DISCLAIMER: This is an Uber story, which means that the two main characters bear a striking resemblance to a certain Warrior Princess and her Bard <g>. Xena and Gabrielle are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

LOVE/SEX WARNING DISCLAIMER: This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal where you live, please do not read it.

Please send comments and/or constructive criticism to tkocialski@catskill.net   or visit my website at http://xenamultimedia.com/trish


Deadly Challenge


Trish Kocialski


Chapter 1

26 November, 1030 Hours


The ride to Walter Reed Army Medical Center took longer than expected, due to the large numbers of holiday shoppers clogging the highways at every mall entrance along the way.  Lieutenant Colonel Deanna Peterson and her partner Special Agent Katie O’Malley were on their way to pick up Tracy Kidd, their good friend who was to be discharged from Walter Reed that afternoon.  Tracy was recuperating from a gunshot wound she sustained while helping her friends end a terrorist plot to disrupt a multi-national military exercise in the Bahamas.  The terrorists had taken over a flight of sixteen missiles and reprogrammed their target coordinates to impact in Havana, Cuba, the Florida Keys, and two military installations in the United States.  Tracy had received her wound while trying to maneuver a helicopter into a position where Colonel Peterson could board a moving speedboat.  She was successful in that attempt, however a stray bullet not only injured her, but also lethally damaged the helicopter, causing it to crash and sink in the ocean.  


Dean eased her SUV into the entrance for Walter Reed and managed to find a parking space fairly close to the entrance.  “Well, here we are, at last,” Dean commented as she removed the key from the ignition.  “Hope the discharge papers haven’t been processed yet.  She’ll be having a cow if she could have left by now.  I know how impatient Trace can get when she wants out of some place.”


“Oh?” her young blonde companion drawled as she exited her side of the SUV.  “You mean she can be worse than you?”  Katie smiled at the frown Dean shot her as the two women walked toward the hospital entrance.


“What do you mean?  I’m not impatient at all,” Dean bantered good naturedly as she held the door for her partner. 


Katie looked up into Dean’s twinkling sapphire eyes and smiled back knowingly.  “Okay.  You just remember that the next time you have to go in for your annual physical.  I don’t want to hear one word from you.”  Katie waggled a finger at the taller woman as she passed inside.


They headed for the first bank of elevators, pressing the button for service as they waited.  Dean stood facing the elevator, hands clasped behind her back, rocking on her heels as she waited.  Katie was mentally counting off the seconds, certain that Dean would make a comment about the slow service before she reached twenty.  Her count was interrupted by the arrival of Colleen Shore, Tracy’s partner.


“Hi, guys!” Colleen called, as she came out of the coffee shop across from the elevators. 


“Hey, Col!  Has she been discharged yet?” Katie inquired as the elevator doors parted.


“Nope.  The doctor has to come up to give her a final once over, then he’ll sign the paperwork for the discharge.”  The three women entered the elevator along with several hospital staff.  “Her doctor is really nice.  He’s very young, but seems to be quite competent.”


“That’s right, General Carlton was going to assign someone special to her case.  What’s his name?” Dean asked as the elevator stopped on their selected floor.


“Captain O’Brien,” Colleen informed them as they arrived at Tracy’s room. 


Stepping through the door, they noted that the privacy curtain was extended and could hear a male voice giving Tracy instructions for her home recuperation period.


“Now make sure you get those stitches out on Friday.  You can just come to the outpatient clinic, and one of the PA’s will take care of it.  Then you can start on some therapy next week,” the voice was instructing.  “I’ll send your therapist my orders today.  That way, they can line up your treatment schedule so you can start on Monday.  Now, any questions before I go sign those discharge papers?”


“Um, none I can think of right now,” Tracy began, “but if something comes up, I’ve got your number.  Thanks, Captain, and good luck to you.”


“Captain… hmm, I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to this,” the doctor muttered softly.  “Thanks for being a model patient, Tracy”  .  Now, just do what we talked about for the next few days, and you’ll be fine.  I’ll go get your paperwork started.  A corpsman will be here in about an hour to escort you out.”


The curtain slid back along the ceiling track, allowing the young doctor to exit the area.  As he turned, he noted Colleen and two other women standing by the door.  “She’s all yours…” He stopped speaking as he recognized the two women.  “Hey, Colonel Peterson…  Agent O’Malley.  What are you two doing here?”


“Pete?” both women mouthed together as they recognized the young doctor.


“Yeah, it’s me.  What a surprise, eh?”  He beamed at the slack jawed women who were just staring at him in wonder.


“What… how…” Dean stammered.


“Long story,” Captain O’Brien noted.  “But the short of it is, your general is a pretty fast talker and an even faster paper pusher.  I’ve been here for ten days now.   Tracy was my first patient.”  He looked over at Tracy who was now redressed and interested in the conversation.  “I take it you know these two?” He pointed at Dean and Katie.


“Yeah, doc.  That tall one over there is the one responsible for my getting in the way of that bullet,” Tracy quipped as she walked over to Dean and gave her a hug.  “But I don’t hold it against her.”  They all laughed and then proceeded to quickly catch up on Pete’s new commission as a medical corps officer.  Ten minutes later, Captain O’Brien excused himself so he could get Tracy’s discharge in motion.


“Wow.  That’s pretty cool of the general,” Katie admitted.  “Pete can get his residency finished and get paid well in the process.  No more crummy jobs to provide for his family.”  Dean nodded and smiled, making a mental note to thank the general. 


The corpsman showed up within the hour, as promised, brandishing a wheelchair for Tracy’s exit.  Tracy eagerly sat in the chair for her ride down to the lobby, telling her friends that she was not about to spend any more time than necessary in the hospital.  Regulations were regulations, after all, and she knew she would have to give in to the ride sooner or later anyway.  Dean brought the SUV up to the curb and parked, while the corpsman helped Tracy into the back seat.  Once they were all in, Dean cautiously pulled out and headed the SUV back to Occoquan.


“You’re sure you guys don’t mind us crashing with you until Friday?” Colleen asked for the third time.  “We could get a hotel room.”


“No way!” Katie declared.  “There’s plenty of room, and the cats will love to have company for a few days.  Besides, we got to use your timeshare while you were up here, so let’s just call it even.”


“Even it is,” Tracy agreed.  “How was the rest of your vacation anyway?”


“Fantastic!  I can see why you guys go there every year.  It’s so laid back and restful,” Dean contributed.


“And the beaches are great too ” Katie chimed in a bit too eagerly, which elicited a wide grin from Dean.


“I hope you guys remembered the beach blanket!” Tracy teased, which caused them all to burst into laughter.


* * * * * *

A small, camouflaged body crept stealthily through the trees surrounding Dean’s property.  At a distance of fifty yards, it stopped and slid into a prone position behind a series of small evergreen shrubs that had been planted in a random pattern on both sides of the house.  The figure was now across from the deck that extended around the three sides of the house, and could see directly into the kitchen where the foursome was gathered.  A gnarled right hand pulled out a pair of binoculars from a backpack, the magnification allowing the voyeur to feel as though it were sitting amidst the four laughing people.


“So, that’s the grand tour,” Katie pronounced as she led Tracy and Colleen back into the kitchen before taking the tray of snacks out to the living room.


“Nice place you’ve got here Dean, but aren’t you worried about privacy?  There’s not a curtain in the place.”  Colleen pointed at the floor to ceiling windows in testament to her statement.


“Hey, just take a look outside Col, do you see anyone watching?” Dean joked, but then turned serious.  “Not to worry my friend.  Besides all the trees between here and the next property, I had this little item installed.”  Dean walked over to the main control panel for all of the electronic toys she'd added for security, and pushed a series of buttons.  Instantly, the windows went from a clear view of the outside, to an opaque view, allowing light, but no sight, to filter through.


“Awesome!” Tracy and Colleen chimed in together.  Dean pushed the buttons once more, and the windows returned to their clear view mode.


“I saw this at a home show up in Philadelphia.  I thought it was the coolest thing ever devised.  Saves a lot in window dressings too,” Dean explained.  “Of course it was a bit pricey to add, but I think it’s worth it.”   Dean led her guests to the living room where Katie had put out the tray of cheese, fresh fruit and crackers, along with some hot cider.   They chatted on for nearly an hour, reliving their experiences of the past year.


“Have you ever been asked to the White House before, Dean?” Colleen inquired.  “I mean, it’s a bit unnerving and… well, what should we wear and all?”


“Well, that’s an easy one for me, I’ll be in uniform; you guys can just wear something casual ,” Dean snickered.


“Casual?  To the White House?  To meet the President?” Colleen objected.


“Yeah, Col, you know me.  Best I’ll do is a pair of slacks and a jacket,” Tracy admitted.


