RETRIBUTION - Part 8
Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)
Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. Thats right, this is an uber story. Its also a sequel to my novel, Redemption. You really will want to read that first before tackling this one. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.
Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. Not as much of either as in Redemption (Im saving that up for "Restitution"), but there is some of each here.
Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, theres that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not offend anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Dedication: There are so many people to thank for this effort. First is Candace, who once again was there to read this novel in its entirety all in little AIM blocks of 50 characters or less. Her nightly feedback was sorely needed and gratefully received. Thanks also to MaryD and Lunacy for providing much needed and invaluable beta assistance. And, finally, a huge debt thanks to the self-proclaimed "Quillies" for reading the beta version of this and giving insightful feedback as well as putting up with and calming a bards emotional roller-coaster of emotions. Thanks, guys!!
Feedback: As always, is most welcome. It not only makes this job of writing (which is really a love) much easier, it also makes me better at it. And that is my goal. To become the best writer I can be. If the spirit moves you, you may reach me atSwordnQuil@aol.com with any questions, concerns or comments.
Final Thought: Retribution is the second in what will eventually become a trilogy. Redemption, obviously, was first. Then Retribution, and finally Restitution. Thanks to everyone who gives up a little of their time to come along on this journey with me. I can only hope that Ill never let you down.
Final Disclaimer: As with Redemption, this story will be posted in blocks of thirty or so pages per night. It is fully completed, down to the last punctuation mark, so I wont leave you hanging. J Promise.
The sun had been up for several hours as we came at last back onto the smooth blacktop of the eastbound road wed been exploring all night. My head pounded abysmally from the abuse it had suffered while we bounced down one rutted, unpaved logging road after another, hunting for clues that just werent there no matter how hard I tried to will them into existence.
As night faded into day, my hopes faded right along with the setting of the moon. Every blind alley, every negated lead pushed me further and further into a well of despair I began to think I had no hope of ever leaving.
My mind insisted on showing me images of Ices lifeless body laying still and alone, lost forever in the endless blind maze of forest which surrounded us.
Still worse were the pictures of Ice, bleeding but conscious, dying by slow inches and unable to move as the beasts of the night made their way closer to her, attracted by the scent of her spilling blood like sharks to an injured whale.
I savagely told my mind to shut up, to shut off, but the more tired I became, the more hours we spent in fruitless searching, the more it insisted on playing these images in a continuous loop, each more graphic and heartrending than the last until it was all I could do not to scream and pound the dash until my fists were bloody.
The Drews had joined us halfway through the search, having come up empty in their own explorations. Having two more sets of eyes made the search go more quickly, but in the end, it made absolutely no difference at all.
Coming back to the present, I rubbed my gritty eyes as I mentally prepared myself for yet another trip down yet another road with yet another series of holes large enough to hide entire houses within. It was then that I noticed that we were heading to the west, away from the rising sun and the next road down the line. My heart sped up. "Where are we going?"
Pop didnt look at me. His unblinking eyes stayed fixed on the road. He was beyond pale, beyond tired, beyond old. "Back home for a bit, Tyler. We need a break."
"No!" I yelled, grabbing the steering wheel and almost turning us into the drainage ditch which ran parallel to the road on both sides. "No! We cant give up!!"
He gently pulled my hand off the wheel and straightened the truck back out again. "We aint givin up, Tyler. Johnny an Tommyll keep searchin till they cant go no more. I need ta get to a phone and call in some more help. Theres just too much land out here fer only three groups ta search. And you need some sleep. I aint gotta look at ya ta see youre about one step from goin down deep and never comin out."
"You dont understand!"
Coming to a halt by the side of the street, he finally took his eyes off the road to look directly at me. His expression was one of infinite sadness. "I understand bettern you think, Tyler. Lost my own daughter out here when she was seven. Her and a friend took off when they was supposed ta be fishin, and got lost. We found em two days later. The friend survived. My daughter didnt." He looked back toward the road again, his eyes shiny and dark, hands gripped tight to the wheel. "Musta tripped in the dark, near as anyone can figure. The friend couldnt say. We found them both at the bottom of one of the ravines. My daughters neck was broken."
"Oh god." I closed my eyes for a very long moment. "Im so sorry."
He looked back at me again. "I thank ya fer your sympathies, Tyler. Happened a long time ago, but sometimes it still hits pretty hard. Specially when yer not lookin for it." Reaching out almost hesitantly, he gently touched my cheek with his weathered, work-roughened hand. "I aint much for platitudes. Find em pretty useless as a rule. But I been around enough to know one thing. And thats that givin up hope is the worst thing a body can do. I been around lots, but I aint met many people like your Morgan, Tyler. If anyone can make it outta this almighty mess, Id lay my money on her, if I was a bettin man."
"And if youre not?" I asked through my tears.
His smile was sweet and kind and filled with compassion. "Id lay it down anyway. Shes a special one. So are you. I heard her call you Angel once, and I reckon youre as close to one as these eyes are ever gonna see. So you just keep her alive in your heart, and alive shes gonna stay. Ok?"
After a moment, I gave a short nod against his hand, smiling a little. "Ok."
"Alright, then. Lets haul ass home and get some more help on this search. And when we find her, remind me I got a bone ta pick with er fer makin me lose smuch sleep on her account, eh?"
I almost laughed at that. "Youre on, Pop. Ill even hold her down while you pick that bone. Just leave one for me, ok?"
With a nod, we were off again, my soul seeming infinitesimally lighter for our conversation.
Its amazing what a powerful drug hope really is.
I sat on the bed, facing the headboard and staring sightlessly out the window. Though Id been more than thirty-six hours without it, sleep was an elusive, useless thing. Though my mind and body craved it with a deep, abiding ache, my soul shied away from its implied comfort, knowing it for the sham it really was. Sleep wasnt the oblivion I needed; it would only bring about nightmares-- or worse, happy dreams from which I would awaken only to die all over again when the realization of my living hell came down to visit once again, hitting me like a sucker punch hard to the gut.
No, better to stay awake and wrestle demons I could control, than to fall asleep and give up that control to the vultures who waited just beyond my conscious sight.
The sounds of Pops gentle snoring floated up to me from the living-room below, where he lay sprawled out on one of the couches. I smiled a little, thanking God for putting that man in my life. Hed managed to call in a great many markers from friends near and far. Friends who were as close-lipped and hard-headed as he was and could therefore be entrusted with the delicate, and dangerous, task set before them.
Ruby had called just as wed arrived back at the cabinI had ceased thinking of this place as home. My words came back to haunt me. Where Ice was, home was. Where she wasnt, it could never beto share with us the good news that Corinne, though grievously injured, was expected to make a full recovery.
She had what Ruby called a subdural hematoma, which she explained as somewhat like a very bad concussion. The doctors had placed her on some strong medications to both calm her and decrease the swelling in her brain. It was expected to resolve on its own without surgical intervention, for which I was profoundly grateful.
Before hanging up, Ruby let me know in no uncertain terms exactly what she expected to be told when all this was over. If it was ever over.
I answered in like tones, promising her I would tell her everything I could.
If I could.
Turning away from the window, I sat with my back against the headboard, my eyes darting around the room, looking at anything, everything, save for the pillow laying so close to me. A pillow Id cradled for the past four daysor was it five? Six? Time was the enemy once againin lieu of the woman I wanted to hold. Her scent was still there, I knew, trapped within the fabric, offering comfort, offering peace.
But for how long? Long enough to last a lifetime without her? Long enough to soothe a chasm of empty nights and broken dreams?
Tears welled up again, and this time, I didnt bother trying to stop them, still denying myself the succor of her scent. Ice couldnt help me now. No one could.
Curling my arms around my body, I felt myself begin to rock, slowly, back and forth, back and forth in a primitive attempt at self-consolation. My tears continued to fall and I continued to let them, knowing they were just the beginning of a vast ocean of grief being held back by the most broken-down of sea walls; my quickly fading inner strength.
After a very long period of time, true to their purpose, my tears slowed and left me feeling, if not better, at least cleansed. The grief was still there, a roiling black tide, but it was just a little easier to tame for having found an outlet, however short-lived.
