the 500 Nations gaming business. He is also Rigmora's nephew by marriage. She plans for me to take over the family business and wants me to marry Charles. She believes that this marriage will enable the Borgs to make inroads into the gaming industry in Minnesota. Rigmora is always attempting to consolidate and increase her power and the influence of the Borgs."
"So I take it you don't love this guy," I observed.
"I do not," she shuddered. "He is a very cruel man," she paused and looked out the window, as if seeing something, images, memories, to which I was not a party. "He knows of my distaste for him. Lately he has been taking liberties, coming into my bedroom at night, touching me in the hallways, trying to kiss me. He's very discreet about it. He knows Rigmora doesn't approve of any kind of . . . sexual behavior until the wedding takes place. She's very traditional in some respects."
"Gotta love those crime syndicates. Big on form,"I cracked. Stretch rewarded me with a look. "So when's the big day?"
"Soon," she answered. "I came to your office the other day on the pretense of shopping for a wedding gift for him. It was easy to come back empty-handed, saying that I had not yet found the appropriate gift."
"Hmmm. So the old lady is forcing your hand," I mused. "Okay. But why search for your parents after twenty years? What could they do?"
"Have you ever been abandoned by your parents, Ms. Torres?" she asked.
I looked over at her. "I'm sorry, Ms. Hansen. I have to know the whole story if I'm to be of any help to you."
She heaved a big sigh. "For twenty years I've been told that my parents left me, stopped loving me. For twenty years I've lived among strangers, people who do unspeakable things. For twenty years I've had to endure her hands on me, her horrible kisses on my cheek, her unbearable attention." She turned to me again and said vehemently, "I hate her. I have to escape her. My hope is that, somewhere, my parents are still alive, that there is some explanation for all of this, that maybe they can help me."
She had started to cry. I pulled into a rest area and got some water from a vending machine. I could tell her later of my unsuccessful efforts to find anything on her parents. They hadn't left so much as a parking ticket to mark their trail. But she didn't need to hear that then.
I gave her the water and my handkerchief and sat and let her cry. I tried to give her some privacy, but I continued to steal glances at her. She was perhaps the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. And though I could only imagine what she'd been through, what her life must have been like up on the Bluff, I was impressed by how dignified she was, how elegantly she carried herself. And she sure was a snappy dresser. I mentally slapped myself as I found that I had been letting my eyes roam over her exquisite body in her dove-gray suit, silk stockings and Jimmy Choos. "Wonder what she looks like in jeans?" I thought.
"Are you feeling better?" I asked as she composed herself.
"Yes, thank you," she said as she handed me my handkerchief. Our hands briefly touched as I took it from her and put it back into my breast pocket.
"I'm sorry that you've had to deal with so much pain, Ms. Hansen," I told her. "But I still have one unanswered question."
"What's that, Ms. Torres?"
To my surprise, she blushed and looked away.
After a moment, she said, "I'd seen you go into your building once when Rigmora was showing me the Borg holdings. We were being driven in the limousine down by the river. When I got the chance I looked up the tenants in that building and saw that you were a private investigator and thought that maybe you could help me."
Thinking she was finished, I turned to start the car. But then she said, "In addition, I thought you were cute."
"You--." I looked over at her, shocked. She gave me that eyebrow again.
It was an invitation. It was a benediction. I hesitated a heartbeat before sliding over and taking her into my arms, taking her full, soft lips with my own. She had her hands against my chest as I kissed her, as if to protect herself. I gently pushed my way into her mouth with my tongue, caressing her lips with mine. She moaned softly and moved her hands over my shoulders and around my back until she was clutching me tightly, pressing herself to me. I put everything I had into that kiss, trying to show her with my body what I had not told her with words, that I believed her, that I wanted to help her, God help me, that I was falling in love with her.
VI. Now, Voyager
I was coming up from a long way down once again, and, as before, I didn't want to come back. Our kiss seemed to last at once an eternity and a heartbeat, but finally, as if by mutual consent, we drew slowly apart, our eyes meeting and holding for a long moment. Annika's eyes were a blue sea that I wanted to drown in.
"Hey," I whispered finally, my lips still close to hers.
She tried to speak and couldn't. "Hi," she managed.
Reluctantly I began to pull away from her. "I hate to be the one to say it, but we should probably hit the road."
"Yes," she said with renewed energy, "we should." Her hands went to her hair, straightening her unmussed French braid. She turned and looked around the parking lot as if gauging if anyone had noticed us making out in the car like a couple of teenagers.
"Where are we going?" she asked as I regained the Interstate. "Do you have a plan?"
"That's what you pay me for, sweetheart. Another 45 minutes and we'll be there!"
"I was hoping to be out of the state by now, Ms. Torres,"she said nervously, smoothing her skirt.
"It's Lanna, and don't you worry. If all goes according to plan, we'll be on the other side of the state line and steaming off into the sunsetor make that sunrisebefore you know it."
"Did you say 'steaming'?" she asked.
"Figure of speech. Now I have another question for you."
"And that would be . . ?"
"Do you like the water?"
A short time later we pulled into Barker's Island Marina in Superior, Wisconsin, just a stone's throw from Duluth. There, on Dock F, Slip 7, just where she said they'd be, were Susan and her Uncle Frank. Frank owned a fishing charter, a 42-footer he called Voyager. He took tourists out on day trips and the occasional over-nighter into Superior Bay for trout, salmon, and walleye fishing. Staying in business was getting harder and harder for him to do. He was feeling the heat, even in Wisconsin, from the Borgs as they squeezed out more and more mom and pop charter businesses along the western and southern coastlines of Lake Superior.
"Hey, Susan!" I said, getting out of the car. "It's good to see your sweet face." I gave her a quick hug.
"And you must be Frank Pirello," I said, extending a hand to the grizzled fisherman. "I know you hate to part with her, but rest assured, she'll be in good hands," I told him. "I'll wire you more money when all of this settles down," I said, handing him the keys to the LeSabre. I looked over at Annika. "Hang on a minute."
Annika was looking between Susan and me in increasing alarm.
"Stretch," I said to her, taking her by the arm and moving her away from Susan and Frank. "I need to talk to you about a little matter."
"Just whom are you taking off whose hands?" she asked as I walked her down the dock.
"Voyagerthe boat! My car's probably been made by the Borgs. We need to ditch it and get some new transportation."