“Sure, that’ll be fine.  It’s a private meeting.  No press or anything,” Katie offered.  The general said he just wants to meet us, and thank us… again.”  Katie’s mind whirled back to nearly a year ago, when she first met the President in Dean’s hospital room after she came out of surgery.  Now, that was an interesting experience.  Watching the President thank Dean for saving the day, even though she was acting on her own initiative and technically against orders.  I don’t know who was more intimidated in that brief meeting, the President or Dean.  My gut though, tells me it was the President--for not taking her warnings seriously.  Katie returned from her thoughts to be greeted by a knowing smile from her lover.  “Speaking of the general, shouldn’t she be here soon with our feline brood?”


Outside, beneath the evergreen shrub, the silent figure continued a vigilant watch, listening to the conversation through the small transmitters that were planted earlier in the week.  “You’re getting really good at saving the day, aren’t you?” the camouflaged body whispered.  “Well, we’ll just see how good you are, won’t we.”  Then the phantom, packed the binoculars back into the backpack and slipped away into the silence of the night.


* * * * *


Bidding the general goodnight then giving Sugar her medication for the night, Dean and Katie finally, and thankfully, made their way to their bedroom.  After brushing their teeth and washing up for the night, Dean doused the lights before the two naked women exited the bathroom.  “I think I need another vacation, just to rest up,” Katie moaned as she crawled under the fluffy comforter.


“Mmm, me too,” her tall lover replied following Katie into the bed.  “Nice to be home though.”


“Yes, it is.  And the cats seem to be glad to be home too.”  Katie no sooner finished the sentence, than Butter jumped up on the bed, stalking her way over to her mistress where she laid down on Katie’s chest eliciting an ‘urf’ from the woman as the cat plopped down.  Sugar quickly followed her sister and took over the lower section of the bed, purring with contentment.  “Gotta put these cats on a diet,” she gasped as she moved Butter from her chest.


“Looks like you were missed,” Dean stated as she stroked the calico that now took up residence between them.


“Umhm.  And it looks like she wants to keep an eye on both of us.”  Katie looked around the room in anticipation of Spice joining them.  Not seeing her, she shrugged her shoulders and rolled over to face Dean.  “I guess Spice is still angry about being left behind.”


“She’s probably down with Tracy and Colleen,” Dean offered.  “Colleen really does attract all sorts of animals.  Remember how those puppies took right to her?”


“Yeah, they just swarmed over her like ants over melted ice cream.”  Katie giggled at the memory and was about to make another comment when the two women heard something slide across the hardwood floor and bounce off the molding, followed by the sound of a cat pouncing on her prey.


“Meow!”  Bat, slide, crash, thump!  “Meeooowww.”


“Good grief!  What has she got now!”  Katie threw the comforter off and grabbed her robe, slipping it on before turning the lights on.  Scanning the room, she found the source of the noise crouched in the corner, tail smacking heavily back and forth on the wood floor, eyeing an unseen object under a chair.  Going over to check out what treasure Spice had conjured up this time, she bent down and reached under the chair, coming up with a totally unexpected surprise.


“Dean, … you'd better take a look at this.”  Katie took the object over to Dean’s side of the bed, offering it to her lover as she sat up.  “I think Spice may have gotten into some of your techno toys.”


“What the…” Taking the small item in her hand, sapphire eyes darkened.  “It’s not one of ours.”  Dean looked at the tiny transmitter, turning it over in her hand several times.  “It’s a European model, maybe a NATO issue.”


“Are you sure?”




“Is it working?”


“Not now,” pointing to fresh teeth marks in the small object. “Spice took care of that.”  She looked up into alert emerald eyes as she got out of bed, slipping on her nightshirt.  “But I’m sure there are more where this came from,” she added in a barely audible whisper. 


Silently, Dean headed for the exercise room, flipping on the light as she entered.  Katie followed, knowing that Dean was heading for her secured closet where she kept a variety of high tech equipment on hand for short notice assignments.  Dean entered the ten-digit combination, turned the handle and entered the closet, emerging in a few seconds with an electronic ‘bug’ detector.  The item was not much larger than a portable tape player, but had an eight-inch tube protruding from one end.  She turned the instrument on and began a thorough sweep of her entire house, inside and out.  Katie, in the meantime, went to Tracy and Colleen’s room and silently apprised their guests of the situation.  Within thirty minutes, Dean had found fifteen other transmitting devices, bagged them, and relegated them to the freezer, before joining her friends in the living room.


The tall woman sat heavily in the chair by the fireplace. “Okay, I’ve got them all.”


“Just a typical night in an intelligence officer’s life?” Colleen queried as she took in the exhausted look on her friend's face.


“Guess you could say that,” Dean sighed.


“Any ideas?” questioned Tracy as she readjusted herself on the couch, careful not to disturb her injured shoulder.


“Not a clue.” Tired blue eyes looked up at the three people staring at her.  “We’ll have to wait for daylight before I can check the grounds more thoroughly.  Until then, I suggest we try to get some sleep.”


* * * * *


Chapter 2

27 November, 0630 Hours


Dean was up before daybreak, sitting in the dark kitchen while she waited for enough daylight to start her search.  Katie woke as she felt the presence of her lover fade from her side.  Deciding that she wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore, she got up and slipped into her sweats, ready to help in the search.  She quietly entered the kitchen, taking up a position behind her lover who was staring out the wide expanse of windows.  Gently placing a hand on Dean’s shoulder, she greeted her partner with a soft kiss to the top of her head.


“Morning, love,” Katie whispered as she removed her lips from the shiny black hair.  “Couldn’t sleep, huh?”


“Nope.  Just trying to figure out who could have bugged us.”  Dean turned in her chair, sapphire eyes searching emerald ones.  “And how the hell they got in here past my security.  I checked the entire security program when we got in Saturday night, and there were no discrepancies, no unauthorized breaks in the code, no indication of anything being amiss.”  Dean stood and shook her head.  “Maybe there’s something missing in my program.  I’ll ask Colleen to check it out tomorrow.”  She took her tea mug from the table and downed the last of its contents before placing it in the dishwasher.  “It’s getting light enough now.  I’m going to start around the house and garage first, then make my way out to the perimeter.  Care to join me?”


“Exactly my thoughts.  Maybe you can teach me some of the tricks of your trade along the way.”  The two women walked to the laundry/mud room and slipped on their jackets to insulate them from the cold morning temperature.  Dean disarmed the security alarm, grabbed a flashlight from the shelf, and softly closed the door, not wanting to wake Tracy and Colleen.  They turned to the right and circled the house in gradually expanding circles as they checked the foundation, shrubs, and garage.  By the time they reached the outer reaches of the lot, they were about to give up on finding any indication of something out of the ordinary, until Dean spotted the depression under the shrub.


“Look there, Katie.  See the depression under the shrub?”


“Yes.  But couldn’t it have been made by an animal?”


“Not that big a depression.  And the boughs of the bush are two close to the ground for a larger animal like a deer to use this as a resting place.”  Carefully going around the shrub, Dean inspected the rest of the area.  Pointing to a depression in the leaf bed, Dean explained that someone crawling under the shrub and then backing out the same way had probably caused it.  She followed the faint trail into the woods, noting that it followed the roadway into her property.  When the trail finally came to the roadbed, Dean was cautious in taking each step so she would not obliterate any human tracks.  She bent down and picked up a fallen branch, using it to carefully sweep aside the leaves.  “Here’s what I’m looking for,” Dean explained as she pointed to the ground at a set of footprints she’d uncovered.  They followed them to a set of tire tracks where they finally disappeared.

“Looks like a small car, probably a sports cars of some type by the tire profile.  I’d guess these were made sometime yesterday, maybe late afternoon.”  Touching the footprint, Dean shook her head slightly. “These footprints are small.  Came from either a small man, or a woman.”


“Why would someone be spying on us?”


“Why and who,” Dean growled as she considered the evidence once more.  “C’mon, let’s get back to the house.  There’s nothing more to find out here.”


When they got back, they found Tracy sitting in the kitchen waiting for them.  She had a fur ball planted in her lap, purring loudly, while two more were winding in and out of her feet.  Looking up at her friends when they entered, Tracy shrugged and smiled.  “I think they’re trying to convince me to feed them,” she commented as the cats ran to their food dishes looking up expectantly at the word ‘feed.’ 


“Yeah, you look like a soft touch,” Katie chuckled.  “Is Col still asleep?”


Tracy nodded her head and explained that Colleen had just fallen asleep about an hour before, having had a restless night after the transmitters were found.  “She’s hoping you’ll let her check out your security program.  After all, she’s a computer geek, so she was running possibilities through her head all night.” 


“Don’t let her hear you call her a geek,” Dean scolded in a friendly tone.  “Actually, I was going to ask her to check the program for me.”  Dean reached for a blank sticky note to write down her password for the computer system in the den and gave the slip of paper to Tracy.  “That’ll get her into the computer so she can check it out.”