And with this newfoundif temporaryfeeling of peace came the strength to realize that I couldnt go it totally alone. Reaching out, I grabbed the pillow and buried my flushed face into it, absorbing the cool fabric and Ices exotic, comforting scent deep within me, helping to fortify walls beaten down by griefs relentless torrent.
My mind played back images of happier times, and I allowed those images to lull me into a much needed sleep, the pillow still clenched desperately against my body.
When I next awoke, it was to that blind, heart pumping relief that someone gets when they realize theyve just been rescued from the clutches of a brutal nightmare.
But then I looked around.
And realized the nightmare was still there, and worse than the most horrid of my minds dark fantasies.
When it finally filtered through that the room was nearly pitch dark and Id been allowed to sleep the day away, I gritted my teeth in anger and jumped from the bed, almost collapsing to my knees as the agony that was my feet made its presence known. Clinging to the bedpost, I took several deep breaths and willed my legs to support my body no matter how much they hurt.
After a long moment, they finally listened.
As I limped down the stairs, my pain lending strength to my anger, I chanced to look up at the clock on the fireplace mantle, and noticed that instead of sleeping the day away, only two hours had passed. When I finally made it to the bottom floor, my anger had abated somewhat, leaving more than enough room for my ever-present grief to begin encroaching once again.
Pop, his face gray with exhaustion, was in the process of hanging up the phone as I entered the downstairs living area. "Any news?" I asked, very much afraid to hear the answer.
A slow shake of his head. "No. Helluva storms brewin though. Gonna wash whatever tracks there are right away."
I followed his gaze out the huge picture window that covered most of the wall. The sky was an ominous black with roiling clouds from which lightening flashes passed, one to the other to the other like a baton in a relay race run by Zeus and his family.
It wasnt raining yet, but the world outside seemed poised for it: still, silent, waiting. I turned back to him. "Looks like wed better get going then, huh?"
For a moment, it looked as if he wanted to say something, but whatever it was died on his lips and he nodded instead. "Yeah. Lets go see what we can do."
The storm hit just as we stepped outside. Instead of rain, however, hail the size of golf balls started to fall, hurtling toward the ground with amazing speed and evil intent.
"Lets just wait this out, Tyler," Pop said from beneath the overhang of the back porch. "Too dangerous ta go out in this."
"No. If you dont want to go, then give me the keys. Im not staying here."
"Tyler . . . ."
"No! I wont leave her out in this, Pop. I cant." Pictures of hail battering her defenseless body came to gory life in my mind, ice filling her dead, staring eyes like some grisly horror show special effect. I shut them savagely down. "I just cant. So either come with me or stay here, but Im going. With you or without you."
Then I grabbed the keys from his hand and took off toward his truck, not even feeling the hail as it pelted down on me.
And with a muttered "aww hell" that I could barely hear over the storms fury, Pop ran out to join me, snatching his keys back and shoving me toward the passenger side as he opened his door and slipped into the cab.
Within seconds, we were off, our ride accompanied by a grisly tympani of hailstones as they pounded off of the trucks body and windshield, making it nearly impossible to see, let alone drive.
The hail soon changed into a driving rain which turned the logging roads into quagmires greedily sucking at tires as they passed in a spray of mud. More than once, the winch on Tom Drews truck was called into service to rescue a truck sunk door-deep into the muck.
But still we went on, driven on by the news that one of Pops friends had received from one of his friends who just happened to be on the Border Patrol. Impossible though it seemed, no black sedans had been reported crossing the border into the United States within the last twenty-four hours.
So, unless Pop was wrong and there in fact was a way to get across the border in a car without crossing the patrolled routes, Ice was still in Canada.
And so day turned into night once again, only acknowledged by the quickly advancing hands on the watch at my wrist. The storm continued on unabated, lightning freezing and illuminating everything in brief, freeze frames of time, as if a photographer with the worlds biggest camera were taking a series of pictures documenting our search.
Then it was our turn to sink into one of the mud-pits and we both hopped out of the truck as Pop radioed Tom for his help.
"When he pulls us out, were headin for home, Tyler. Were just spinnin our wheels as it is. We could be right on top of her and not even know it with the storm the way it is. We need to wait for it to calm down some."
"Im sorry, Pop, but I just cant do that. You can go back if you want to. Ill go on on foot."
"You cant do that! Youll get lost sure as hell!"
"I dont care. I cant stop searching, Pop. I just cant. Im sorry." And with that, I started away, soaked to the skin, night-blind, and more than half insane with the need to find my lovers body.
"Dont do this, Tyler, damnit!"
I turned back, seeing the oncoming lights of Toms truck as they approached. "Let Tom pull you out, Pop. Then go home. Ill be alright."
And with a sense of utter calm, I waited for the next lightning flash to illuminate the area, then stepped off the road and into the woods hearing the shouts behind me but not bothering to give them any acknowledgement.
I made my way blindly forward, feeling wind-driven branches whip at my face and body and not caring. When the next flash of lightning came, I found myself staring into emptiness, but was unable to stop myself as I stepped off a precipice and tumbled down a heretofore unknown embankment, feeling rocks and fallen branches jab and rake my naked skin and unprotected head.
My momentum was stopped, finally, by an uprooted tree. My body slammed into it, knee first, and pain exploded behind my eyes, making me cry out.
In that half-second of blessed oblivion, when the pain faded and I found myself looking out into nothingness, I thought Good. Im dead. Now I can finally find her.
But then the pain returned, and with it, breath to my lungs and sounds to my ears. I heard my name being called, and painfully turned my neck to see the backlit forms of Pop, Tom and John as they looked down the ravine into which Id fallen. They were shouting something, but I couldnt make it out above the howling of the wind and the pounding of the rain.
It wasnt important anyway. I was still alive, and Ice was still gone, and that was the only thing that mattered to me.
Slowly I pulled myself together and set about getting out of the trap Id fallen into. Sitting up gingerly, I used both hands to pull out the leg that was wedged beneath the great, gnarled roots of the old pine Id slammed into.
I nearly fainted when my leg finally tore loose from the trees greedy hold and I saw the ragged flaps of skin where my knee used to be.
I wasnt about to let a little blood stop me, though, and, gritting my teeth against the agony, I hobbled back up to my feet and stood, swaying, as my body tried to regain its lost equilibrium.
I looked up again in time to see Tom and John slip-slide their way down the embankment, managing to keep their footing only by the slimmest of margins. Finally getting to where I was standing, Tom reached out to me, but I pulled away, my teeth set in a feral snarl. "Dont touch me!"
"Cmon, Tyler. Youre hurt bad. You need to get back up top and get that leg looked at."
"The only thing I need, you bastard, is to be left alone."
"Tyler . . . ."
"Cowards!" I yelled, some part deep within me shocked at this insanity, but the rest reveling in it. "Thats all you are! Cowards! Go home, Tom. Get all warm and dry in your nice warm cabin. Kiss your wife hello and dont worry about me. Just . . .go home. Ill do this myself."
For that one horrible second in time, all I felt was hate. I hated them all, but I think, more than that, I hated myself.
"Tyler, please. . . . ."
"No! Leave me alone!!"
He wouldnt, though, and grabbed me in a tight bear hold that I didnt have the faintest prayer of escaping, insane or no. Like some sort of trapped and wild animal, I fought for all I was worth, kicking and scratching and even biting, but he bore my rage patiently.
And when my rage turned to grief once again, he turned me in his arms, held me close and tight, and stroked my dirty, wet hair as I sobbed my sorrow into his massive chest.
"Is Pop ok?" I asked from my position on the couch, my badly damaged knee thoroughly cleansed and swaddled in several layers of towels and propped on two pillows.
Tom smiled slightly at me as he entered the living-room from Corinnes room, where hed taken Pop when wed arrived back at the cabin. "Yeah. He was having some chest pain. From the tension, I think."
I sat up straighter. "He needs to get to a hospital then."
"Nah. Hes stubborner than you about those things," he said with a pointed glance. "I gave him the medicine he takes for those attacks and hes resting fine now. A little sleep and hell be better."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. Its happened before. Doc Steve checked out his ticker and its ok, for the most part. Just relax. Hell be fine." He crossed the room to stand beside the couch. "Howre you?"