"What about another car?" Annika asked. "Just where do you think we're going to go in that?" She looked at the aging fishing boat as if it were a loaded porta-potty. Granted, it smelled kind of bad, but not that bad.
"Don't worry, sweetheart. I've got it all planned out. Frank's got it stocked with everything we need for a week, at least. I might even be able to get in a little fishing." I looked over at the rods sticking out of the deck like spines from a porcupine. "Did you bring your bikini?"
She arched her eyebrow. "I didn't pack anything, as you recall. I left with just the clothes on my back."
"That's okay, baby, we'll improvise," I grinned wickedly at her. "Now, you know your earrings and pendant?"
Her hand went to her throat. "Oh, no! You can't mean--."
"Come on, Stretch. I've got to give the old guy more than a beat-up gas-guzzler and a bottle of Dalwhinnie!"
She hesitated a moment, then took her earrings out and her necklace off and handed them to me, somehow managing to look both forlorn and pissed off at the same time.
"I'll make it up to you," I told her, squeezing her arm. "I promise."
I handed the jewelry to Frank and shook his hand again. "Don't worry, Frank. I'll make it good," I told him. "'S all right, Ms. Torres," he said. "Susan tells me you're the best. Just take good care of her," he said, giving Voyager one long, last, lingering look.
I turned to Susan. She was looking back and forth between Annika and me in growing comprehension. Then she reached for me, her lower lip quivering, her eyes filling with tears.
"Oh, Boss!" she cried, wrapping her arms around my neck.
"Hey, hey, hey!" I said, hugging her and then holding her away from me to look at her. "What's with the waterworks?"
"I'm afraid I'll never see you again," she said.
"Don't cry," I said, taking her in my arms again. "I'll be in touch. What about that Delaney girl you've been seeing? Jennifer. She seems like a nice girl."
"Sh-sh-she's not y-y-you!" Susan wailed, burying her face in my shoulder.
"Nobody is, dollface," I said, patting her back. "Nobody is."
Susan choked out a laugh through her tears and released her hold on me, kissing my cheek.
Then Annika and I boarded Voyager and I climbed up onto the flybridge. I started the engines as Susan and Frank untied her and threw the lines onto the deck. I backed her out of the slip and turned her toward open water as the sky was just beginning to brighten.
Annika joined me up on the flybridge. I looked over at her, smiling. I hadn't been behind the wheel of a boat in a while, and it felt wonderful. She was giving me that look.
"What?" I asked.
"Dollface?" she smirked as she took my handkerchief from my breast pocket and wiped the lipstick off my cheek.
"Well, what're you gonna do?"I asked.
We chugged along the southern coastline, keeping well within sight of the shore. The day was shaping up to be fine, and I was itching to wet a line. Being out on the Lake with a fully-stocked fishing boatwith a beautiful woman sleeping below, no lessmade me forget for a moment our dicey circumstances. I was running from the Mob, for crying out loud, with the Mob Queen's chosen successor stashed away! I shouldn't have been feeling as if I were on vacation. But it couldn't be helped. The air was so crisp, the sky so blue, the coffee so fresh, and the fair westerly breeze so light, I felt like I didn't have a care in the world.
By early afternoon the events of the past few days were catching up to me. I needed to get some shuteye. I put into the next sheltered cove I found, cut the engines, dropped anchor, and went below. I listened outside the tiny door to the port cabin before cracking it and taking a peek inside, satisfied that Annika was sleeping soundly. Then I went into the starboard cabin, took off my clothes, got into the narrow bunk, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
I was being gently rocked in an irregular yet soothing rhythm. It was quiet, water softly lapping the only sound. The air was clean and fresh, wafting over me, bringing with it a new smellthe smell of . . . frying fish? My eyes flew open. I was disoriented in the half-light. After a moment I remembered where I was and why, but was it morning or evening? My stomach growled. Who cared about the when or where. I was starving.
I rolled out of the bunk and found my pants and shirt where I'd dropped them.
I opened the cabin door into the small galley to find Annika at the stove, the source of the mouth-watering smells.
"What are you wearing?" I asked her back.
"Oh!" She turned around and smiled at me, tongs in her hand. "You're up! I hope you like beer batter. What a wonderfully-stocked galley!" She opened cabinet doors to show me the cooking supplies.
"Wouldn't have my walleye any other way. But where'd you get the clothes?" I couldn't tear my eyes away from her. She wore form-hugging blue jeans and a tight black cotton sweater that clung to every curve. The top four buttons were undone, the lines of the fabric meeting in an enticing vee, pointing the way to further riches.
"I found these next to the bunk in my cabin. Susan's touch, do you think?"
Good old dollface. She'd thought of everything.
I looked down at my wrinkled shirt and pants. "I could use a little freshening myself," I told her. "Let's see what she packed for me."
A few minutes later I emerged from my cabin in khaki pants and a heavy white cotton fisherman's sweater. "She even packed a fishing vest!" I beamed.
"Supper's ready," Annika said, indicating the tiny table laid out with beer batter-fried walleye, fried potatoes, and coleslaw.
"Wow! What a spread!" I smiled at Annika. "Now, if I know Susan . . . ." I opened the refrigerator to find it stocked with Moosehead. "Ah, Susan! You're a beauty!" I crowed, reaching in to grab two of them.
I sat down in the small booth across from Annika and tucked in. I didn't speak until I sat back, sated, and sighed contentedly.
"That was fabulous, Annika. Who taught you to cook?"
"There wasn't much with which to occupy my time in the Borg mansion. I taught myself."
"Well, it was wonderful. Thank you."
"You're welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed it."
Our conversation ground to a halt. We both had trouble meeting the other's eyes. Night was upon us. There were but a few things to do aboard a fishing boat at night, and the thought of one of them was making us nervous. I spied a deck of cards in the condiment caddy on the table.
"Hey! Do you play canasta?" I asked her hopefully.
"Lanna, I think I'll just retire for the evening. I have found the past few days to be fatiguing in the extreme."
A silence stretched out. "Huh? Oh, yeah. Tired. Sure." I hadn't heard anything after my name uttered by that sweet mouth. I had been staring at her lips in something of a daze. "Why don't you go ahead. I'll justI'llI've got some work to do, anyway. Maps to look at, charts to study, something . . ." I trailed off.
"Well, good night, then," she said as she rose. Then she looked in dismay at the stove. "Oh, dear. The dishes."
Finally given something to do, I gallantly volunteered. "I'll take care of the dishes. You go on and go to bedto sleep--." I gave up. "Good night, Annika."