Tracy nodded, accepting the paper and slipping it into her pocket.  “So, what did you two find?”


“Not much, just some tracks in the leaf bed.  They eventually led to where a car had been parked,” Dean replied.  “I’ll take the transmitters we found to the lab.  Maybe they can figure out exactly where they originated.”


“Any ideas on who and why?” Tracy interjected.


“Not a clue.  But in this business you make a lot of enemies, so who knows?”


* * * * *


At 0900, Dean was pulling into her parking spot at the Pentagon.  Katie still had four more days off before she had to report to the DEA Training Center in Quantico, Virginia, for her orientation.  She was planning on spending time with Tracy and Colleen, giving them the real tour of Washington and the surrounding area for the next few days.  They were scheduled to meet Dean for lunch at 1200, at the Pentagon.  The food in the cafeteria was actually very good since a large percentage of the users were Command and General Staff personnel.  Each branch sent the best of their best to prepare the meals at the facility, and the competition among them to put out excellent meals was fierce.


Entering her office, Dean placed her briefcase on the guest chair before hanging her coat in the closet.  Walking to her desk, she picked up the large stack of mail sitting on top of her inbox. She paced her small area while sorting the mail, mumbling the category into which she placed each item: keep or toss, until she came to the bottom of the pile.  The ‘keep’ pile she placed on her desk blotter, and the ‘toss’ pile quickly filled her wastebasket.  She was about to walk around her desk to sit down to turn on her computer for her email, when the intercom buzzed, followed by Sergeant Major Tibbits’ voice requesting her presence with General Carlton.  Reaching over the desk, she hit the talk button and replied that she was on her way.  As a secondary thought, she reached over and turned on her computer, knowing that by the time she got back, the computer would be booted up and her programs ready for use.  Dean reached into her briefcase, deciding to take the Ziplock bag of transmitters with her, along with her written report detailing the entire operation involving the Ares Array and Scott Gentry’s mercenary crew.  A separate report summarizing Sadaam’s involvement in the situation was attached, with copies for the Joint Chiefs and the State Department.  Armed with her reports and the Ziplock bag, Dean straightened her uniform, then left for the general’s office.


Sergeant Major Tibbits stood as Lieutenant Colonel Peterson entered the office.  “Welcome back, Colonel.  Glad to see you made it back in one piece this time.”


“Thank you, Sergeant Major.  I’m glad we all made it back in one piece,” Colonel Peterson corrected.


“Yes, Ma’am,” he beamed back at her.  “Sorry to hear about Major Kidd though.  Please giver her my regards when you see her.”


“I’ll do that, Tibbits.” 


Looking towards the inner office, Dean asked if the general was ready to see her.  Tibbits replied in the affirmative, stepping over to the door and opening it for her to enter.  Dean walked to the front of the general’s desk, going through the formal report procedure while standing at attention.  General Carlton looked up from her papers as Dean finished and commanded her to stand at ease, then indicated that Dean should move to the sitting area. 


Brigadier General Mary Carlton had been temporarily appointed to her position as Chief of the Army’s Intelligence Division, replacing Major General John James shortly after his death nearly one year previously.  It had been a fairly smooth transition from her previous intelligence command with the Fifth Army Division stationed in San Antonio, albeit a temporary one.  Most of the intelligence gathering was routine, until her friends Art and Gwen Lyons came to visit her two months ago.  As she stood and walked over to take a seat across from Colonel Peterson, she reflected that since then, her command was anything but routine.  She was dressed down by the Joint Chiefs for her stance on the mercenary threat, initiated an unofficial operation on a gut feeling, allowed military equipment to pass through another country’s embassy without authorization, and was finally redeemed for her insubordinate actions by the success of the woman now sitting across from her.  The only reason she was not facing a courts martial , was that the President himself unknowingly intervened on her behalf, commending the Joint Chiefs for their astute understanding of the situation and quick action.  He further commended them on their selection of General Carlton to replace General James, then requested her attendance at the White House, along with the operations team, on Wednesday of this week.  This meeting was to be a formal, but unpublicized ceremony, to recognize their actions and especially the bravery of the team in the face of a terrorist attack.  The Joint Chiefs were not happy about the turnabout, but remained tight-lipped, for fear of exposing their mishandling of the intelligence chief’s recommendations.  They were also resigned to the fact General Carlton would become a permanent replacement, and they would have to come to terms with having a woman in such a powerful position.


Dean waited patiently as General Carlton walked over to take a seat opposite from her, mentally preparing to give her overview of the operation.  The general smiled at Dean as she began to speak.  “First of all, I want to commend you and your team for a job well done.  You saved not only the joint exercises and the President and Vice President, but countless civilians from a horrible fate.”  General Carlton paused and smiled even more broadly for her next statement.  “And, I want to personally thank you for keeping my butt from getting kicked out of the Army for insubordination.  The Joint Chiefs have had to eat a lot of crow, and they’re not too happy about it.”


“Thank you, Ma’am, but we were just doing our job,” Dean offered quietly.  “I’m certainly glad you’ll be around permanently.  That is the scuttlebutt.  That your duty assignment is now permanent?”


“That’s correct, Dean.  I received my permanent orders from the Joint Chief this morning.”  Sighing heavily, the general shrugged her shoulders before continuing.  “Guess you won’t have to break in a new CO.”  Dean grinned appreciatively, agreeing that this was definitely a good thing.  “Do you have the written reports for me?  I need to get them to the Joint Chief and State Department before this afternoon.”


“Yes, they’re right here.”  Dean offered the folders with the written reports.  “Your copy is on top.”


General Carlton stood and extracted her copy of the report and walked to the desk, placing it on the blotter.  She toggled the intercom and asked Sergeant Major Tibbits to come in, whereupon she handed him the reports for the Joint Chief and State Department, ordering him to deliver them immediately.  After Tibbits left, she returned to her seat opposite Dean.  Dean observed these actions, surprised that the general did not review the report before sending them up the chain of command.  It was a subtle, but very effective indication, that General Carlton was placing total trust in Dean’s abilities.  As General Carlton returned her attention to Dean she noticed the Ziplock bag in her lap.


“What do you have there?” she inquired as Dean held up the bag.


“Seems someone is very interested in me.  I, … we, found these last night in our home.”


“Sure it’s you and not Katie they’re interested in?” the general questioned thoughtfully.


“Ah, never thought of that.  I’m just so used to being alone, I just assumed…” Dean felt the blush begin to rise and used all her biofeedback techniques to quell its assent.


General Carlton took the proffered bag of transmitters and opened it, retrieving one of the bugs.  Turning it over in her hand she noted that it was definitely not standard issue, and was European in design.  “Well, unless Agent O’Malley has enemies in Europe, you’re probably right in your assumption.”  Returning the transmitter to the bag, she zipped it shut, handing it back to Dean.  “Are you taking them to our lab?”


“Yes.  I thought they would be able to pinpoint their origin more precisely.  It might give us a place to start figuring out who and why.”


“Good point,” the general agreed.  “Now, are you ready for the White House visit on Wednesday?”


“Yes, Ma’am.  Colleen is a bit nervous, but they’re both genuinely pleased about the invitation.  I’m sure receiving a personal ‘thank you’ from the President of the United States is not something they expected for helping out.”


“You’re probably right on that one, however, it’s going to entail a little bit more than just a thank you.  The press won’t be included, at my request.  I don’t particularly want your picture splashed across the countries newspapers, so I’ll have to rain on the parade, so to speak, but the White House photographer will be there.”


“Well, I certainly will appreciate that.  I much prefer a low profile myself,” Dean confided.


“How is Tracy doing anyway?” General Carlton’s tone assumed a more serious quality.


“Actually she’s doing quite well.  She was discharged from Walter Reed yesterday.  She and Colleen will be staying with us until Friday, when they return to New York.  By the way, it was quite a surprise meeting her physician yesterday.”  Dean’s eyes sparkled in combination with a beaming smile.  “You certainly worked fast getting Pete on board.  Thank you for doing that for him.”


“Well, with his potential, I wasn’t about to let someone else snap him up.  I was able to get the paperwork rushed through, and the approval to move his residency went just as smoothly.  He was sworn in just a couple of weeks ago, and his officer’s training can be accomplished at the same time he works on his residency.  The military needs good medical personnel, so it was easy for him to jump through the hoops.”  General Carlton stood, indicating that their session was over.  “Thank you again, Colonel.  I’m glad we will be able to continue working together.”  She extended her hand not only in thanks, but also in friendship.  Dean stood also, accepted the proffered hand eagerly, giving and receiving a firm handshake.  Taking her Ziplock bag, she was officially dismissed from the general’s office.


In the general’s anteroom, Tibbits had just returned as Dean was closing the general’s door behind her.  Noticing the Ziplock bag in her hand, he asked what it contained.  Dean told the sergeant major about the transmitters she’d found and that she was taking them to the lab for identification. 