"You really need to get that knee checked out, Tyler. Im not a very good nurse."
"You did just fine. And I will. Have it checked out, I mean. Later."
He chuckled. "Peas in a pod, you are." Then he looked out the window. "I just checked with John on the CB. The rains setting to clear and were getting ready to go back out again."
Smiling, he reached out and ruffled my hair before turning to leave.
He turned back. "Yeah?"
"I just want you to know Im sorry for what I said back there. I didnt mean any of it, you know."
"I know, sweetie. Grief makes us do some crazy things. Just remember, Morgans my friend too. And Im not gonna stop until I find her. None of us are."
Suddenly shy, I looked down at my hands. "I know," I mumbled, yet again on the verge of tears. "And that means the world to me, Tom." Then I lifted my chin and looked him dead in the eye. "I need for you to believe that."
"I do, Tyler. Believe me. I do."
Several hours later, Pop shuffled out of the bedroom, his hair a corkscrew of tangles, his eyes red, his face pale and drawn and stubbly with a couple days growth of beard. "How ya holdin up, Tyler?" he asked, voice rough with sleep.
"Ive been better. You?"
"Same." He yawned and stretched, then sat down in the chair next to the couch upon which I was lying. "Any news?"
He nodded, then looked out the window. "Weathers cleared up. Thats good, at least."
"Thank heaven for small favors." It sounded sarcastic and, in truth, it was. I was hanging on by the tiniest, most frayed of threads, but more determined than ever not to again give into my anger and sorrow.
And, indeed, the night had cleared beautifully. The breeze seemed gentle as it swayed the pines and the stars and moon formed a beautiful tapestry across the sky above. Tom had opened the windows before he left, and the air was cool and fragrant as it brushed against my skin.
We sat for awhile in companionable silence, listening to the chorus of frogs as they chirped for their mates.
Then they went silent and I looked over at Pop, whod also noticed and was rising slowly from his chair, his face set in stony lines.
"What is it?" I whispered.
"Dunno. But I aim ta find out. Them bastards dont stop unless theres danger about."
"A bear, maybe?"
"Maybe. Or somethin else." Going to the corner of the room, he grabbed his rifle and threw back the bolt. "Stay here. Ill check it out."
"Not on your life," I replied, easing myself off of the couch and placing my bare feet on the warm floor.
"Tyler, ya dont need ta be getting up with yer knee like that."
"Ill worry about it later. Lets just see whats out there."
Willing myself not to collapse as the sharp spears of pain drove up my leg and into my gut, I put some weight on my leg, nodded once with teeth clamped hard enough to draw blood from my lip, and hobbled across the floor, putting my hand on Pops narrow back as we continued through the dining-room and out to the rear of the house.
We both scanned the darkness seen through the screens of the back porch, seeing nothing save for the gently rustling trees. "You ready?" he asked me, rifle held securely in his hands.
With one foot, he pushed open the door and stepped out onto the patio with me close behind.
The eerie silence continued, broken only by the rustling leaves and the hum of the wind through the trees.
"I dont see anything," I whispered.
"Me neither. Thats whats got me worried."
I was tempted to shrug it off, but the tension Pop was giving off wouldnt let me. I stood still as I could, willing the pain in my leg to recede, if only for a brief seconds respite.
Then I saw something; a movement in the bushes Ice had planted between the edge of our property and the road, a movement that was not caused by the wind. I stiffened, my heart racing anew, the pain finally forgotten as a new danger presented itself.
Next to me, Pop, also aware of the movement, raised his rifle slowly, socketing it snug against his shoulder. "I aint in the mood for playin games, whoever you are, so do us both a favor and cmon out before I start shootin." His voice, though low, was steady and strong.
The rustling continued.
"Do it, now, or I swear to God Ill pull this trigger and ya wont be doin anything again."
After another moment, a white rabbit, fat with summers bounty hopped from the bushes and twitched his impudent nose at us, his eyes red in the porch lighting.
I sagged against Pop in relief but he remained steady, rifle not moving a millimeter.
"What is it?"
"Rabbits got blood on it."
"Oh shit." The tension in me redoubled and my eyes searched again the dark night.
"Last warning! Cmon out!"
A figure rose from the bushes like a beast from a nightmare, blood-covered and ragged and holding a pistol aimed directly at Pop.
My gasp of horror was loud in my own ears.
But something as close to a premonition as Ill ever be blessed with again reached in and grabbed my soul and sent my arm out pushing the rifle a way a split second before Pop would have fired. "No!" I screamed. "Dont shoot!"
"Get back inside, Tyler," Pop ordered, bringing his rifle to bear again. "Ill handle this."
"No!" I yelled again, grabbing the gun with desperate strength. "Dont shoot! Its Ice!"
"Look, Pop! Its Ice! Dont shoot! Please!"
His eyes squinted as he looked at the gore-covered apparition who was still standing, gun pointed at him. "Morgan? That you?"
"Step away from her, old man. Step away before I kill ya."
"Do it, Pop! Put your gun down and step away. Please."
"But . . . ."
Slowly, he lowered his gun and took three careful steps away from me, his eyes still glued to Ices savaged body and glittering, deadly eyes. Her gun was rock steady as it tracked his progress.
Standing alone, I slowly raised my hands. "Ice? Its me. Angel. Please put the gun down, ok? Im fine. He didnt hurt me. Please put the gun down."
The gun swung back to me, her expression unchanged. If the Angel of Death had form and face, I was looking at it right now. "Please, Ice. Put it down. No ones gonna hurt you, love."
Her stance wavered for a brief second as her eyes closed, then opened again. "Angel?" she whispered.
"Yes, sweetheart. Its me." I tried to smile through my tears. "Welcome home."
As if hit by a strong blow from behind, she seemed to crumple. The gun fell from her hands and she dragged herself from the bushes. I almost screamed when I saw the damage that had been done to her. Most of her clothes had been torn clean away, and she was bleeding heavily from more than a dozen wounds, including two obvious gunshots to her left thigh and right side, just above her hip. Her face was covered in blood from a heavily bleeding wound just above her eyebrow. The skin of her arms and legs were scratched and torn and covered with mud from where shed no doubt fallen many times during her journey.
I hope Ill never live long enough to ever experience the massive strength she needed just to move those few feet separating us.
I rushed out to meet her half way, crushing her in a hug that would have killed a mere mortal.
"I killed em, Angel," she whispered into my ear, her voice husky and raw. "I killed em all. They wont hurt you ever again."
And then she collapsed against me, unconscious, bearing me to the ground with her as her desperate journey home finally ended.
"Holy mother agod," Pop swore as he materialized beside me. "I wouldnt a believed it if I hadnt seen it with my own eyes. Im still not sure I believe it."
"Help me get her in the house, Pop," I returned, pulling my body from beneath Ices and cradling her head in my hands. "Please."
"Alright. You get er shoulders. Ill get er feet. Lets see if we can do this without droppin her."
On three, we lifted her carefully. Dead weight, she felt almost impossibly heavy, and my knee was seriously considering retiring from the business. I took a few shuffling steps backward before I had to stop, my leg trembling too violently with pain to bear the additional weight. Ices head lolled between my arms.
"Weve got to put her down, Pop. I cant . . . ."
"Alright, Tyler, alright. Lay her down nice an easy. Well figure out somethin else."
Just then, headlights shown in the driveway and a truck came to a skidding halt a few feet from us. Tom jumped out, his face flushed with excitement. "Pop! Tyler! John just found . . . . Jesus Christ! Is that Morgan?!? How in the hell . . . ?"
I looked up at him. "Tom. Please. Help. We . . .I . . .cant . . . ."
"Ive got it." Pushing me gently out of the way, he bent down and lifted Ice easily in his massive arms, cradling her gently against his chest. "Where should I take her?"
"Can you carry her upstairs to the bed?"
"No problem. Get the door."
Pop grabbed the door, holding it wide for Tom to pass through carrying Ice while I concentrated on dragging myself back to my feet.
It was funny, though. My leg didnt seem to hurt all that much anymore. My joy in seeing Ice alive coupled with the sure knowledge of what she went through to make her way back to me in the condition she was in made my own injury pale to less than insignificance.