She disappeared into her cabin. I stared after her a long moment. Then I shook myself and poured a stiff Scotch. I might need a little help getting to sleep tonight.
After finishing the dishes, I took the Scotch, weighed anchor, and climbed onto the bridge. It was a clear, calm night. The boat had lights. No sense wasting time. The motion of the boat and the droning of the engines might help Annika sleep.
I was wide awake. In fact, I had never felt so awake. Voyager was a sound boat. I loved the feel of her, the way she moved through the water. Whatever happened from that moment on, I knew that I didn't want to go back to the city, back to my p. i. business. I had left it all, such as it was, to Susan. She was good with research. She sweated the details. She'd be a better p. i. than I could ever be. I would dance at her wedding one day. We were family, now even more so. Voyager connected me to her and hers even more intimately than our working relationship had. It was a good feeling to know that I had family somewhere. And wherever I ended up, it would be on the water. I'd fished in these waters all my life. My father had taken me out with him for the first time when I was six. It wasn't long after that time that he'd split, leaving behind an embittered ex-wife and a lost daughter. But my love of fishing remained. It had sustained me through some hard times. Now I had this boat beneath my feet, and I knew. I would be her last captain.
My reverie was interrupted by the sounds of Annika stirring below. I had a sudden desire to see her, talk to her. We were approaching a safe harbor where I could get some gas and a slip for the night. We both needed some extended rest in a secure spot. And I still had a job to do.
VII. The Near Occasion of Sin
I filled the tanks with gas and paid for the slip. I was glad to find that the marina had an ATM so I could get some of the cash Annika had deposited for me. Otherwise I would have had to try to use a credit card and I was pretty sure it was maxed out. Either way I was leaving a paper trail that I didn't want to leave, but there was no help for it. I just hoped that I could get Annika far enough away from the Borgs' reach before they tracked us down. Susan had text-messaged me that her uncle had sold the car for scrap as soon as the junkyard opened yesterday, so I was pretty sure that they were out of harm's way.
I eased Voyager into the slip, tied her off, and went inside. My heart beat faster upon seeing light spilling out from under the door to Annika's cabin. She was still up! I wouldn't have to wait until morning to see her. My need to be with her again, to look into those deep blue pools, had only grown stronger as I prepared for the overnight. I knocked twice as a warning and then barged right in.
What I found left me unable to move, to breathe. At my unexpected entrance, Annika gasped and turned to face me, her arms crossed over her upper body, her hands covering her breasts. Either she slept almost in the raw or Susan had neglected the little detail of sleepwear. As things were, she wore only a pair of blue satin panties cut high over her hips. Our eyes locked across the small cabin. I could read desire yet apprehension in her eyes. Surely what she saw in mine was unmistakable. I tried to reassure her without words, letting her see my desire, yes, but also my need for her, my growing love for her. Then I slowly let my eyes move lower, taking in her stunning body, her impossibly long, shapely legs, flat stomach, and full breasts spilling over the tops of her hands as she held them from my gaze.
After a small eternity I closed the door behind me and covered the few feet separating us in the tiny space. I took her wrists in my hands and carefully, gently, lowered her arms down to her sides. Still clasping her wrists, I gazed for long moments, my knees threatening to give out on me. Annika was breathing heavily, which only made it more difficult for me to remain upright. Finally I raised my hands to her face and pulled her down to me for a tentative kiss.
As we deepened the kiss, I felt her hands move to my waist, then slowly, slowly, her arms moved around my body. I let my hands leave her face and trail down to her shoulders, then to her upper arms. As I backed her toward the bunk, I left her lips to mark a path down her neck to her shoulder. I could feel her pulse pound against my mouth, and I suddenly felt as if I held a wounded songbird in my hands, terrified yet resigned to its fate. I pulled back to look into her eyes, which had darkened with desire.
Putting one knee on the bunk, I circled an arm around her waist until my hand was in the middle of her back, and I lowered her to the bed. Then I lay down next to her, my arm still wrapped around her. With my free hand I touched her face. "My God, you're beautiful," I breathed. I couldn't help it. I couldn't prevent the absurd inanities from spilling out. I stopped what I was doing and pulled away. I'd wanted to reassure her, but I also wanted to be sure myself that she wanted this to happen. Annika was way out of my league in every respect, and I realized that I sounded like a callous player, plying her with meaningless drivel in a graceless seduction.
"You're trembling," she whispered, her hand stroking my face.
"Yeah, I guess I am." Oh, smooth, Torres.
She searched my face with her eyes as she explored it with her hand. Then she pulled me down into a molten kiss. And then I ceased thinking so much and, thank God, running my mouth.
VIII. Light of Day
Faint sunlight streamed into the cabin as I awoke and realized where I wasand with whom. Annika and I lay against each other like canned sardines in the narrow bunk, but who was complaining? Her naked skin was warm and fragrant against mine beneath the blanket I'd pulled over us sometime during the night. I breathed deeply against her neck, reveling in the heady scent of her, of us, an intoxicating reminder of the night we'd shared.
"Good morning, lover," I whispered.
"Mmmmm," she moaned, snuggling closer.
"Isn't this precious!"
I jerked to a sitting position as Annika rose up onto one arm.
"Charles!" she gasped, pulling the blanket up to her chin, her eyes rounded in horror.
Charles Kotay sat in the chair beside the door, one leg casually crossed over the other, calmly pointing a gun at us.
"It's okay, baby," I told her, laying a hand upon her in an unconscious gesture of possession.
"No, Torres, it's not okay," Charles said. "And it's especially not okay for you."
"You leave her out of this, Charles," Annika commanded. "Your issue is with me." Her eyes flashed blue fire. I was impressed. It's difficult to be dignified and imposing when you're naked and held at gunpoint. Trust Annika to carry it off.
"Wrong again," said Charles, his face becoming hard, his mouth twisting into an ugly snarl. "Get up."
I looked over at Annika. When our eyes met, I smiled at her and gave her arm a gentle squeeze. Charles watched without expression as we got out of bed and dressed. I realized while dressing that my gun was with my suit. I looked past Charles toward the door to the starboard cabin, wondering how I could get to it.
"Looking for this?" Charles asked, opening his jacket. There was the SIG, tucked into his waistband. Damn, that was stupidleaving the piece so far away. Way to go, Torres, I thought, thinking with your crotch again.