“I just can’t imagine someone getting past my security without my entry code,” she added with a shrug.


“Um, I can,” Tibbits confided uncomfortably.  “Oh, Ma’am, you are going to have my stripes for this blunder.”


Colonel Peterson just looked at Tibbits a bit confused.  “What do you mean Tibbits?”


“Last week, there was an awful ice storm here.”


“Yeah, I remember seeing that on the TV.  We were all laughing that you guys were freezing while we were basking in the sun.  Go ahead, explain yourself.”  Dean began tensing unconsciously as the sergeant major began again.


“Well, I got a call from the utilities company office in Occoquan.  They had explained that they were going through your subdivision restoring power and gas to the homes, and insuring that each home was safe from possible gas explosions prior to the electric being turned back on.  They wanted to know if you could be reached to meet them at your house to let them in.” He paused, gulping a bit.


“Yesss, go on,” the colonel hissed.


“Um, well, I told them you weren’t available at this time.  Then they asked if anyone could meet them to open up the house, so I met them.  I put in my code you gave me, and… well, they went in and did a safety check throughout the house to make sure the gas hadn’t built up.  Then they left.”


“I don’t use gas in my house, not even in the fireplaces.  It’s all electric!”  She ran her hand across her face in frustration.  “Did you check their ID’s?”


“Yes, Ma’am.  They appeared to be in order.”


“Did you call to verify them?”


“Um, no.  I was in a bit of a hurry to get back.  The general was expected back from a meeting directly, so I… I just didn’t.”  Tibbits was visibly shaken at the jeopardy he had placed the colonel in.  “I’m sorry, Ma’am.  I thought, with the ice storm and all, that I was helping.”


Dean exhaled sharply, then nodded her head in agreement.  “Yes, I can see where you thought that.  Well, whoever was involved didn’t get much information.  We’d only been home for twenty-four hours.”  She placed her hand on Tibbits shoulder, “Do you think you would recognize them again, or could give me a description to go on?”


“Well, they were pretty average looking, with the utility uniforms on and all,” he responded.


“Male or female?”


“Both, actually.  One man, one woman, both of average height, late twenties to early thirties, no distinguishing features I could see.”


Any discernable accents?” the colonel asked.


“Yeah, they did sound foreign… Poles, or maybe Russians?  But that’s not unusual with all the different nationalities living around here,” Tibbits added as he shrugged his shoulders in defeat.  “I’d recognize them again though, if that’s any help.”


“Good.  If we get any prospects, I’ll run them by you.”


“I’m really sorry, Ma’am.  I was just trying to help,” Tibbits apologized once more.


“I know, Sarge.  You were just doing a good deed.”  Dean clapped him gently on the shoulder.  “Just check things out further in the future, okay?”


“Yes, Ma’am.  I will.”


Dean tossed the bag of transmitters in her hand, then turned to leave the office.


* * * * *


When Colonel Peterson returned to her office after dropping the transmitters off at the lab, she immediately went to her computer to check her email.  Coming around her desk, she sat in her large comfortable leather chair and swiveled around to her computer.  When she gave the mouse a slight shake to bring the computer screen back to life, she brought up the mail program and noticed Katie had sent the first message listed.  Eager to read it, she opened it and found herself staring at a picture of Katie reclined on a lounge chair, wearing the lime green bikini she had purchased the day before they left the Bahamas.  What startled and angered Dean, was that the picture had been altered to show Katie covered in blood, and her face removed and replaced with that of a skull.  At the bottom of the screen was a message typed to her attention: 


“Dear Colonel Peterson:

How do you like the picture I took of your little bitch lover … Don’t you think she looks good in red?”


As Dean read the message, the top of the screen appeared to have blood pouring down, obscuring the picture as it flowed across the screen.  Noticing the flow, Dean immediately hit the ‘print screen’ button on her keyboard and quickly pasted it to her word processing program.  When the flow stopped, her normal email format reappeared, however without this message listed.  She furiously typed a series of commands on her keyboard, but was unable to reproduce the message or the picture again.  Closing the mail program, Dean recovered the pasted page, and printed the captured message.  Retrieving the printout, Dean looked at the paper, which showed the top half of the page covered in the flow, a partial image of Katie’s blood covered body, and the message. 


“What in Hades is going on?” she mumbled to herself as her hands began to shake, more with anger than with fear.  “Just who the Hades are you, and what do you want?”

She sat staring at the paper for what had seemed like just a few minutes when her intercom buzzed.  Dean toggled the talk button and answered, “Colonel Peterson.”


“Colonel, this is Sergeant Folks at security.  You have some visitors.”


Dean looked at her watch, surprised to see that it was 1200 hours already.  “Thank you, Sergeant. Please send them up.  Agent O’Malley knows the way.”  She folded the sheet of paper, slipping it into her pocket.  Now, do I tell them about this, or play it close to my chest?  Dean considered the thought a bit longer before she made up her mind.   Not a good idea to start keeping secrets now, but let’s get lunch over first.  As she waited for her friends to arrive, she placed a call to Dirk, Bill’s partner, who worked in the computer center on sub-level three.  She explained the situation, requesting he trace the source of the email, then prepared to meet her friends.


* * * * *


The four women were seated at a corner table in the cafeteria, enjoying their selections from the variety of food available.  Everyone that is, except Dean.  She barely picked at her Moo Shoo dish and seemed to be off somewhere else.  This fact did not escape Katie, as the young woman nudged her elbow.


“Are you all right?” the young blonde queried.


“Yes, and no.  But I can’t discuss it here.  We’ll go to my office after we finish lunch,” Dean answered as she pushed her plate away.


“So, Colonel?  Do we get a tour of the Pentagon today?” Tracy asked as she turned to face her old friend.  Noticing the frown on Katie’s face and considering the quiet mood her old friend had been in during the meal, she changed her tack.  “Or maybe, just a short chat in your office before we head out?”


Colleen picked up on the changes too and offered, “Or we could just head out now, and see you back at the house?”


“No.  No, let’s go up to my office.”  Dean pushed her chair back, picking up her tray as she stood.  At the tray return section, she placed the trash and utensils in the required receptacles, and put the near empty tray on the conveyor belt.  Her friends followed her actions, and soon the four women were headed to Dean’s office in silence.  Dean opened her office door, gesturing for her friends to enter in front of her.  Entering last, she closed the door behind her before facing her worried friends.


“What’s wrong, Dean?” Katie asked as she reached out to touch the colonel’s forearm.


Dean sighed as she asked her friends to have a seat.  Once seated, she leaned against her desk filling them in on Sergeant Major Tibbits involvement with the transmitters, before telling them about the email message.


“Oh my God, Dean.  Isn’t there a way to tell who sent it?” Katie asked, obviously shaken by the mental image of the described email.


“I’ve got Bill’s friend Dirk working on that now.  He’ll call after he’s had time to work on the problem, but I’ve got a feeling that the transmitters and the message are related.”  She pulled the paper from out of her pocket and unfolded the printout, holding it out for their inspection.  “This is all I could save of the message.”  She handed it to Katie, who sucked in a quick breath at the image displayed.  Tracy and Colleen took the sheet from a pale Katie, instantly comprehending the reason for the pallor in their friend’s face.


“Any ideas?” Tracy inquired as she returned the picture to Dean.


“Not a clue.  I’m hoping Dirk will be able to pull off a trace for us.”  Just then, her phone rang.  Dean picked up the receiver and listened as the caller began talking, leaving Dean to respond intermittently.  Thanking her caller, who turned out to be Dirk, Dean apprised her friends of the results.


“Seems, the email was bounced around a variety of civilian mail servers before landing on my computer.  It was sent on 24 November at 1535 hours, EST, from a cyber café in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island.   Dirk can’t get much else at this point, but he feels the program used to create the self destructing email was pretty sophisticated, and if they’re that clever, he doesn’t have any hopes of identifying the real user of the computer that sent the message.”


“A lot of those mercenaries were computer geeks.  Do you suppose we missed someone in the mop-up action, and they’re responsible for it?” Colleen suggested as she shifted in her chair.


“I doubt that.  If anyone got through the Delta Force net, they probably high-tailed it out of the country.  They wouldn’t be stupid enough to hang around to take pictures and send emails.”  Dean sighed as she tossed the printout on her desk.  “No, whoever is responsible for this, has a more personal agenda. The message makes that perfectly clear.  Now, I just need to figure out who I pissed off that has these skills.”


Tracy looked up at her old friend and smiled.  “Well, is that a short list, or a long list?”


Dean smiled back, appreciative of the attempt at levity, before replying, “A very long list, my friend.  A very long list.”