I found myself, therefore, almost flying through the door which Pop courteously held open for me, dashing across the hard wooden floors, and taking the stairs two at a time to arrive just in time to see Tom lay Ice gently on our bed. The look on his face was a curious mixture of sorrow, amazement, and utter worship.
I suspected the same look was on my own face as well.
Noticing my presence after carefully arranging her arms and legs in a comfortable position atop the sheets, he stepped out of the way, giving me room to lower myself to my knees beside the bed and gently grasp one of her hands, holding it up to my cheek as my eyes played over her battered, blood and gore covered face.
I didnt see any of that, though. Not then. Not yet.
Instead, I just allowed myself to drink in the sight of her, alive and breathing and as beautiful to my eyes as the day I first saw, seemingly an entire lifetime ago.
"We need to get her to a hospital," Tom said finally, breaking the silence which had fallen over the room.
"No," I said immediately, looking up at him. "No hospitals."
"If youre worried about the cost, Tyler, dont. Well . . . ."
"No. Its not that. Its . . . ." I took a deep breath, attempting to gather my thoughts. "Shes been shot."
He looked me as if Id suddenly regressed back to diapers. "Yeah, I know. Thats why we need to get her to a hospital."
"You dont understand."
"Obviously, I dont. Mind filling me in?" There was just a touch of anger in his voice. Justified, I thought, given what hed gone through to search for the very woman who was now lying, grievously injured, on the bed.
"First thing them docsll do, Tommy," Pop said, coming into the room, "after they stabilize her is ta call the cops."
"So? Thats a bad thing? Those guys kidnapped her and tried to murder her! I think bringing the police in is a good thing right about now!"
"Wont help nothin, Tommy. Theyre dead already."
Tom turned to Pop, his eyes wide with shock. "What?"
Pop gestured to the bed. "She killed em."
Tom looked down at Ice, then over at me, his jaw slack. I nodded. "All of them?"
I nodded again.
"Jesus Christ," he whispered. "But . . .she could claim self defense, right?"
"Sure," Pop replied, "after they was done askin her why them Mafia boys had such an interest in her."
Reaching out, Tom laid a hand on Ices brow. His eyebrows drew together in a pensive frown. "Well, whatever you guys are gonna do, itd better be soon. Shes burning up."
And suddenly, I could feel it as well in the limp hand I was holding. Always a warm furnace, Ices body radiated a heat that was unnatural, even for her. I looked over at Pop, my fears plain on my face.
"Ill go downstairs and wet down some towels. Thatll help cool her off for a start till we figure out who ta call."
"What about Steve?" Tom asked.
"Pretty fair country doc, but I dont think hes got the skills we need, Tommy."
Then he turned and walked back down the stairs, leaving us alone. Reaching out with my free hand, I gingerly touched the sweaty, dirty and bloody bangs on Ices pale brow, carefully trying to avoid the myriad of cuts and scrapes gouged into her skin, a task which was nearly impossible. There didnt appear to be an unmarked inch of skin anywhere.
The tears were there. I could feel them burning at my eyes, demanding release, but I didnt let them fall. Time enough later, when she was out of the woods.
Needing to get my mind off of the sight my eyes were seeing, if even for a moment, I looked up at Tom. "When you came over here, you acted like you had some news?"
My friend startled, as if pulled from a dream. "Oh! Yeah! John found something about thirty miles down that road we were searching yesterday. We probably missed it because of the storm."
"Did he say what it was?"
"No. They were just getting ready to head down. Whatever it was, it had him pretty excited, though." He scratched at the heavy growth of stubble on his cheek. "Which reminds me. Id better get back out to the truck and see what it was. Not that it makes much difference now, thank God."
"Make a difference. If she left the . . . um . . .bodies laying around."
"Damn," Tom replied, rubbing his forehead. "I didnt even think about that." He shook his head. "Lemme get downstairs and figure out whats going on."
Pop came into the room, heavily laden with wet towels, as soon as Tom left. "Cmon," he said, laying them on the bed and turning to me, "lets get er outta whats left of er clothes and lay these towels on her. Might help ta bring the fever down a little, at least."
"Alright." Struggling up to my feet, I worked on the upper half of her body while Pop worked on the lower. There really wasnt much left of the simple button down shirt shed donned and her bra was another lost cause, having been ripped to shreds somewhere along the way. I didnt have to try hard at all to divest her of the tattered remnants hanging from her battered body.
"Oh. . .Ice," I whispered, looking down at the body bared to me. Her breasts were bruised and bloody. Several long cuts could be seen beneath the liberal coating of blood and mud which painted her skin. Her ribcage on the right was oddly shaped, and I guessed that she had three or four broken ribs. There was a long open gash which drew a grisly line from just beneath her sternum and ran underneath the blood-encrusted jeans Pop was currently working hard just to unbutton.
And, of course, there was the bullet hole just above her hip, surrounded by swollen, angry red skin and oozing a constant bloody fluid.
With a satisfied grunt, Pop finally managed to pry open the button holding Ices jeans together and with a quick, though gentle, tug, he pulled them off, together with her underpants.
Excepting the second bullet wound in her thigh, her legs seemed to have escaped the worst of the damage, though she did have several wicked gashes on her calves and shins and both knees were swollen, scraped and bleeding.
Working together, Pop and I soon managed to cover her with cool, wet towels from head to toe, hoping against hope we could put a dent in the raging fever she had. "Do you have any ideas?" I asked him when we were finally done.
"Been thinkin on it," he replied. "Got a friend up country some whos pretty fair with a scalpel and knows how ta keep his mouth shut. Might do for a start."
I could feel myself sag with relief against the bed. "Thank God. Are you going to call him?"
"Do it right now."
Just as he turned to leave, we both stiffened as the sounds of shouting filtered into the cabin. The words werent easily discerned, but from the heated tone, it was pretty obvious that Tom was trying his best to keep someone outside, while that someone was trying just as hard to get in.
There was a loud crash and then I heard my name. "Angel!"
Which was strange, because no man in town called me by that name.
My first thought was Andre, but he was a French Canadian who spoke with a thick, if pleasing, accent. The man who called my name carried no such accent.
"Angel, are you in there? Its Bull! I need to talk to you right away!"
"Bull?" I rose slowly to my feet. "Tom, its alright! Let him in! Hes a friend!"
I walked over to the wooden railing as Bull burst through the door, Tom hard at his heels, their faces still flushed with heated anger.
"Angel! Thank God Im not too late. Wheres Morgan? I need to speak to you both. Its really important."
"Shes up here, Bull," I replied, taking in the sight of a friend I hadnt seen in a year. He looked just the same, right down to the massive beard he evidently didnt bother to shave even in the heat of summer.
"Um, could you get her to come down here? Please?"
"I cant do that, Bull. Come on up here."
He took his cap off and twisted it in his hands, blushing slightly beneath his heavy beard. "Are you sure?"
I smiled a little. "Nows not the time to get all shy on me, Bull. Just get up here."
I could hear him take the steps three at a time as his huge body barely made it up the narrow stairway. He made it to the top, then stopped, face slack with shock and some deeper emotion. "I am too late," he breathed. "God damn it. No!"
Walking over to the bed, he stared down at Ices unresponsive body, fat tears rolling down his bearded cheeks. "Dear God, Morgan, no. You cant . . . . No."
I stepped up and placed a hand on his back. "Shes still alive, Bull," I said softly in an effort to ease his grief. "They tried, but they didnt succeed."
He turned to me, his eyes shiny with his tears, his hands clenched in massive, white-knuckled fists. "Was it . . . ?"
I nodded. "At least I think so. Cavallo wasnt with them. She seemed to know one of them, though. A guy by the name of Carmine. He seemed to be the leader."
He returned my nod, his face twisting into a snarl of anger. "Yeah, she knew him alright. Carmine used to be a friend of hers, before he turned belly up and became Cavallos stooge. Bastard. When I find him, Im gonna . . . ."
"No need. Hes dead."
Bulls eyes widened. "Morgan?"
"Yeah. She killed all of them, then managed to make her way back here, though I dont know how."
"You mean they took her away? Alive? But how?"