When we were dressed Charles pulled Annika to him roughly, bringing her face up to his. "Damaged goods, now," he sneered. "But now you're not as expensive. Rigmora'll have to come down in price." Then he brought his mouth savagely down upon hers, plunging his tongue into her. Annika made a strangled cry and tried to pull away from him. I moved toward them only to have Charles push his gun into my stomach, stopping me in my tracks.
"Not yet, Torres," he said, his hand still clasping Annika's arm in a cruel grip. "And you, you whore," he turned to her. Then he did something that scared me cold. He smiled. He shoved her away from him with such force that she fell back upon the bunk. "Oh, we'll get to that," he told her. "You," he turned to me. "Time to go,"he said pleasantly.
At gunpoint I piloted Voyager out of the safe harbor and north into open water, toward the shipping lanes. After about an hour I saw our rendezvous, a sleek 50-foot cruiser built for speed. Charles had taken a runabout to the safe harbor to pick us up and the plan was for us all, including Voyager, to meet up with the cruiser far out into the Lake. Their intentions occurred to me with a staggering, sickening clarity. They'd work me over as punishment for stealing Annika from them, then chum me and scuttle Voyager way out in the cold depths of the big Lake. After the waves closed over the old vessel, no one would ever be the wiser. Lost fishing boat. Happened all the time. And AnnikaGod knew what they'd do to her. The thought of that vicious bastard's hands on her made me grip the wheel until my fingers ached.
As we approached the cruiser, I tried to think of a way to thwart their plans, but every scenario seemed to have the same resultme dead and Annika in thrall to a hateful life among despicable people. Even if we could somehow manage to get away in Voyager, we couldn't outrun the bigger, faster boat.
We pulled alongside the big boat and several dark-suited men jumped over onto Voyager's deck. They bristled with weapons, and they were all trained on me. Charles had kept Annika next to him since we'd left the cabin, never removing his hand from her arm or his gun from her face. I knew he'd kill her if I gave him the slightest provocation.
"Over to the cruiser, Torres," he said as he forced us down from the bridge.
I made the tricky maneuver from one boat to the other and into the midst of my welcoming committee, the Pinch and the Doc among them. Looked like the gang was all there. It was going to be some sendoff. I turned to make sure that Annika was not harmed as Charles none-too-gently handed her over the side to the deck of the cruiser. Large, strong hands held me by the shoulders or I would have gone to her. I hadn't been able to touch her since Charles had forced us up the ladder to the flybridge of Voyager, and I was beginning to believe that I'd die before getting the chance to hold her to me again, to kiss those soft lips, to tell her how much I loved her. For I did, I knew, love her. An immeasurable sadness washed over me, obliterating for the moment my fear and dread of what I knew was coming.
"Doc, Pinch," I said, nodding to them. "Nice to see you again."
"You don't know when to quit, do you?" smiled the Doc maliciously. "I guess you just can't help some people." Then he wound up and doubled me over with a punch to my midsection. The Pinch and some other goon pulled me up by the arms. I struggled to take a breath, dimly aware of Annika's cry of protest.
There would be no more pleasantries now. The Doc landed a precise blow to my mouth. Bright lights exploded before my eyes. Blood from my split lip filled my mouth and ran down my chin. I was nearly out on my feet, held up only by the Borg Queen's henchmen. The absurd thought flashed into my fading consciousness that I really, really wanted a cigarette.
"Stop!" The command came from far away. I slowly realized that I hadn't been hit in a while. The hands holding me tightened and forced me into a more upright position. Something new was happening, and I made myself focus on whatever it was.
As my vision cleared and I began to breathe more normally, I became aware of a new presence on deck. All heads were turned deferentially toward the tall, slender woman who had emerged from the cabin, and all activity ceased abruptly.
"Rigmora!" breathed Annika. The old lady? I thought blearily. I squinted in her direction, her image coming slowly into focus.
Rigmora Borg was an aging beauty. Her brown hair, liberally streaked with gray, was pulled back into a tight chignon at the base of her neck. Her fine features were pleasing to look at, and her pale skin was still smooth, a testament, perhaps, to the power of wealth and leisure to keep the ravages of time at bay for a while. She wore a classically tailored suit, and from some far-removed part of my brain came the thought that this was where Annika had got her fashion sense.
I watched as she walked up to me and paused.
"So this is the woman who has taken my Ani away from me." She raised a finely-boned hand to my cheek and stroked it down to my bloodied lips. "Such an attractive face," she smiled. "Pity."
Then she turned away, dismissing me to my fate. She walked over to Annika, who was standing ramrod straight, her head high. Charles had dropped her arm and moved away from her.
Rigmora lost her smile. She looked at Annika with a sad expression. "You disappoint me, Ani," she said softly. Then she struck Annika across the face in a resounding slap, a blow so hard that her head snapped violently to the right. Annika came through like a champ, though. She didn't even bring a hand up to her swelling lip to wipe away the trickle of blood. She slowly straightened back up to meet Rigmora's eyes in an unflinching stare.
They glared at one another for a long moment. If Rigmora was surprised at what she read in Annika's eyes, she didn't show it. "Take her inside," she ordered without removing her eyes from Annika's. Two men grabbed her by the arms and forced her toward the cabin. She turned her head and looked at me as they dragged her off.
"Annika!" I cried as she disappeared inside.
"Shut up, you stupid bitch," said the Doc before he hit me in the gut again. I wasn't going to be able to take much more of this. Whatever they were going to do, I hoped they'd make it quick. In the next few seconds, I knew.
"Chum her," said Rigmora.
IX. Sleeping with the Fishes
I was floating in a hazy, muffled, dream-like place, my eyes unfocused, my mind adrift. I was hardly aware of the rough hands as they half-carried, half-shoved me over the side of the cruiser, back onto the deck of Voyager. My legs could scarcely support me, and if it weren't for the powerful hands and their grip, I would have collapsed onto the deck. I wanted nothing so much as to go to sleep, to escape this reality that had suddenly become an intolerable nightmare from which I could not awaken. Surely, if I slept, the dreamscape would change, shift, and I would no longer find myself facing an unthinkable and improbable end.
Odd, incongruous words intruded into my consciousness. "Blood." "Mess." "Charges." "Chum." I felt a strange detachment from my body. The unnerving keening sound I was hearing, I slowly realized, was coming from me.
"Shut her up, will you?" somebody commanded, and then a wad of cloth was shoved into my mouth and my arms were wrenched behind my back. "Shut up, bitch!" said a voice in my ear, bringing me back to the present.