* * * * *



Chapter 3

29 November, 1300 Hours


General Carlton, Bill, Dean, Katie, Tracy and Colleen were waiting outside the Oval Office in the White House.  Tracy and Colleen appeared to be a bit more nervous than the others, but then, they had never met the President of the United States before.  The outside door to the secretary’s office opened, revealing two nattily attired men.  Katie jumped up at the sight of the two ex-Seals as they entered the office.  She hurried over and gave each a warm smile and a fierce hug.  Dean stood and introduced General Carlton to Tom Zedos and Tiny Freeman, before imitating Katie’s response.


“I’m so glad you guys decided to come up,” Dean disclosed as Tom and Tiny grinned back at her.


‘Well, Colonel, your call tipped the scales for us.  If it had been anyone else calling, we would still be on the Lady Luck sipping a Kalik and watching the clouds breeze by.  They looked over at the general who seemed to be very amused by this statement.  “Um, no offense, General.”


“None taken, Mr. Zedos.  I’m glad the colonel has expanded her powers of persuasion to include a verbal technique,” she replied with a hint of humor, knowing that Lieutenant Colonel Peterson’s powers of persuasion did not usually involve a verbal approach.  The subtle humor was not lost on Tracy or Katie, as they tried to suppress a burst of giggles.  Before the new arrivals were able to sit, the door to the Oval Office opened and the President’s secretary invited them inside.


As the group entered, they were led to the sitting area where the President stood waiting.  General Carlton led the body of visitors, and was first to be greeted by the President.  She then made the introductions of the rest of the assemblage.  After the formal introductions were completed, the President indicated they should be seated, as he wanted to review the incident with his guests and have a chance to talk with each of them regarding their part in the operation.  When the staff photographer arrived, the President nodded for his secretary to bring a box over from his desk.  As the President stood, the rest of the group followed his lead.  “As you know, my term of office will be over shortly, and it is with great personal satisfaction that I am able to formally thank you for your extraordinary accomplishments as one of my final official acts.” 


First he thanked General Carlton for her astute grasp of the situation.  He formally apprised her of her permanent appointment as the Chief of Army Intelligence and hoped that his successor would value her recommendations regarding intelligence situations. 


Next he asked Tom, Tiny, and Colleen to come forward.  His secretary stood beside him, opened the box, and handed him three medals.


“Ms. Colleen Shore, Mr. Thomas Zedos, and Mr. Timothy Freeman.  It is with my sincere gratitude that I award you the Presidential Citizenship Medal for your selfless acts of service and assistance at considerable personal sacrifice.  I thank you, and America thanks you.”  He then placed the medals on each one, and shook their hands as the photographer’s camera clicked away.


Next, he asked Tracy to come forward.  “Major Tracy Kidd,  United States Army, Retired.  As of March 28, 1978, this award has been authorized for injuries incurred as a result of an international terrorist attack against the United States itself or any foreign nation that is friendly to the U.S.  It is therefore with grateful thanks, that I award you the Purple Heart for your actions of heroism on November 17, 2000 that resulted in personal injury.”  He pinned the medal to her jacket and shook her hand as the photographer captured the actions on film.


Katie was summoned next.  The President removed the medal from the box and began, “Special Agent Katherine O’Malley, for your exemplary performance of service for the United States of America, and conduct to maintain our national security, I award you the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service.  Your patriotism and sense of public responsibility are appreciated by myself and Americans across this country.”  Again the photographer’s camera whirred as the President placed the medal on Katie’s jacket and shook her hand.


The last two to receive recognition were First Lieutenant William Jarvis and Lieutenant Colonel Deanna Peterson.  They stepped forward at the President’s beckoning, saluting and standing at attention.  The President moved in closer and whispered a few words to Dean, eliciting a smile from her.  He then stood back and reached in the box one more time. 


“First Lieutenant William Jarvis, in recognition of your exemplary performance of duty in service to the United States of American at significant personal danger, I am awarding you the Distinguished Service Medal.  In addition, I am exercising my right as Commander-In-Chief, and promoting you to the rank of Captain.”  The President presented Bill with a box containing his new rank insignias, pinned the medal on his uniform and shook his hand.  Dean, still standing at attention, couldn’t help but sneak a sideways glance at her protégé and smile as the young man accepted the honors bestowed on him.  


Finally, the President turned to address Dean.  “Lieutenant Colonel Deanna Peterson.  As your Commander-in-Chief, I am promoting you to the rank of Colonel, United States Army.”  He then reached up and removed the silver oak leafs from her epaulets and replaced them with the silver eagle indicating the rank of a full colonel, before stepping back and reaching into the box one last time.  “In recognition of your continued exceptional meritorious service to our country, and ability to perform your duty under extremely complex circumstances and difficult odds, I award you the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Oak Leaf Cluster.”  He pinned on the medal and shook her hand grinning broadly as the photographer swooped in for the final shots.   Dean was totally surprised at the two awards, thinking that she would be getting a pat on the back and a formal ‘thank you’ for a second time.  Man, wait ‘til the boys back at the Pentagon find out about this… This’ll really tick them off! She smiled at the thought, then a more somber thought seeped in.  I wonder if this would have made my family proud?  Sure, Thad would have been, and probably Mom, but Dad?  Her thoughts faded as she caught sight of Katie with tears in her eyes.  Well, at least I know someone who is.  Looking around the room, she could see Katie wasn’t alone in her reaction.  Damn.  I guess I have my own little family now.


The group remained in the Oval Office while the photographer took a few more formal pictures and then some candid shots, and the President had the opportunity to talk with each participant in a more informal atmosphere.  After a span of ten minutes, the President excused himself, and the group was led out of the Oval Office.


* * * * *


General Carlton’s limousine was waiting for her as they exited the White House.  As Captain Jarvis held the door for her, she suggested that Colonel Peterson and her friends take the rest of the day off to celebrate.  “And, I think Major Kidd needs to sit down,” she confided as they watched the group exit the White House.  Dean nodded in quiet acknowledgement.   “Captain Jarvis, you’re dismissed as soon as we get back to the Pentagon.  You deserve to celebrate too,” she added as the newly promoted captain, slipped into the backseat with the general.  Dean walked over to the limo’s door and issued an invitation for Bill to join the group at her home after he picked up his vehicle from the parking lot.  She issued an invitation to the general, who declined the offer citing another engagement.  Dean thanked the general again, then closed the door to the limo.


“Wow!” Katie began as she and Dean walked toward the SUV.  “I certainly wasn’t expecting this.  Were you?”  She looked at Dean as she reached the passenger door.  “And just what was that whispered exchange between you and the President?”


Dean chuckled, thinking of the President’s comment about not being able to live down having his neck saved by women.  “No.  It came as a complete surprise,” Dean concurred.  Not bad old girl, a full colonel at thirty-four.  Not bad at all.  “And the President was just thanking me for being in the right place at the right time… again.  Said he was glad to be leaving office so I could save someone else’s butt for a change.”


“Hey!  Could you just hurry and open that door?” Tracy cut in.  “My knees are going to buckle right here and now if you don’t snap to.”


The group turned and looked over at Tracy who was obviously still overwhelmed by the short ceremony.  Colleen, in an attempt at levity, whacked Tracy on her good shoulder and said, “Oh, dress casual… it’s not going to be a big deal… yeah, right!” She grumped good naturedly as she slipped into the back seat.  Tracy just shook her head and slipped in beside her, glad to be sitting down. 


As Tom and Tiny reached the SUV, Dean asked if they had a ride.  They were each carrying a small overnight bag, indicating that they had not had time to check into a hotel as of yet.


“No.  But, we can just walk down to the street and hail a cab.  We came straight from the airport and didn’t have time to rent a car or check into a hotel yet,” Tom advised her.


“No way,” Dean cajoled, “just pile in.  I know a nice place where we can sit back, relax, and have a few brews,” It wasn’t a decision that took much thought on the ex-Seals' parts, and after a little rearranging of passengers, Dean slid into the driver’s seat, started up the vehicle, and headed toward Occoquan, Virginia.


* * * * *

The ride home was full of questions from Colleen and Katie about the awards that were presented, especially the Purple Heart that Tracy had received.


“I thought that you could only get a Purple Heart if you were wounded in combat?” Colleen asked as she read the certificate of award that was given to each recipient.


“Well, until 1978 that was the case.  But after March 23rd of that year, the Purple Heart was approved for wounds resulting from terrorist attacks against the United States or a friendly nation,” Dean explained smiling at Tracy.  “Hell of a way to be recognized though.”


“Well, what about yours Dean.  What does a ‘silver oak leaf cluster’ mean?” Katie inquired as she reached over and stroked the medal on Dean’s chest .


Tracy opted to answer this question, knowing that Dean would be too modest to relate the true significance of the award.  “The silver oak leaf designation indicates the number of times Dean has received this particular recognition.  In Dean’s case, it means that this is the sixth time she has been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.”


“Wow.  That’s a lot of recognition,” Colleen whispered.