I sighed. "Its a long story, Bull. Suffice it to say for now that theyre not a threat anymore."
"They shouldnt have been a threat in the first place, goddamnit!" I could hear his teeth grind in anger.
"Did something happen?"
"Yeah," he spat. "They managed to find Andre, though how, I dont know."
"Oh, God. Is he alright?"
"Hes alive. They beat the holy living crap out of him, but hes alive."
"Did he tell them?"
"No. Andre wouldnt spill anything if you pulled his fingernails out by the roots. Hes tough."
"Andres partner. He just couldnt take seeing him beaten up like that anymore. He managed to get Andre to the hospital, then he called me. I was up in the mountains and didnt find out about anything till just this morning. Ive been driving all day, praying to god I wasnt too late." He wiped the tears from his eyes. "But I was anyhow."
I rubbed my hand along his broad back, trying to console him. It wasnt working. He was wound up tighter than a spring. "Its alright, Bull. You couldnt have known."
"I should have, damnit!" He wiped his eyes again. "I should have, and I didnt. And now Morgan is . . .is . . . ."
"Shes alive, Bull. Shes alive."
After a moment, he reached down and clasped Ices hand in his own. "Im sorry, Morgan. God, Im so, so sorry." Then he looked at me. "Shes burnin up with fever."
"I know. Shes been shot twice and shes got a whole bunch of other injuries on top of that. We were just about to call in a friend to help."
"Let me. Please. I couldnt stop this from happening, but at least I can help fix her up." He turned to me, eyes intense and pleading. "I was a battlefield medic in Nam. Chucked it all and moved up here when my tour was over, but Ive kept up my skills. I might not know a lot, but I do know how to treat gunshot wounds." Reaching out his free hand, he grasped my own, squeezing it tightly. "Please, Angel. Please let me help. I have to make it up to her somehow. I have . . . ."
I gave him my best smile. "Thats the best offer Ive heard all day, Bull. Thank you."
"No, Angel. Thank you." He turned then, and almost ran into Pop, who had been silently listening to the exchange. "Oh, Im sorry. Um . . .Im Bull."
Pop smiled. "So I gathered. Pop." The two men shook hands as Pop carefully appraised my hulking friend. "You known Morgan a long time, have ya?"
"Yeah. Since she was a kid. I love her like a sister. Always have."
Pursing his lips, Pop nodded, once. "Alright then. Got gear ya need brung up?"
"Its in my truck. Ill get it." After a last look at Ice, he turned and ran back down the stairs and out to his truck.
"Guess we got lucky," Pop commented.
"Yeah. I guess we did."
Soon after Bull left to retrieve his gear, Pop left as well, ostensibly to get fresh water, rags and soap with which to wash Ices blood and gore covered body so that Bull could do what he needed to do to fix the worst of her injuries.
Left alone with my lover, I crawled carefully onto the large bed, then stretched out beside her. Reaching out, I gently gasped a lock of her hair and ran it between my fingers, looking down at her battered, still face. "Hi, sweetheart. Its me." I paused. "Well, I suppose you know that already, dont you. You always seem to know when Im around and I dont think now is any different, right?"
I stopped, then laughed a little. "Yeah, Im rambling. Par for the course, huh?" I sighed, sniffing back my tears. "I missed you, Ice. I felt . . .I dont know . . .dead inside. Like someone had taken my soul and ripped it right out of my body. And when I thought you were dead . . . ."
I let the tears fall for a moment before strengthening myself against their still-seductive lure. "Enough of that. Youre not dead. Youre alive, and were all gonna make sure you stay that way, alright?"
Then I smiled, picturing that sardonic eyebrow lift in my mind. "Yes, you heard me right. We. When you wake up, I think youre gonna be in for one hell of a surprise, my love. You, the person who believes she is incapable of being respected and loved, are loved by many more people than you think. You wouldnt believe the number of people who put themselves in deliberate danger just to hunt down those idiots who kidnapped you." I could feel my smile broaden. "Youd be proud of them, Ice. God knows I am."
Anything I might have said further was interrupted by the return of Bull, and right behind him, Pop. Bull was toting a large green backpack with a red cross emblazoned across the front.
"Present from Uncle Sam," he said, grinning and lifting the pack when he saw me staring at it. "I heard you talking. Did she wake up?"
I blushed a little. "No. I was just . . .talking to myself, I guess. Telling her I missed her and stuff like that." I shrugged.
Laying the pack down on the bed, he nodded. "Yeah. Whatever place shes in, she knows shes safe. But its good to be reminded of that sometimes. Especially when youre hurting." Smiling slightly, he put one large hand gently down on her shoulder. "Whatever she went through, it wasnt pleasant. She needs to hear your voice to remember that it was all worth it in the end."
"You think she can hear me, then?"
"Oh, yeah. Even if she isnt responding right now, she hears you. Im sure of it. So dont stop talking on my account. It can only make my job easier." He grinned crookedly. "Especially if she wakes up while Im still working and decides my face would look better completely rearranged."
Remembering what she had done to the poor doctor who had tried to shove a tube down her nose when she seemed unconscious, I couldnt help but laugh. "Then I promise to do my best to keep your face looking as handsome as it does now."
Oops! In the year that had passed, Id completely forgotten about the crush he had on me.
Bulls blush could have set fire to the lake outside.
Then Pop laughed, which caused Bull to scowl, and then everything was alright again.
Or at least as alright as it could be.
"Cmon, Tyler, lets get er cleaned up some so this lug cn do what he came here ta do."
And so we did, each of us using towels and plenty of soap and water to tenderly minister to her torn and swollen flesh. The going was slow, at first, especially as I was trying my best to be gentle with her, not wanting to cause my already horribly injured lover any further pain.
But when Bull told me--rather sternly I thoughtto put some muscle into it, I began to clean her more thoroughly and, by necessity, less tenderly, wincing every time the cloth swiped over the angry, swollen redness that circled her cuts like an obscene brand.
She wasnt wincing, though, nor even twitching. Not even when Bull used his washcloth to clean the edges of the bullet hole in her thigh, probing it to loosen the encrusted blood and dirt which had fouled it.
I looked up at him, sure my expression of worry was showing easily on my face.
After a moment, he dropped the dirty rag to the floor and came up to the head of the bed, bringing with him a small penlight hed liberated from the depths of his army issue backpack. Using his huge hands tenderly, he felt around her skull beneath the thick and tangled mat of her hair, frowning once or twice as he did so.
Then he pulled back each slack eyelid in turn and flashed the beam from his penlight into her eyes several times before lowering her lids once again and tossing the light back with the rest of his gear.
"Well?" Pop asked before I could voice the same question.
"Shes got a couple pretty good sized lumps on the right side of her head, and her left pupil is a little sluggish, so Id guess shes got a pretty nice concussion to add to the mix." He turned to look at me. "Did she seem okay when she talked to you?"
I thought for a moment. "Well, she didnt seem to recognize Pop at first, but then again, he had a gun pointed at her, so Im sure she could probably be excused for that one. And, for a minute there, I dont think she recognized me either, but when I called out to her, she lowered her own gun and came to me." I closed my eyes, remembering. "She told me that shed killed them all and that they wouldnt ever hurt me again. Then she passed out."
He nodded. "Thats good, then."
"So, is the concussion why shes not showing any response to pain?"
"Partly. Add to that a good dose of sheer exhaustion and weve most likely got our answer."
"Most likely?" Pop asked, his bushy brows knit low over his eyes.
Bull spread his hands. "Im sorry. Its my best guess here. Only a CT scan could tell us for sure, and since the chances of sneaking her into one of those things without being seen are remote . . . ."
Both men turned to look at me and I once again felt the weight of the world settle about my shoulders as if planning to stay for a good long while.
Instinctively, I looked to Ice, searching for answers in that still, battered, beloved face. What would you do in my place, Ice? Would you trust Bulls decision, or would you want to make absolutely sure?
Then I laughed a little, causing my companions to look at me as if I had suddenly sprouted another head, a little off to the left of the first one.
I know what youd do, my love. Youd get me to the hospital so fast, the tires would bleed.
I reached out once again to finger a lock of her hair, desperate to have some sort of link with her. A link that wasnt cold, or pale, or bloody.