"Well, I see that my patient is not yet ready for surgery," said the Doc, wearing scrubs, as he approached me where I was being held by two men. "Do I have to do everything myself?" He set down his black bag and ripped my sweater over my head. Then, with the help of the other men, he stripped me of the rest of my clothes and I stood among them, shivering.
"How soon will those charges be set?" he asked over his shoulder. "I need to know how much time I have to do this." He opened his medical bag, revealing a number of gleaming surgical instruments. He reached into his bag and extracted a scalpel and what could only be described as a saw.
"The charges are set now, Doc," came the answer. "We can set the timer for whenever you want."
"The human body contains six quarts of blood, Ms. Torres"he lectured me as he ran his hand along my neck, feeling for the carotid artery. "We don't want to make a mess on Ms. Borg's nice boat, now, do we? Chumming can be so untidy. I'm so glad that we won't have to clean up after ourselves this time. Oh, let's make it 30 minutes," he said. "That should be plenty of time to turn our Ms. Torres here into fishfood, won't it?" he smiled at me.
I was beyond reason. I struggled in a blind panic against the hands that held me, the cloth that choked off my voice.
"How can I get any work done when my patient is moving about like this? Will you please restrain her?"
"We're tryin', Doc, but she's strong!" complained one of the men who held me.
"I guess if I want something done right, I have to do it myself," said the Doc. He pulled from his bag a syringe and small bottle. "This will take care of our little wiggle worm," he said as he plunged the needle into my neck.
Liquid fire suffused my neck, and then I could no longer feel my body nor move it. From some barely rational part of my brain came the thought that I would, at least, not feel the knife when it opened my vein.
"What the fuck?" someone shouted.
"Now, what?" said the Doc in exasperation, looking around.
"Fuckin'-A, man! Is that the Coast Guard?"
Suddenly I was released, and I fell to the deck. From my vantage point at the back of the boat, near the engines, I could see the deck being cleared of men. I heard shouting, gunshots, the sound of powerful engines roaring to life, then diminishing as the big boat sped away.
I lay in shock, slowly comprehending that, somehow, I had escaped the sentence pronounced by Rigmora Borg. Slowly the feeling returned to my body and I began to shiver against the cool breezes coming across the big water. The rocking boat almost put me to sleep as I lay in a stupor, relief mixing with disbelief, tears coursing down my face.
I'm not sure how long I lay there, drifting on the water, listening to the soothing sounds of the wind, the waves, the creaking of the boat as she pitched about. Something began to intrude upon my consciousness, a nagging thought tugging at me, spoiling my slow return into my body, to my own life.
The charges! They'd rigged the boat to explode in 30 minutes. How long had I lain there? How far away could I swim in the time I had left? I struggled to my feet and looked around in all directions. Far off to the west I could see vessels, but there was no way for me to reach them. I didn't want to go up with Voyager. Without a backward glance I dove off the stern into the cold, deep water of Lake Superior.
The shock of the frigid water almost made me take a breath as my body plunged into the Lake. I swam as long as I could under water before breaking the surface and looking around at Voyager, gauging the distance between us. I realized that I had no chance to swim to safety. No boat was close enough for me to reach, and the exercise would only use up what warmth I had left in me that much quicker. My hope was that I was far enough from Voyager to avoid the explosion and falling debris yet close enough to her last position to be found should anyone return for me. In the cold waters of the big Lake, I wouldn't last long, especially naked, before the warmth was leeched from my body and I died of hypothermia. That is, if I didn't drown first. I was a reasonably good swimmer, but I could tread water only so long. My thoughts were interrupted by a series of deafening explosions as the charges blew, ripping the old boat apart. She didn't last long before what was left of her slipped beneath the waves, and I knew that I'd be joining her soon. It had been a long time since I'd been to Mass, not since my mother's funeral. But the Church of my youth had a long history of forgiveness, and I began my penance. "Hail, Mary, full of grace . . ."
"Daddy! Daddy! Look at the fish I caught!"
"Wow! That's a keeper, Lanna. You're going to be a heck of fisherman, you know it?"
My beautiful, dark-haired, dark-eyed dad took the fish from my hook and placed it into the cooler among the others he'd caught that day. It was the best day of fishing ever, the best day of my life. The fish were so big, and it was so much fun to be on the water, to drive the boat as my daddy held me up to the wheel. Then we were sitting on the deck, looking at the stars as the boat rocked us, making me sleepy. And then he was putting me into bed, patting my back as I drifted off to sleep, drifted away, shivering, and I was so cold, and I was so tired, so very tired . . . .
X. Deus ex Janeway
"More must be done."
A voice I knew, insistent, demanding.
"We've done what we can, Ms. Hansen. Now we'll just have to wait."
I didn't know this voice. Calm. Authoritative.
"No. More must be done!"
"We've placed warm compresses on her. We've dried her, covered her, and slowly warmed her core with IV fluids. We're following standard medical procedure for hypothermia cases." He was composed, sympathetic.
"You must do more," Annika brushed aside his sympathy with impatience.
"Believe me, Ms. Hansen. The only thing we haven't tried is skin-on-skin, and that's notwhat are you doing, Ms. Hansen? Ms. Hansen? WhatJesus!"
A few moments later I felt a cool breeze wash over my body and then a delicious silkiness, warm, heavy, and voluptuous. Naked skin nestled upon my own as the blanket settled back down over us.
"Am I in heaven?" I whispered, opening my eyes to find shimmering blue pools, now spilling over with tears. I ran my hands up her warm, smooth body until I held her tightly against me. I kissed her tears away.
"Oh, Lanna," Annika cried. "You've come back to me!" She buried her face in my neck and sobbed as I held her, kissing her face, her hair, her neck.
"Sh, sh, sh," I soothed. "It's okay, baby, it's okay. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."
"Gentlemen, I think we'll just give these two a moment."
That voice! I had forgotten that Annika and I weren't the only two people in the roomin the world. But that couldn't be . . .
"Ahem, yes. Of course, Captain Janeway. We'll come back to check on our patient when they're finishedI mean when they're throughI mean later."
"Thank you, Doctor. That's most understanding of you. Now, Skipper, perhaps you'd like to give me a tour of this ship of yours."
Their voices diminished as they left, closing the hatch behind them.