“Yeah, you can say that again,” Tracy concurred.  “The best one though--that I think really floored our tall, dark, and bashful friend here--was the promotion to full colonel.  Am I right?” Tracy peered at her friend and got a big grin and nod from Dean as she kept her eyes on the traffic.  “Bet the boys at the Pentagon will be just tickled to see those eagles on your epaulets.  You were the youngest Lieutenant Colonel in a long time, and now a full bird!  That’ll set them on their butts.”


“Oh, yeah,” Dean agreed smiling.  “I knew they were upset when I made Lieutenant Colonel ahead of them.  I can hardly wait to see their reaction now.”


Colleen chimed in asking, “So, you weren’t the youngest Lieutenant Colonel the Army had?”


“Nope, the youngest Lieutenant Colonel in the history of the Army was Lt. Colonel Matt Urban.  He was only twenty six when promoted to that rank,” Dean explained.


“Wow, that’s young!  How’d he manage that?” Katie asked.


Tracy picked up the conversation, adding, “Field promotion in World War II.  He was also the most decorated soldier… seven purple hearts in twenty months of combat duty… and, it turns out he was more decorated than Audie Murphy, only his medals came thirty-five years late.”


“Thirty-five years late?” Katie asked, astonished.  “How’d that happen?”


“Army lost his records,” Dean informed them.  “Some of the men he commanded worked hard to have his bravery finally acknowledge, including the Congressional Medal of Honor.”


“So, besides a field promotion, the President can just promote you like that?” Katie asked already knowing the answer since he did just that.


“He’s the Commander-in Chief,” Tom exclaimed.  “He can do that if he wants.  Well, I’m sure he talked to the Secretary of the Army first, and probably the Secretary of Defense too.  I imagine that’s why he did the Presidential awards for us, since they are totally up to his discretion.  And with his term almost over, it was the most expedient way.”


Before they knew it, they were pulling into the drive at Dean and Katie’s.  Dean pulled into the garage and exited the SUV, followed by her other passengers.  As they stepped through the door in the back, the two men took one look and whistled softly at the sight of the house.  “Nice digs, Colonel.  Suits you two,” Tiny drawled as they headed towards the front door.


* * * * *


Several hours--and beers later, the group was still hashing over the latest events puzzling Dean and Katie.  They all agreed that the computer message was a dead end, but Tom and Tiny had offered to check it out once they got back to Freeport.  Dean had completed daily sweeps of the house without turning up any more of the transmitters, and no other emails had appeared on her computer, or on Katie’s.


“Okay guys.  I’m gonna order some pizza before I get really buzzed,” Katie advised as she stood to make the call.  “Anybody got a preference?”


“No anchovies!” came the resounding answer from the entire group.


“Got it,” Katie chuckled as she left for the kitchen to put in the order.


The pizzas arrived in forty-five minutes and disappeared in less than ten.  Dean was pulling KP duty--gathering up the paper plates, napkins and pizza boxes--when the phone rang.  Katie picked up the portable receiver, and after a short exchange, took the phone over to Dean.


“Dean, the caller said he’s your father,” Katie whispered as she passed the receiver to Dean, attempting to exchange it for the empty pizza boxes.


Dean hesitated at accepting the phone, raising both eyebrows in question.  Katie took the pizza boxes out of the tall woman’s hand with one hand, while nudging the phone towards her once more with the other.  Dean finally accepted the proffered instrument, slowly lifting it to her ear and softly answering, “Hello” as she stepped into the privacy of the kitchen.


“Deanna, this is your father.  Please don’t hang up.  I know we haven’t spoken, or even talked to each other since… well, since…” His sentence was cut short by Dean’s interruption.


“Since you killed Thad,” Dean accused bitterly.


“Yes, since my actions caused your brother’s death.”  He hesitated for a few heartbeats before going on.  “You don’t know how sorry I am about that, and I’ve paid dearly for my actions.”


“Sorry doesn’t cut it, Joshua!” she challenged, refusing to refer to him as her father.  “And you haven’t paid dearly enough for me.”


“Deanna, please.  I’m an old man now,” he pleaded.  “I just want a chance to make it up to you.  To try to be a family again.”


“No way in hell!  There’s nothing you can do that will bring Thad back, or bring back Mom and repair her broken heart.  There is no family any more.  You killed me too that same night,” Dean spat angrily.  “Goodbye, Mr. Peterson,” she blurted as she terminated the phone call and sagged into a chair at the kitchen table.  Dean looked at the phone in her hand and it began to shake violently, until she finally lost her self-control and threw the instrument across the room.  As the tears began to flow down her cheeks, she cried, “Why now … why today?” then crossed her arms on the table and laid her head down on them sobbing uncontrollably.


The loud crash from the phone hitting the refrigerator alerted the group in the living room that the call from Dean’s father had not been well received.  Katie stood, excusing herself, and quickly went to the kitchen while the others decided that this was a good time to turn in for the night.  Dirk and Bill said their goodbyes; then before heading to the guest bedroom, Tracy and Colleen led the way to the den, where Tom and Tiny would bunk down for the night.


Katie stepped silently into the kitchen and saw her lover bent over the table with her head resting on her crossed arms.  The heaving of her shoulders was a dead give-away of Dean’s emotional state.  Quietly she slipped up to her partner and sat in the chair next to her, gently placing an arm around the sobbing woman.  “Dean.  Is there anything I can do, love?”


Dean sighed heavily, barely shaking her head no.


“C’mere, love.  Let me at least hold you,” Katie persisted as she gently pulled Dean into her arms, all the while making soft cooing sounds in her ear.  “Hey, it’ll be okay.  Go ahead and just let it out.”  The tears almost subsided as Katie stroked her lover’s long dark hair.


After Dean regained control, she lifted her face to meet Katie’s.  Reddened eyes and a tear-streaked face looked up into the soft understanding smile on her lover’s face.  “Why did he have to call today?” she moaned.  “It was such a perfect day.  Why did he have to ruin it?”  She shook her head as she buried her face against her lover’s chest, sighing heavily once more.


“How about we get you to bed?  Then I can hold you all night long,” Katie suggested as she gave the top of Dean’s head a soft kiss.  Silently agreeing, Dean stood and allowed herself to be led to the bedroom.  After washing up and stripping out of their clothes, the two women slipped into bed.  Katie convinced Dean to return to her embrace where she gently stroked the tall woman’s hair and rubbed the tense neck muscles she felt under her fingers.


“Mmm, feels good,” Dean mumbled as she relaxed into the warmth and loving safety of Katie’s arms.


“Want to talk about it?” Katie offered as she kept up the soothing motions.


Dean sighed and hesitated for a moment, allowing her self-control to build up.  “He wants to be a family again.  He wants to become a part of my life.”


“Umm, and II take it that the phone flying across the kitchen was a negative reaction to that request?”  Katie hazarded wryly as she gave her lover a crooked smile.


“Sorry.  I guess I kinda lost it there for a minute,” Dean confessed sadly.  “I haven’t had a reaction like that in a very long time.  I thought I'd let go of all that anger.”  Looking up into Katie’s emerald eyes, she smiled back saying, “Guess not, huh?”


“Well, let’s just say you still have some issues ,” Katie offered sagely.


“Issues?  I’ve got news for you.  The Reverend Joshua Peterson would have some real issues about the two of us.  No, I don’t need that in my life, and I don’t need him either.” 


“Maybe there’s more to it than it seems,” Katie suggested.  “Maybe it’s the other way around and he needs you?”


“Well, he hasn’t needed me for sixteen years.  Why now?”


“I don’t know, love… I don’t know.”  The silence stretched out as the two women turned their thoughts inward to the possibilities, eventually succumbing to slumber.

* * * * *


Chapter 4

1 December, 0600 Hours


Thursday, Dean returned to work and as expected, received a very cold reception from some of her peers as they noticed her change in rank.  Fortunately, there were many others who were genuinely pleased and gave their congratulations freely, especially Sergeant Major Tibbits.  Captain Jarvis too, received a few cold shoulders, but that was mostly due to his status as Dean’s protégé.  As Dean entered her office, she noticed the lab report on the transmitters sitting on her desk.  Reviewing the information quickly, the report indicated that they were most likely produced in one of the ex-communist bloc countries and could have been bought by almost anyone since they were a hot item on the black market.  Well, back to square one, Dean thought as she replaced the report in the file folder before tackling the stack of messages on her desk and reviewing her email.


 Katie, Tracy, Colleen, Tom and Tiny spent the morning visiting Arlington Cemetery with a stop at General James’ gravesite, they visited the Women’s Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, and a few other tourist stops.  Their afternoon ended with a trip to Ronald Reagan National Airport to drop Tom and Tiny off for their return flight to Freeport.  When Dean arrived home, the foursome’s evening was spent in quiet companionship over a surprisingly tasty meal that was concocted by Colleen and Tracy.