But youre not me. And as much as I hate to admit it, you cant help me with this one, can you.
So, either I trust Bull and hope hes not wrong, or I take you to a hospital to be sure and run the almost guaranteed risk of seeing you carted back to the U.S. in chains.
That exact vision, the one that had haunted my nightmares for the past year, came into my thoughts, and suddenly, the decision wasnt a hard one to make at all.
Then I looked up into the waiting faces of my friends, meeting their eyes steadily and without hesitation. "I trust you, Bull. And I know Ice does too." I smiled. "So, lets get this show on the road and put Humpty Dumpty back together again, ok?"
Grinning in return, Bull gave me a gentle slap on the shoulder and returned to his pack, which he opened and began pulling out amazing quantities of medical gear, like a magician pulling a dozen rabbits from his top-hat.
"What did you do?" I finally asked as all the gear was laid out on the table by the bed, "rob a hospital?"
"Nah. I got a friend down south who keeps me supplied." He shrugged. "No big deal."
"And you keep it all in your truck?"
He chuckled. "Well, when you take a group of great white hunters out on a trek and spend a night or two picking a load of buckshot outta someones backside with nothing but a pair of eyebrow tweezers and a Zippo lighter, ya soon learn that the Boy Scouts have the right idea." Then he pulled himself back to his feet. "Lemme go wash my hands and then we can get started."
"What do you want me to do?" I asked.
He smiled tenderly. "Just . . .hold her hand. Best medicine in the world for her right now."
That I could do.
Several hours later, it was done.
Ice lay quietly in the center of our large bed, looking impossibly small and impossibly fragile beneath the vestments of brilliant white bandages which swaddled her from head to toe.
From beneath one such bandage, wrapped around her left arm, snaked a coil of IV tubing which was connected to a clear bag of fluid hanging from an impromptu IV pole, which doubled, in happier times, as our coat-rack.
Swabbing one of the IV ports, Bull injected another dose of Morphine into the line, then discarded the used syringe and stripped off his bloodied gloves, grunting in satisfaction and stretching his massive body in all directions. "That should keep her out for awhile," he said, twisting his neck so that the vertebrae popped noisily.
"Is there anything more we can do?" I asked from my position beside the bed. My knees were killing me, especially the injured one, but I wasnt about to complain.
"Nope. The rest is up to her. Give her time to rest and start healing. Shell come out of it when shes ready."
Struggling to my feet, I limped over to Bull and wrapped him in the tightest hug I could manage, tucking my cheek against his huge chest and hanging on for dear life. "Thank you," I said, my voice muffled against his shirt. "Thank you so much. I dont know what we would have done without you, Bull. You saved her life. I wont ever forget that. Ever."
He didnt say anything, but I could feel his acceptance of my thanks in the return squeeze I received before being lifted off my feet and deposited into the bed beside my partner. "Time to look at your injuries," he said, grinning.
"Oh, no. Really," I demurred as his hands reached for the towel still somehow wrapped around my leg. "I dont need . . . ."
Surprisingly, I did.
Giving the man my best put upon expression, I crossed my arms over my chest and watched as he gently unwrapped my leg to reveal my injury. "Not bad. Someone did a pretty good job of cleaning it up."
"That was Tom," I replied. Then I looked up at Pop, whod been mostly silent as Bull worked on Ice, lending help as needed but doing little else, his thoughts seemingly far away. "Speaking of which, where is he?"
"Talked to him a little while ago. Said he couldnt raise Johnny on the CB so he was goin back out ta see what was goin on."
I sat up straighter. "Is there a problem?"
Pop shrugged. "Nah. They was probably outta their trucks investigatin whatever in the hell it was they found."
"That was quite awhile ago, though. Shouldnt someone have reported back by now?"
Pop didnt seem particularly worried. "Give em a little more time. Theyll be alright."
Nodding, I looked back to Bull, who was staring at me with a large syringe in his hand and a grin that Dr. Frankenstein must have worn just before he threw the fateful switch.
"Oh, come on, Angel. Its just a little needle," he teased mercilessly.
"Little for you, maybe . . . ."
"Alright," he replied, moving as if to put the syringe away, "but those stitches are gonna hurt a lot more without it."
I heard Pop chuckle off to the side and I shot him a glare before returning my attentions to the big man with the big needle. "Its not that bad," I countered, flexing my knee to show just how bad it wasnt, and nearly biting my tongue in half when a bolt of pain shot up to my groin. "See?" I said through gritted teeth.
Bull grinned. "Oh, I see alright." Using his free hand, he gently pushed on my shoulder until my back was against the backboard. "Just close your eyes and think happy thoughts. Its just a little prick. You wont feel a thing."
"You know," I said when my jaw finally managed to loosen, "youre just lucky youre armed, Bull, or I just might be tempted to make an unkind remark to rebut that last statement." Then I smirked. "Or confirm it."
His face went blank for a moment as he internalized my threat, then he blushed again; a deep, fire-engine red. Pop coughed in the background, nearly choking when he, too, got the joke.
My own quiet laughter was quickly cut off at the feel of a sharp needle sliding beneath my skin, followed by an intense burning sensation as the medication spread through my tissues. "Ow," I said, scowling.
"Serves you right," came the unrepentant reply. "Now just sit still for a minute and give it a chance to work."
Though tempted in the extreme to let loose with a volley of expletives that would have curled his beard, I wisely held my tongue, choosing silence as the better part of valor.
At least as long as he had pointy objects close to hand.
A couple minutes later, he returned, suture materials in hand, and almost before I knew it, I was staring down at a long row of neat stitches where a gaping cut had been just a short time before. "Thanks, Bull. Sorry about giving you such a hard time."
He grinned, snapping off his gloves. "Dont worry about it. You were a hell of a lot better about it than a whiney hunter with a butt-load of buckshot, thats for sure." Then he looked at me, eyes narrowed. "Ya know, those circles under your eyes are gonna be asking for their own zip code pretty soon. Whend you sleep last?"
Embarrassed, I looked down at my hands, clasped in my lap. "I . . .um . . .dont remember."
"Thought as much. You need some rest. So just lie down next to Morgan and try to relax. Ill keep an eye out for both of you."
"You need sleep too," I replied, noticing the large, dark circles under his own eyes.
"Yeah, but Im in one piece." Then he smiled, and I could almost smell an ulterior motive brewing. "Besides, I think Morganll sleep easier knowing youre close by, dont you?"
"Youre a devious man, my friend."
He shrugged, laughing. "It worked, didnt it?"
"Okay, then." He tipped a wink at me. "Pleasant dreams."
My payback list had officially expanded.
Some time later, I was awakened from the depths of a profoundly exhausted slumber by something I didnt at first recognize.
Then it came again and this time, recognition was swift.
Ice twitched, then moaned, as if in pain.
Galvanized, I moved quickly away, horror dawning on my face as I realized that, sometime during my sleep, Id unconsciously adopted one of my favorite positions, curled up on my side, my head on her shoulder, my arm tight about her waist, and my good leg thrown carelessly over both of her own.
"Oh my god, Ice. Im so sorry! I didnt realize . . . ."
"Angel . . . ."
"I know. Im here. Im sorry, sweetheart . . . ." I reached out to touch her, then realized that her eyes, far from being open and pain filled, were instead darting ceaselessly about beneath tightly closed lids.
"Ice?" Her entire face was literally bathed in a heavy sweat.
One long arm blasted out from beneath the covers. The IV tubing stretched, then abruptly came free as blood and IV fluid sprayed across the bed. "Let go of her, you bastard!"
"Ice! Dont!" Reaching out, I grabbed her arm, but she pulled it away savagely as both legs powered up, kicking the covers free.
"Let her go, Carmine. . . . Thats right, let her go, or Ill rip your heart out and feed it to ya."
"Ice . . . please . . . ." I wanted to reach out to touch her, to reassure her that I was alive and in no danger, but there wasnt a place on her body that I could do that without hurting her. Instead, I laid back down and put my lips as close to her ear as I dared. "Ice, Im ok. Im alright. Carmine isnt here, sweetheart. Youre just having a bad dream. Thats all it is. Just a dream."
" . . . Angel?"