Ship? I hadn't at first realized it, but yes. The small room I found myself in was rolling. Still on the Lake, then. But Janeway? What the hell was she doing here? It was clear that I had missed a lot of excitement. But my questions, I realized, could wait. The woman who held my heart needed me. As I held her to me, the enormity of waking virtually from the dead hit me. Tears started from my eyes, as well, and I felt my body convulse as sobs of my own wrenched painfully from me.
"Oh, my love," Annika murmured, "my love." Over and over, a mantra, a prayer. Soft, full lips rained kisses on my face as she wiped my tears away with her hand and drank them in with her mouth. Over and over, calling me back. "My love, my sweet love."
Sometime later I fell asleep, and it was when I was sitting, fully clothed and warm for the first time in what seemed like forever in the galley of the Coast Guard Cutter Hollyhock, before a steaming bowl of soup, that I learned of events that had happened while I was making like a bobber in the water.
Annika sat next to me, her arm wrapped possessively around my waist, practically feeding me. She hadn't left my side, I was to learn, since they'd fished me out of the drink, blue with cold and damn near dead.
Captain Janeway sat across from us with an FBI agent. It seemed that Janeway and certain members of the St. Paul Police Department and the FBI had been planning to move against the Borgs for some time. Annika's attempt to flee had forced them to act before they were ready. We'd been lucky. If the cops and feds hadn't been watching the Borgs the night we'd left town, they'd have succeeded in getting me out of the way and recovering Annika, a prospect that left me cold with dread. As it turned out, when the Borgs moved against us, the law moved against them. We'd been followed out of St. Paul by both groups as they played an elaborate game of "follow that cab!" behind us. It ended only after Annika had forced a surprising resolution.
"What happened on that boat, Annika?" I asked, looking at her with concern. She dropped her eyes and removed her arm from around me, clasping her hands in her lap. As I gazed at her face, I found myself looking at the incipient lines running across her lovely forehead, and I imagined them years from now, deeper, more interesting as she grew older. I promised myself that I would do nothing more to deepen her worry lines. It was a promise I was to break, but never did I give her any reason to doubt my love for her.
"What?" I persisted, covering her hands with one of mine.
"This is one for the books," Janeway stepped in. It was my turn to comfort Annika. I wrapped my arm around her and pulled her even closer. She still had not raised her eyes, continuing to stare at her hands.
Finally she looked up at me, her eyes darkened with pain.
"After they took me inside, they locked me in one of the sleeping cabins. Charles entered shortly and began to slap me, saying horrible things. Then he . . . he . . . ," Annika looked away, her eyes glistening with tears.
"What?" I exploded. "He didn't . . . he didn't . . . ," I, too, had trouble finishing the thought.
"No," Annika hurriedly assured me, turning to me and placing a hand on my leg. "But,
as he did before," she continued, "he tried to kiss me. I believe that he had intended to rape me. As I struggled against him I encountered your gun in his waistband. I pulled it out and . . . ," she stopped again.
"She blew him away!" interrupted the FBI agent enthusiastically. "Shot him three times! Twice in the gut and once right in the."
"I think we've got the picture,"interceded Janeway. Annika had begun to weep silently at the memory. Clearly she had not relished killing even someone as deserving as Charles, even if the G-man had. I hugged her to me again, putting her head on my shoulder.
"It's okay, baby," I whispered. "You only did what you had to do."
"Charles is not the only person I killed yesterday,"she said, looking at me.
"What? You take out the whole Borg family?" I asked, trying for levity but not quite keeping the hint of admiration out of my voice.
"Just one more," said Janeway. Annika seemed content to let Janeway take up the story, putting her head back on my shoulder. "The Borgs were trying to get away, and they were firing at us. We returned fire, of course, and tried to get them to heave to and give up. But then Rigmora Borg came out on deck with Ms. Hansen, here, a gun pointed at her head."
"What happened to my SIG?" I turned to Annika.
"The Pinch took it from me," she said. "He is very . . . resourceful."
"It's State's evidence now, Torres," said Janeway. "You'll get it back. Some day."
The G-man snorted.
"Right," I smirked. I'd believe it when I saw it. I had the feeling that Captain Janeway would be happier if I wasn't walking around packing. "Then what happened?"
"If we hadn't been in such a serious situation, it would have been funny!" the Captain chuckled in her deep, throaty voice. "When you're bouncing over the waves at 70 miles per hour or so, it's hard to stay on your feet in flats, let alone heels. The Borg boat bounced off a wave and went flying in the air for several feet. When she hit everyone flew around the deck. That's when Ms. Hansen made her move." She smiled at Annika in admiration, and perhaps something else.
"What happened, Annika?" I prodded gently again.
"I knocked the gun from her hand and pushed her overboard," she said demurely.
"You WHAT?" I burst out.
"Lanna, please," she raised pain-filled eyes to mine. "I had no idea I could do such a thing. All I was thinking of was you and what they were doing to you. It was as if it wasn't even me." She paused. "I can't tell the rest," she looked at Janeway.
I circled her waist with my arm again. "I'm sorry," I whispered.
"The Hollyhock was no match for the Borg cruiser in speed," continued Janeway, "and we were going to lose them. But when Rigmora Borg went over the side, they turned around to come back for her. Before they could get to her and, before we could avoid her, we sort of ran over her."
"So she . . .?"
"Chummed," stated Annika without a note of irony.
There was a moment of stunned silence.
I was proud of how well I was maintaining my composure. But then I met Janeway's eyes. It took several moments for Janeway and me to get ourselves under control. We avoided each other's eyes for a few minutes and I began to think of Annika and what she had gone through. I ran my hand up and down her back.
"Okay," I said, finally, "so much for old lady Rigmora. What about the rest of 'em?"
"With the head cut off, the body dies," said Janeway. "The Borg thugs just gave up. We had them in our crosshairs, and they knew it. They'll put their legal team to work on their behalf, but we've got some strong cases against them. Thanks to you, Torres, we've got the Doc on attempted murder and kidnapping. We've got the Pinch on kidnapping, and the rest, aiding and abetting. With Rigmora and Kotay out of the way, we'll be able to begin dismantling some of their operations."
"There's some tax evasion and prostitution we've connected to them," the FBI man offered. "Even if we can't take down the whole system, we'll set the Borgs back for a while, anyway."
"And you'll make, maybe, deputy commissioner? Commissioner?" I asked Janeway.
"I'd thought of that." She looked self-satisfied.
Then a new thought occurred to me. "How, Captain"?