Friday morning, the house was bustling with activity as Dean prepared for her day at the Pentagon and Katie prepared for her first day of instructor’s orientation at the DEA facility in Quantico.  Tracy and Colleen, were also busy packing to return to the Catskills of New York, after the required stop at Walter Reed to have Tracy’s stitches removed.


“So, are you ready for the new assignment?” Dean asked as Katie put together her work clothes. 


Katie was reading off a list as she placed items in her overnight bag. “Um, I think so.  Let’s see, sweats, tennis shoes, socks, toiletries, two ghi’s for hand-to-hand practice, my Glock… I sure wish the DEA used the H & K Mark 23, I really like that weapon better.” Then she continued going over her list: “four ammo clips, holster, extra underwear, towel, ball cap, notebook, pens, PDA, orientation manual--Yep!  I think I’ve got everything,” Katie mumbled as she went over her list once more.


“You forgot something,” Dean interjected.


“Hmm, no, I don’t think so,” the young agent answered as she triple checked her list.


“Oh, yes you have,” Dean insisted.


Shaking her head, Katie lifted her eyes to a smiling Dean.  “What?  I don’t see anything missing.”


Dean walked forward and bent her head. “This,” she offered as she gently placed a soft kiss on Katie’s lips.


“Mmm,” Katie replied around Dean’s lips, “I wouldn’t want to forget that.  How about another so I can make sure I don’t forget?” 


“Gladly,” her tall lover responded as she reached around the young woman before her, pulling her in for a full contact embrace, followed by a more passionate kiss.


“Oh, yeah.  I’ve got that burned into my memory now,” Katie chuckled as she returned the hug enthusiastically.  They remained holding each other close for a short moment longer, enjoying the love that flowed between them.  “Umm, guess I better get on the road.  I’d like to get there early,” Katie explained.


“Yeah, I like to be early too,” Dean agreed.  “Any idea what time you’ll be home?”


“If all goes well, I should be back by 6:30.”


“Okay, 1830 hours it is!  I’ll be waiting,” Dean’s sapphire eyes pinned Katie’s emerald ones.  “If you think you’ll be late, just page me.”


“Yes, Ma’am!  And the same goes for you.” Katie gave her a mock salute.


Dean slipped on her uniform jacket, buttoning it as she walked to the hall closet for her trench coat before returning to the kitchen to pick up her briefcase.  Tracy and Colleen were just finishing up a cup of tea in the kitchen when Dean walked in.


“Off to the Pentagon a bit early today,” Colleen stated as Dean entered.   “And off to Quantico too, I see,” she added as Katie entered the room.  They both smiled and nodded, then Dean reminded them of the procedure to set the security codes before they left.  Goodbyes and hugs went around the room, then Dean picked up her briefcase and Katie picked up her overnight bag before heading to the door.


“Glad I’ll be able to leave most of this at the facility,” Katie commented, indicating the bag slung over her shoulder as they entered the garage and got into their separate vehicles.  Dean’s Durango SUV was spotless and shiny black, while Katie’s turquoise classic ’57 Chevy was as immaculate as the day it left the showroom.  They drove in tandem to the I95 interchange , where Katie took the south ramp and Dean took the north ramp, each looking forward to a new day.


* * * * *


“Good morning, Colonel,” came the salutation and salute from the Pentagon guard.  This month the Marines were manning the checkpoint.  “You had a delivery about fifteen minutes ago.  I had Corporal Sterns take it up to your office for you.  Nice flowers, Ma’am.”


Dean returned the salute and responded, “Thank you, Gunny.  Was there an indication who sent them?”


“No, Ma’am.  But I’m sure the card will explain them.”  He smiled shyly.


Colonel Peterson continued through the ID station and headed toward the stairs for a little extra exercise.  Never take the elevator when you can take the stairs, she thought to herself as she remembered her physical education teacher’s suggestion.  As she took the stairs two at a time, she wondered who would be sending her flowers… to the Pentagon.  She knew Katie would never do that, so she was eager to read the card.  Hmmm, maybe just a congratulations on my promotion.


Opening the door to her office she set her briefcase down, removed her coat, and hung it in the closet.  She spotted the bouquet on the windowsill behind her desk.  Picking up her briefcase, she walked over to her desk and set it down before removing the card from the flowers.  “Well, they certainly brighten up the office,” she commented aloud.  Removing the card from the envelope, she read it out loud:


            Congratulations on your promotion to Colonel.  Too bad your new friend had an accident after he arrived home.  Perhaps I should have sent the flowers to him instead?


“What the heck is that supposed to mean?” Dean mumbled to herself.  Almost in answer to her question, the phone on her desk rang.  She stepped over to her desk, sitting down in her leather chair before picking up the receiver.  “Colonel Peterson,” she answered crisply.  “Yes, put him through.”  Waiting for the caller to be connected to her line, she looked at the card in her other hand and turned it around, looking for a clue as to who the sender may be.


“Hey, Tiny.  How was the trip back?” the colonel questioned as the caller connected.


“Not good, Colonel.  Tom’s is in the hospital in Freeport.  He’s unconscious and in critical condition.”


“What happened?” Dean asked, dropping the card from her hand and focusing her thoughts on the caller.


“He was shot in the chest at the controls of the Lady Luck.  We were just getting ready to take her out from the dock at the marina, when I heard a loud thud above me, then some running steps.  I came up from the engine room and found him bleeding on the deck,” the ex-Seal explained before continuing.  “The locals are still investigating and are considering it a botched robbery attempt, but I think someone was out to kill him.  I think he must have heard his attacker, ‘cause he had time to pull out his Glock, but didn’t get a round off in time.”


“Any idea who?” Colonel Peterson questioned.


“No, Ma’am.  You know Tom… everybody loves the guy.”  Dean could hear Tiny’s voice start to crack.  “I think they would have come down after me too, if he hadn’t surprised them by pulling out his pistol.”  He paused and excused himself as he blew his nose.  “I just thought you might want to know, Ma’am,” the ex-Seal concluded.


“Thank you, Tiny.  I’m glad you called.”  Dean picked up the card once more and began tapping it on the desk.  “Let me know if I can do anything for you, or Tom.  Hopefully, when he regains consciousness he’ll be able to identify his attacker.”


“Yes, Ma’am, that’s what we’re hoping for.  But, right now, only time and prayer will help.”


“Right,” she answered, trying to think of the last time she prayed.  “Keep us informed, okay?  Call anytime, night or day.  You have my home and cell numbers right?”


“Yes, Ma’am, I do.  I’ll keep in touch,” Tiny responded before saying goodbye and disconnecting.


“Damn.”  Dean cursed as she looked at the card in her hand.  “Just who the Hades are you, and what are you after?”  She picked up the phone once more, dialing the number for the florist listed on the card’s envelope.  When the phone was answered on the other end, she told them who she was and that she had received a bouquet of flowers from an unknown individual.  She explained that the card must have come off in transport to her office, but the desk sergeant remembered the company that delivered them.  She asked if they had a record of who sent them, so she could thank them.  The florist explained that the order was received from an FTD website and repeated the message that was on the card and gave her a web address that came with the order.  Next, she called Dirk and gave him the web address, asking him if he could run down the sender. Replacing the phone on its cradle, she sat back in her chair and began rocking… and thinking.


* * * * *


At precisely 1830 hours, Katie pulled into the driveway, hitting the button for the garage door on her visor. Exiting her vehicle, she passed Dean’s SUV, placing her hand on the hood.  Hmm, still warm.  Guess she didn’t get home much before me.  Wrestling with the armload of manuals she was carrying, she managed to close the garage door and headed up the path to their home.  Dean greeted her at the door and relieved her of half of the manuals as she entered.


“Whoa.  What have you got here?” the tall woman asked as she reviewed the stack.


“Just a bit of light reading,” Katie groaned.  “I never realized that being an instructor required four times the reading that the students have to do.”


“Ah, well, I guess this means you’ll be pretty occupied tonight?”


“Oh, I’d say that’s pretty good deductive reasoning for an intelligence officer,” the young agent chuckled.  “Something smells good.”


“Yeah, Chinese take-out.  Right now, you need to get changed and have some dinner before you tackle these books.”  Taking the rest of the stack from her partner, Dean took the stairs down to the den where she deposited the stack of manuals on Katie’s desk, while the young woman gratefully went to their bedroom to take a shower.


Over dinner, Katie excitedly filled Dean in on her first day of instructor orientation.  A good portion of it was spent in checking out the new instructor’s levels of fitness, knowing that they would be required to set an example for their future students.  Katie was pleased with her performance, as she turned in the best times and scores of the entire group.  “Guess your insistence on working out regularly has paid off,” she explained, commending her partner for her persistence.  “Some of my colleagues are going to be mighty sore for the next few days.  Tomorrow, we’ll be doing our weapons qualifications on the range.  I’m going to see if they’ll let me qualify with the H&K, too.”  Having finished the meal, the women took the dishes to the sink where they began the clean up.