"Yes, sweetheart. Its me. Youre ok. Were ok. No ones gonna hurt us. I promise."
And for a moment, her body went absolutely still, and I breathed out a silent sigh of relief.
She stiffened beneath me, then began thrashing violently, as if within the depths of her fevered delirium, she was being held by chains of the strongest steel from which she was desperately trying to break free.
As I watched, horrified, her face twisted in a snarl of black rage while, from beneath tightly clenched eyelids, a stream of tears began to pour.
"Ice," I whispered into her ear, taking care not to be hit by her thrashing head, "its ok. Im alright. Please, its ok." I put my hand down below her chest in an attempt to calm her, then pulled it away quickly. It was red and slick with blood.
I forced myself to stay calm in the face of this new horror, knowing that my agitation could very likely seep into whatever fevered state her mind was in and cause things to become worse than they already were. Lifting my head carefully, I tried to peer over the railing to perhaps catch a glimpse of anyone who might be on the first floor, all the while wondering why they hadnt come running when they first heard Ices agonized shouts.
She stiffened, then thrashed again, arms and legs jerking as she snarled out her rage. One arm came free from whatever hold her nightmare had on it and flew out, hard, narrowly missing my head as I ducked beneath its killing strike.
When she lashed out again, I jerked away, sending myself tumbling over the edge of the bed to crash gracelessly onto the hard floor. Quickly gathering my legs beneath me, I stood and jumped back on the bed, calling out for help as I did so.
Fresh red bloomed beneath the pristine white bandages, the stains growing ever larger as she continued to thrash atop the bed.
Sounds of booted feet filled the house as I continued to try and calm my lover down without touching her, knowing that any attempt at restraint would be quickly and harshly thrown off.
Then I found myself airborne once again as Tom pulled me off the bed and set me on the ground behind him before moving to grab Ices flailing arm and pin it to the bed. Pop did the same with her other arm, and John, the largest of the men save for Bull, grabbed her legs.
Snarling and snapping like a trapped animal, Ice brought all her strength to bear against this new threat, flinging the restraining hands from her as her body bucked and twisted violently. Men stumbled and swore at her immense strength before jumping back into the fray once again, trying to hold her down long enough for Bull, who was frantically searching in his magic bag, to do something to calm her down.
Pulling out an already loaded syringe, Bull stepped between Tom and the window. "Alright, hold her down. I need to . . . shit!"
The syringe flew past my head, followed by a backwards-stumbling Bull, who almost took my legs out from beneath me as he crashed into me, his arms pinwheeling wildly for balance.
"Hold her down, damnit! Shes ripping all her stitches out!"
"Were trying our best here! Damn womans stronger than a bear!"
Something about the timbre of her voice struck a chord deep within me and I desperately tried to slip past the tight press of bodies surrounding the bed. "Ice!"
I saw her hand reach out, trembling, and I tried to grab it, only to be pushed out of the way by Bull, who was wielding another syringe. I tried to slip past him, but he grunted as he thrust his hip out, preventing me from getting near the bed as he shouted orders to the other struggling men. "Turn her over, damnit! I need to get . . . ."
He took a half step backward to avoid a blow and, seeing my chance, I slipped into the space hed created and threw myself on the bed next to my wildly thrashing lover. "Enough!" I shouted. "Back off! Now!"
Four men looked at me, shock plain on their faces, but, to a man, they obeyed.
Then I turned toward Ice, finally confirming that my supposition was true.
She was awake. Her eyes were wide, grief-stricken, and brimming with tears. "Angel?" she asked in a tone of desolation so unutterably sad that my heart shattered beneath its blackened, lifeless weight.
"Im here, sweetheart. Im here."
She reached for me again, pulling her fingers back just before they made contact with my face. "Im sorry. Im so, so sorry. I tried to save you. I . . . ."
"Ice! You did save me! Im here! Right here!"
But she didnt hear me. Just kept speaking as if looking at a voiceless ghost. "Please forgive me, Angel. I couldnt . . . ."
It was then that Bull, no doubt taking Ices sudden calm as the perfect opportunity, reached past me, bared Ices hip, and plunged his needle into her bruised flesh, depressing the plunger quickly, then removing the needle and stepping back away.
Her eyes flared in anger, then became almost dead as whatever drug hed used spread through her weakened system. ". . . couldnt save you . . . ," she mumbled as her eyes finally closed and her head lolled to the side.
I turned to Bull, my own eyes blazing in anger. "Why did you do that??" I demanded, feeling my fists ball tightly with the urge to lash out. "Why???"
"She needed to be sedated, Angel," he said reasonably. "Those stitches need to be tended to."
"You idiot! She thinks Im dead! And when whatever dope youve shot her full of wears off, how do you think shes gonna react? Theres nothing for her now! Nothing!!"
His eyes grew huge as the realization struck him. "Im sorry. I didnt . . . ."
"Of course you didnt! You didnt think! You didnt trust me! You didnt do anything!!"
"Angel . . . ." Tom tried to break in, so I turned my anger on him as well.
"Shes not a dangerous animal that needs to be tranquilized, Tom. Shes a woman who thinks her lover is dead. How would you feel if it were you?"
Unable to hold my gaze, he looked down at the bed, not answering.
I turned to the others. "Well? Any of you?"
"You called fer help, Tyler," Pop finally said. "It aint exactly like any of us has ever done this before. Maybe we made a mistake, but it was an honest one."
I could feel the anger bleed out of me at his words. I sighed, unclenching my fists. "I know, Pop. I just wish I could have had a little more time with her, thats all. I wish . . . well, that doesnt matter now." I turned to Bull. "Im sorry for lashing out on you like that, Bull. I know you were only doing what needed to be done."
He smiled, putting a hand on my shoulder. "Dont worry about it. Next time, Ill trust your instincts, ok?"
"Lets just hope there isnt a next time." I smiled to take the sting out of my words.
He nodded. "Fair enough. How about if you help me undo the bandages and we can take a look at the damage, huh?"
As it turned out, the damage wasnt as severe as it first seemed. Though shed torn some stitches from the long, deep cut in her belly, the other wounds had just been aggravated and, with a little pressure, they stopped bleeding relatively quickly.
Her fever remained the biggest danger, at times soaring so high that Bull feared seizures from it. We bathed her with cool water to hold it down as best we could until the antibiotics hed loaded her system with could do their job properly.
When things had calmed down somewhat for the moment, I finally had the presence of mind to realize just who had come to my call for aid. From my position on the bed next to Ice, I looked up at Tom and John, who looked profoundly out of place now that the immediate danger had passed.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" I asked.
John nodded. "Yeah. We found the car. What was left of it."
I sat up straighter, pulling Ices hand into my lap and clasping it tightly. "Where?"
""bout thirty miles or so southeast of here, off of one of the logging roads wed been looking at. Less, as the crow flies, of course. It . . .went off the road and into a tree. Pretty damn fast, too."
I could feel the blood drain from my face as I grasped Ices unresponsive hand tighter. "What happened?"
John looked at Tom and Pop before returning his attention back to me. "The driver died instantly. He . . .um . . .he had a steering-wheel through his chest."
My stomach turned and I swallowed back the bile that threatened to come forth. Without really knowing why, I nodded for him to continue.
John scratched his heavy beard, then sighed. "The guy on the passenger side, near as I can tell, flew through the window and smashed into a tree. He probably died pretty quick too."
"And . . .the others?"
"They survived. The accident, anyway."
As I waited for him to continue, John again looked at his brother and Pop. The three men fidgeted, obviously not wanting to say anymore on the subject. "Please?" I asked. "I have to know."
Pop came forward and laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. "Tyler, the men who hurt Morgan are dead. s best ta leave it go at that."
I wanted to. I probably would have given a kings ransom not to hear what was coming. But, in the end, I just couldnt let it go as Pop asked. I had to know what happened. Ice, I was sure, would never tell me, and the hole that would leave would, in time I was sure, become much larger with each passing day. "Please tell me. Please."
More furtive glances were exchanged before Tom decided, apparently, to step forward and take the figurative male bovine by its bony head appendages. "It was like . . . ." He raised his hands, palms up, searching for the right words, "Like a pack of wolves had had at them or something. It was . . . ," he swallowed hard, visibly paling, "bad."