"How what?" she looked at me and frowned.
"How did you know? How did you arrange all of this?"I gestured to the ship we sat in. "I mean, the Coast Guard?"
"Thank your old Academy buddy. Officer Celes alerted me to your case with Ms. Hansen. We'd been quietly investigating the disappearances of some members of the crime families twenty years ago, trying to find some charges against the Borgs that we could make stick. By hiring Torres, here, you flushed them out, Ms. Hansen," she said to Annika. "Celes will get a commendation for this. She took a big risk coming to me with information. She didn't know if I was on the up and up or if I was in cahoots with the Borgs."
Janeway got up and refilled her coffee cup. "You have some loyal friends, Torres," she said, pacing around the small galley as she spoke. "A few days ago the Duluth Police Department got a call from one Susan Nicoletti. She reported that her uncle had been roughed up by some thugs who were asking about a car he'd bought. She knew it had to be the Borgs. A friend in the Duluth P. D. called me but we were already there in Duluth. We followed them following you. Ms. Nicoletti told us about your escape in her uncle's fishing boat. I figured they wouldn't stop at the shores of Lake Superior, so I called the Coast Guard. They didn't want me aboard at first, but I can be pretty persuasive." She smiled into her coffee cup. Janeway's career path suddenly looked golden. I had to admit a grudging admiration for her tenacity. At least she knew what she wanted in life.
I looked over at Annika. I knew what I wanted, now, too. She looked troubled. There was still one more missing piece to this puzzle.
"Captain Janeway," she said, "what have you learned about that time twenty years ago? What happened to those people? What happened to my parents?"
Janeway sat back down and put her coffee cup aside. Her eyes lost their glow, and her face grew serious. I could see the mask of command rise back upthe face of a professional law enforcement officer about to lower the boom.
"Your parents are dead, Ms. Hansen, murdered twenty years ago by Charles Kotay."
My arm tightened around her again. "How?" I asked. "What actually went down that day so long ago?"
"It's taken a long time to piece it together, but now we know not only what happened to your parents, Ms. Hansen, but also why it happened. It seems that to eliminate the competition, the Borgs planned a perfectly synchronized plot to kidnap the children of the minor crime families of St. Paul. On a specified day, at least one child from each family was grabbedcoming home from school, in the park, wherever they happened to be. Then they were held until the families signed over their business interests to the Borgs and left town or joined forces with the Borgs, still turning over their interests, but now, instead of running their own shows, they became mere employees of the Borg family."
"But I was told from the start that my family abandoned me," Annika said.
"Yes," replied Janeway. "It seems that you, Ms. Hansen, are the real reason behind the entire operation."
"I don't understand," said Annika, frowning.
"Rigmora Borg never had children of her own, right?"she asked Annika.
"That's correct," she nodded. "Rigmora remained unmarried. She never wanted to share power or to answer to anyone else," she said, turning to look at me. "Charles was actually the nephew by marriage of a sister."
"So what did she want with Annika?" I asked Janeway, clasping Annika's hand tightly in mine under the table.
"It seems that she had seen Annika once on an outing in the park with her nanny. Rigmora became taken with her and planned the whole operation just to nab her. That's why you were told that your parents didn't want you," Janeway looked at Annika. "And that's why your parents were murdered. She wanted you for her own."
Annika looked down at our hands clasped in her lap for a long moment. Then she raised her eyes back up to Janeway's. They were filled with pain, but her gaze was direct.
"How?" she asked simply.
Janeway held her gaze, her face unreadable. "Chummed."
Annika nodded as if she had been expecting that answer. We sat in silence for long minutes.
"I think I would like to lie down for a while, Captain, Lanna," she said, pulling her hand out of mine and rising.
"Of course," said the Captain as we all stood with her.
"I'll see if the Skipper can find a bunk for you. We'll be back in Duluth in a few hours. I'm sure you need some time to let all of this sink in." She left in search of the captain of the Hollyhock, dragging the FBI agent with her.
The cutter had rendezvoused with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to turn over the prisoners before heading back to Duluth. I wondered how long it would be before we were released. There would be police reports to fill out and statements to make. I wondered if I would ever return to my life in St. Paul. I looked at Annika as she walked around the small galley, her arms clasped around herself, as she had that night in my office. What would happen to her, I wondered. What would happen to us? Was there an "us"?
I stood unmoving, watching her as she dealt with all that had happened these last few days. Had it only been four days ago when Annika had walked into my office that evening, lady of intrigue and mystery? It seemed like a lifetime ago.
Then Janeway returned with a sailor who would escort Annika to a cabin so she could rest. I watched her leave and took a step toward her, unwilling to let her walk away while I was feeling distant from her. Janeway put a hand on my arm, stopping me.
"Let her go," she told me. "Give her time. This is a lot to take in."
"I guess you're right," I said. I looked at her. "I want to thank you for coming back for me."
Janeway smiled and put a hand up to stop me. "Don't thank me," she said, her eyes twinkling. "Thank Annika. As soon as we secured the Borg prisoners aboard the Hollyhock she insisted that we return for you. She was convinced that you were still alive. She wouldn't leave the deck the whole time we looked for you." Janeway chuckled. "In fact, it was Annika who spotted you in the water, barely conscious yet still somehow staying afloat. I don't know how you did it."
"I guess I finally had something to live for,"I told her, my head coming up.
Her face became serious. "Yes, I can see that you do. You're a lucky woman, Torres," she said as she glanced at the hatch to the galley. "Don't fuck it up."
I stared after her as she turned and left me alone to chew on what she'd said. Much as I hated to admit it, she was right. The potential for a typical Torres fuck-up was great. I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat back down at the table to weigh my options. I could go back to St. Paul and what I knew, start over somewhere else, where no one knew me and my sketchy history, or I could stand pat, stick it out with Annika, see if we couldn't build something together. We were both cut adrift, unmoored. We needed each other. Or I needed her. I wasn't so sure about Annika. What if she knew a bad bargain when she saw one? I so much wanted to be worthy of her love and respect.
I thought back to that night on Voyager, that magical night in the safe harbor when anything seemed possible, when I'd reached out and touched perfection. When she'd pulled me down to that kiss after I'd hesitated, giving herself to me in an act of faith and trust, hadn't she told me then that she was putting in with me? That we were forging something together? I replayed that night.