“So, how was your day?” Emerald eyes studied the quiet pools of her partner’s sapphire eyes, knowing that something was bothering her.


Dean sighed, not wanting to upset her partner with the events of the day.  “Well, I was hoping to put this off until after you had a chance to hit the books, but I can see you’ll persist until I tell you,” the dark woman disclosed.  Dean then filled her in on the assault on Tom, the flowers and the message on the card.  “Dirk ran into another dead end on the flower order.  Whoever is responsible is pretty computer literate and knows how to get around the systems.”


“Oh my God!  Poor Tom.”  The blonde sagged onto a kitchen chair.  “Why would someone want to hurt him?”


“It’s all got to be connected--the email, the flowers, the message on the card. Why else would the sender have made reference to my new friend?”  Dean sat next to Katie, looking for confirmation in her eyes.


“You’re probably right on those, but do you think the person who hid the transmitters is involved too?”


“I’m not sure on that one, but it is one of a string of strange happenings around here, so I guess I’d have to say he--or she--is connected somehow.  I’m just not sure how, or why.”  Dean stood, pulling Katie up with her.  “You'd better go hit the books.  I’m going down to do a few miles on the treadmill.  Next to rocking in my chair, I think best when I’m in motion.”


It was 2230 when the two women finally collapsed into bed.  Katie had made it through three manuals, while Dean had run fifteen miles before settling in front of her computer to do some cyber sleuthing.


“Any luck with your computer search?” Katie inquired as she snuggled up to Dean.


The heavy sigh she received in response told her that Dean was not happy with the results of her endeavor.  “I haven’t turned up any files where the person used any of the computer methods we have encountered so far.  Sooner or later though, this person or persons will make a mistake and then we’ll have something concrete to go on.  Right now, he’s got to be getting pretty cocky about his success to date.”


“Like the one where we found the transmitters, you mean.” 


“Yeah, that’s the one thing he didn’t count on.  But so far, there’s been no attempt to replace them, and I seriously doubt if that would happen anyway.  Once compromised, you try not to expose yourself again.”  Dean unconsciously began stroking the short blonde hair of her partner.  “Right now, that’s the only thing we have to go on.  I’ve got some friends in Europe that are checking on them--where they’re being sold on the black market, and trying to get a run down on who's buying them.”


“Think it will help?”


“Not really.  Too many hands could have been involved before they wound up here.  But at least it’s a place to start.”  Dean continued gently running her fingers through Katie’s hair and soon, the young woman was sound asleep.  Sleep however did not come as easily for Dean as she pondered the events of the last few days, trying to make sense of them.  When she finally settled long enough to doze off, her sleep was restless: her mind running a continual loop of images and questions projected on the white screen of her mental theater.


* * * * *


Chapter 5

3 December, 1200 Hours

Katie was busily reading the holiday circulars included in the Sunday paper while Dean finished up the sports section.  Looking up from her completed section of the paper, the tall woman watched as Katie meticulously jotted notes on a pad of paper as she scanned the ads.  Oh boy, I can see where this is going, and I don’t think I’m gonna like it one bit. Hoping to do her own end run, Dean turned her sapphire blues onto the young blonde and put out her best ‘this is what I really, realllly, want to do today’ smile. “Hey, wanna watch the Senator’s game this afternoon?”


Her partner looked up from her papers and smiled back, emerald eyes glinting from the sun shining through the windows.  Ah, trying to get me off track, eh? Katie mused as she decided which tack she’d use.  Think I’ll try the sweet approach this time.  Folding her ads and placing them on the footstool in front of her, Katie cocked her head towards Dean thoughtfully.  “What time does the game start?”


Dean checked the television guide and replied, “1330.”  Do I have a nibble? she thought hopefully.


“Oooo, good.  That gives us just enough time to go out for that ice cream sundae you’ve been craving all weekend.”  She stood quickly before Dean could reply and walked briskly to the coat closet, retrieving both their leather jackets.  “C’mon, I’ll buy.”


Dean wasn’t sure if this was a trick, but the thought of a double hot fudge sundae with nuts, cherries, and whip cream was too much to pass up.  After slipping on her Reeboks, Dean stood and joined the grinning young woman at the front foyer.  “Okay, but you have to drive too.”


“Deal,” the blonde replied as she grabbed the keys to her ’57 Chevy and opened the front door, gesturing for Dean to go first.  “After you, Ma’am.”


Ten minutes later they were headed down the main highway towards the Baskin Robbins, which just happened to be located at the south entrance of the Galleria Mall at Riverside.  There were few parking places left, and none near the ice cream shop, so Katie opted for the spots furthest from the stores.  Finding an empty one next to a light pole, Katie pulled in, confident that at least one side of her precious antique was protected from inadvertent door damage.  The two women set out for the confectionary treat after insuring that all the doors were locked, and the VW bug parked next to the Chevy was not close enough to cause damage.


* * * * *


A solitary figure in a black Mazda Miata, slowly crept up the row across from the walking duo.  Doing a little shopping, Colonel?  Well, I hope you find a nice surprise today.  I’d hate to see you disappointed.  Maybe I can help?  The Mazda pulled in and parked in a spot that had just been vacated by a Cadillac.  A gnarled right hand switched off the ignition, removing the keys and depositing them into a jacket pocket before slipping on a pair of leather gloves.


* * * * *


“Mmm, this is really good,” Katie crooned as she licked her spoon.  “Pralines and Cream with hot caramel sauce is my favorite feel good food.”


“This is mine,” Dean confessed as she dipped her spoon into the hot fudge sundae that was made with chocolate chunk ice cream and extra cherries.  “Just like a chocolate covered cherry, but made with ice cream.”


“Death by chocolate, eh?” the blonde giggled as she finished the last of her sundae.


“Can you think of a better way to go?” Dean bantered as she reverently placed the last spoonful in her mouth, savoring the blend of sweet flavors.


Feeling a little feisty, Katie gave her partner a sultry look, raising an eyebrow seductively.  “Well….”


Dean caught the gist of the gesture and felt a warm rush creep up her spine, causing her to nearly choke on the last of her ice cream.  Katie quickly moved in and slapped her partner several times to keep her from gagging.  Dean raised a hand indicating she could stop, and as their eyes met, they burst out laughing, knowing that this was not the ‘death’ they wanted.


“How about we take a walk through the mall and burn off some of the thousands of calories we just consumed?” Green eyes twinkled as Katie waited for a response.


“Huh, something tells me this was your plan from the beginning,”  Dean teased, as the two women stood and left the ice cream shop, taking a right turn that would lead them into the thick of the holiday shoppers.


“Busted,” Katie gulped as her partner pinned her with a piercing look.  She removed the list she was working on at the house and held it up for Dean to see.  “I only have a few things to get.  I promise we’ll get back before the game is over.”  She smiled sheepishly at the taller woman, then added, “Maybe even before the first quarter is over?”


Dean just laughed and shook her head, then headed off towards the crowds, knowing that she would do anything this young woman wanted, no matter what it was.


Two and a half hours later, the women were walking out of the mall, carrying several shopping bags filled to capacity with Christmas presents.  Dean had managed to catch glimpses of the game on the TV’s in the appliance sections, and even snuck off to find a few things on her list for Katie.  With any luck, they could get back to the house and catch the last couple of minutes of the game.  Instinctively, Dean surveyed the parking lot, checking the exits for the fastest route home.  Her eyes roamed over the rooftops of the parked cars, unaware of the eyes watching them from the Mazda they just walked past.


“Well, I guess we walked off the sundaes,” Katie joked as she shifted the packages so she could reach for her car keys.


“Here, let me grab those.”  Stopping, Dean reached for the bags, freeing up Katie’s right hand.  Just as she turned towards the car, she caught the sight of a quick flash from under the Chevy and her instincts reacted.  She dropped her bags and grabbed Katie, throwing them both to the ground.  The next thing they knew, they were lying up on the blacktop of the parking lot, trying to shake the concussion of the explosives from their heads.


“Are you okay?” Dean quickly asked, as she checked out her partner lying beneath her.  People began running toward them as they heard muffled shouts from other shoppers, children crying, and the far off wail of a siren.  Katie nodded her head, then looked up to the spot that had contained her prized possession.  Tears began to well up in her eyes, as she watched the flames lick at the charred frame.  Dean put her arms around her, hugging her close.  “Yeah, I know.”


A black Mazda Miata pulled out of the chaotic parking lot; the driver smiling, as the sight of the destruction came into the rear view mirror.  A fire truck lumbered past, trying to make its way to the smoldering wreckage, all eyes of the firefighters focused ahead.

“Hope you liked my surprise, Colonel.” The mysterious driver spoke to the vision in the rear view mirror, then cautiously headed away from the mall.


* * * * *



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