Annika's breasts were full and heavy in my hands, her responses devastating as I took her into my mouth. The little sounds she made as I kissed and sucked made my heart pound and my body gush. And I thought I would die of the exquisite pain of the clench in my stomach. I moved from her breasts to capture her lips again, the little sounds coming from lower in her throat as we kissed deeply and endlessly.
"You melt me," she whispered as I moved down to taste her neck and shoulder. My hand found her sweet wetness.
"Oh, Annika," I breathed, bringing my hand up to my mouth to taste her on my fingers. "Do you know how wonderful you are?" I asked against her lips. She shuddered and dug her fingers into my back. "Love me, Lanna. Love me," she murmured. And I did.
I don't know how long I sat in the little galley drinking coffee, remembering that night, wondering if we would have another. I shivered at the memory of waking up to Annika in my arms, her smell and taste filling my senses, and then to have it go so terribly wrong when we realized that we had company. I shook the horrible image from my mind and returned to thinking only of Annika. "Please," I prayed, "please don't let this be over."
Then the hatch to the galley opened. I looked up to see Annika framed in the hatchway. She looked as lovely as she had the first time I'd seen her, taking my breath away, just as she had done then. We gazed at each other for a long moment, and I held my breath. Then she smiled at me.
XI. On Wisconsin
I was sitting at my usual table in Sisters' Restaurant, my new favorite hangout. They served the best banana pancakes in Door County, and I sat back, finished with my breakfast, savoring one final cup of joe before heading out to the marina. No post-meal cigarette, alasAnnika's doing.
It had been more than a year since Annika had walked into my office and changed my life. I could scarcely believe the set of circumstances that had brought me here, to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, owner of my own fishing charter, and wife of the lovely young woman whose life and fortunes had become irrevocably intertwined with mine.
"Lanna! Come on! I've got the customers on board and the boat ready. What're you waiting for?"
Oh, and boss of my first mate, Carl Snodgrass, a veteran of both the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars who'd somehow mustered out just before implementation of the "stop-loss" program that had turned the all-volunteer army into conscripts, after all. Carl had finished up his twenty years and retired, and no amount of arm-twisting by Recruiting Command could make him re-up. Being first mate of a fishing boat plying the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan proper was exactly what he was looking for in a second career. He was a good first mate, too. He took orders well and wasn't afraid of a little fish gore. And the customers found him hilarious. He could come up with more rhymes for "Nantucket" than I would have thought possible, and the limericks seemed to fall from him like autumn leaves.
Poor Carl, though. He had one problem that had no solution. He'd taken one look at Annika when I'd introduced them and been smitten. Whenever the three of us got together he could barely speak, following her with soulful brown eyes and a slack jaw. I couldn't fault him for that, though. I'd had the same reaction.
Annika had found her niche in our little Cape Cod. She gardened in the summer and ran a book club through the long winter. She'd had a successful first year, taking the ladies through all of Jane Austen. She was planning a forced march through Margaret Drabble for the coming season. I told her that I'd really be impressed when they took on the ponderous and ever-growing body of work by Joyce Carol Oates. That would keep even the most avid reader busy for the foreseeable future. She'd rewarded me with her arched eyebrow, surprised at my observation. I wasn't a complete philistine, I'd told her, earning an indulgent smile. As we got to know one another this past year, we'd continued to surprise each other.
One day, not long after we'd settled into our new home, Annika caught me coming into the house with two enormous yellow wedges of Styrofoam.
"What are those?" she'd asked.
"Cheeseheads! We're gonna be Packers' fans, baby!" I'd replied gleefully. "Brats and beer! Tailgating at Lambeau Field! Frozen tundra! Driving snow! Brrrrrrr!"
"And the Twins?" she'd asked.
"Brewers! They've been promoted to the Senior Circuit, anyway. Real baseball, Stretch! Pinch-hitting! Pitchers batting and bunting! Sacrifices! Suicide squeezes! Double switches! Managerial wheels turning! Baseball the way it was meant to be played."
Annika had succinctly pointed out that I'd merely traded one set of losers, the Vikings, for another, the Brewers, and that Old Milwaukee was a poor substitute for Moosehead. If I could have thought of a rejoinder I would have, but she'd left me gaping at her with a frustrating realization that she was rightat least about the beer. I'd drunk Old Milwaukee for about a week before going back to Moosehead, but I wasn't going to tell her that. As it turned out, it was Carl and I who wore the cheeseheads and froze our butts off watching the Packers, Annika never quite cottoning to football. I supposed it was just as well. She preferred to keep her Sunday afternoons free for her book circle. Carl and I would come back to our house just as the ladies were leaving, and then the three of us would settle in for dinner and a movie. I wondered how long Carl would be content with his hopeless worship of Annika, but he seemed happy enough.
As I paid my bill at Sisters' and walked down to the marina where the Stretch Run was moored, I reflected upon how we'd come to own her, a brand new 37-foot fishing charter. After all of the police reports and courtroom appearances, Annika and I had found ourselves at loose ends and virtually broke. I was toying with the idea of returning to my p. i. business when Captain Janeway had once again saved the day. Through some connection about which the less we knew the better, she'd managed to get the trust fund that Rigmora had amassed for Annika released to her. With that money, we bought the Stretch Run and had plenty left over for our house in Door County. I wondered if Janeway, too, had gone all soft and gooey over Annika, because it sure wasn't her love for me that prompted that action.
"Thank you, Captain," I'd told her as we left the courthouse for the final time.
"I don't know what you're talking about Torres," she'd said, her eyes going glinty. "And I don't ever want to see you in St. Paul again."
That was enough for me. Annika and I had set off on Lake Superior for a long vacation as we headed for the locks that would pass us from one Great Lake to another. Along the way, our vacation had become our honeymoon. We'd stopped off in Sault Ste. Mariethe Canadian side, of courseand got married. Then it was another week as we made our way into Green Bay and our final destination, Sturgeon Bay.
And here we were, and here I was at my boat.
"Finally!" Carl griped, throwing off the lines and jumping back onto the deck.
The lake trout were running, and once again I had to pinch myself. I couldn't believe it. I was making my living at the thing I loved more than anything, except for my Annika, of course. And she would be waiting for me when I came back later that afternoon.
"Ready to catch some fish?" I asked my customers as I climbed up to the flybridge. At their enthusiastic affirmatives, I turned the Stretch Run away from the marina and into Sturgeon Bay, amazed once more by the thought of the secrets lying beneath the deceptively placid waters of the Great Lakes.
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