"How bad?" My voice was so soft, I was surprised anyone heard me.
"Maybe wolves did come? After, I mean?"
Tom and John shook their heads. "No," John said. "Corpses dont spill that much blood."
"Before, then?" I asked, determined to find a way to make things fit, other than the obvious, which I wasnt prepared to believe. "Maybe she left them for dead, and then something came and finished the job?"
Both men shook their heads again. "Im sorry, Tyler," Tom said, "but thats not what happened."
"How do you know?"
"Because they all had bullet wounds to the head. Two of them behind the ear. One to the temple. He bore the brunt of the savagery as well, for some reason."
Oh, I knew the reason. I knew it just as well as I knew who it was whod been killed by a bullet to the temple.
The same man who had put his gun to my temple.
"What?" Tom asked.
"Carmine. He was the one who made Ice drop her gun or hed kill me."
Bull, whod been listening quietly, nodded his head. "Add to that the fact that he used to be her friend. He betrayed her. Shes never taken kindly to that. Roll all that up in a ball, add in those idiots taking shots at her, and Im surprised she left enough of them lying around for you to find."
The nausea that was threatening from the start of the conversation finally hit. My stomach cramped, hard, and I dove for the side of the bed.
Bull reacted instantly, steadying me and shoving a basin hed used to clean Ices wounds under my open mouth. There wasnt really anything in my stomach to expel, but it didnt seem to realize that right away. I gasped and sobbed, trying desperately to catch my breath as the vision of Ice and the men shed killed played through my mind in an unending stream, causing my stomach to cramp over and over and over again without pause.
When my muscles finally, blessedly, relaxed, I slumped down on the bed, barely feeling the cool rag that Bull used to wipe my face and forehead. "You ok?" he asked, using almost the exact same tone of voice Ice had used in similar situations.
"Im not sure," I replied as honestly as I knew how.
And, more importantly, would I ever be again?
That Ice had killed those three men wasnt really an issue with me.
While it might very well have been once upon a time, during Ices capture and my subsequent search for her, Id come to learn a deep, dark and not particularly appealing secret about myself.
And that was that if I could have, I would have killed them all without a seconds pause for taking her so violently away from me.
No, it wasnt that shed killed.
It was how shed killed.
Noticing Bull was still staring at me, one hand on my shoulder, I pulled myself together and moved away from him a bit, straightening my aching legs.
"Whats going on, Angel?" he asked in a gentle tone.
I swallowed hard and manufactured a smile from somewhere. "I . . .um . . .I need some air, I think."
"Oh." Frowning slightly, he straightened back up to his full height and looked down at me.
I forced my smile to broaden. "Honestly, Bull, Im ok. I just . . .you know. . . need to get out of here for a couple minutes." To lend credence to my words, I slipped from the bed, standing and stretching. "Ill be right outside. Down by the water. Call me if she wakes up?"
He looked as if he was going to say something, but after a moment, I could see his shoulders sag and he simply nodded in acquiescence. "Ok."
As I came to the bottom of the stairs, I saw Pop putting the phone back down in its cradle. I looked at him with questioning eyes.
He smiled slightly. "Ruby," he explained. "Corinnes been sprung. Gonna go up and get em both n bring em back home."
The smile which spread my lips this time was genuine. I would welcome them both back home with open arms, particularly Corinne, who I sensed just might have some of the answers I was so desperately seeking in my mind. "Thanks, Pop. Thats great news."
"Yup." His eyes narrowed as he looked at me. "You sure youre gonna be alright, Tyler? Dont seem none too good to me right now."
I felt myself nodding, my lips moving to form the lie so naturally falling from my tongue. "Im fine. Really. I just need some fresh air, thats all."
The look he gave me let me know in no uncertain terms that my lie wasnt in the slightest believed. After a moment, though, he shrugged. "Do what ya gotta do, I guess."
I nodded. "Thanks, Pop."
I found myself on the little green dock, not really aware of how Id gotten there, only grateful for its cool, silent and non-questioning peace.
My head was a jumble of conflicting emotions; my heart, not far behind.
Lowering myself down to the weathered wood of the dock, I trailed my feet in the water, watching the crescent moon play tag with the wavelets stirred up by the freshening breeze as I leaned my back up against one of the posts which anchored the dock to the shore and disappeared beneath the shallow, glistening water.
Ice had spent long winter days trying to teach me the skills needed for meditation. I called upon those skills now, clearing my mind of all intrusive thoughts and concentrating on the air as it entered and left my lungs, never really realizing when Id fallen asleep between one breath and the next.
I found myself standing on a dirt road deep in the middle of nowhere. For reasons known only in dreams, I was in nothing save a white sheet, which twisted and rippled around my body in response to the wind circling through the grove in which I found myself.
The night was bright with stars which, as I watched, wheeled themselves over my head in a ballrooms stately waltz to music known only to them.
I tried to turn my body, to move, to look around, but I seemed to be rooted to the ground. A ground which was neither warm nor cold, wet nor dry; a ground which simply was.
Looking down at my feet, I saw them hidden, enveloped in a soft white ground-mist which covered the forest floor like something out of a fairy tale.
Though perhaps I should have, I didnt feel any fear. Just a sense of anticipation, knowing my mind had brought me here for a reason, and further knowing I probably wasnt all that far away from finding out just what that reason was.
My reverie was broken by twin spears of bright lights which lanced through the misty forest glen like a white knight on a charging steed. As I continued to watchhaving no other choice but to do so, might I addthe lights coalesced into the high beams of an oncoming car. A car that was headed, at a very high rate of speed, down the very road upon which I was currently rooted, unable to move from its onrushing path.
My mouth opened wide in a silent scream as my legs ignored the desperate messages my brain was sending to them.
At the very last second, the car veered sharply left and headed down a small embankment and into the forest proper, where it was halted, suddenly, violently, in a scream of tearing metal and breaking glass, by the massive trunk of a very old, very sturdy tree who hardly shook at all with the tremendous impact.
Then the forest was silent once again.
I looked on in horror, knowing that no one could possibly have survived the carnage of that wreck. Still, I needed to run forward, to be sure, but my cursed feet remained rooted to the ground, refusing even the most forceful commands to move.
Then, to my amazement, one of the rear doors opened, and a blood-spattered figure stumbled out, collapsing on the ground and groaning as heand I could definitely tell it was a mancradled his head with both arms while rocking his massive body side to side in pain.
A second man followed the first. This man somehow managed to stay on his feet, though his face was a grisly mask of blood which literally sheeted down from the gaping cut to his forehead and nose.
Then a third figure emerged, and this was one I recognized easily, immediately though she was battered, bruised, and as bloody as her two predecessors.
"Ice!" I yelled out to her, my heart beating quickly in my chest.
She didnt hear me, though. Didnt even lift her head to look my way as she stepped over the body of the first man, almost colliding with the second as she did so.
As I watched, she looked at the man shed almost run into, a brief flare of rage lighting her pale eyes. Then it abruptly died out and she pushed past him, heading in an unsteady walk back toward the road where I was standing, her lips moving in a silent litany I would have paid a kings ransom to hear..
It was then that the third man pulled himself from the wreckage, and this also was someone who I immediately recognized, having had an up close and personal interaction with him just days earlier, when his gun was pressed against my temple.
"Carmine," I spat. I could feel my lips twist in revulsion as I watched him casually brush the broken glass from his still pristine suit, as if he hadnt a care in the world.
Smirking slightly, he carefully reached behind his back. When his hand came back into view, it was holding the same gun which had been pushed against my head earlier. With an almost careless grace, he lifted the muzzle and aimed in Ices direction.
"Ice!" I screamed, jerking my entire body in an attempt to move. "Ice! Get down!!!"
But of course, she didnt hear me. Just kept walking toward the road, her hand occasionally going to the back of her head where the butt of a pistol had come down and knocked her unconscious, an almost distracted look on her face.
"Ice! Please!!! Get down!!"
Almost as if shed heard me, she turned, but it was too late.
A pistol shot rang through the forest.
Ice crumpled to her knees, her hands instinctively covering the wound just above her hip.
Lowering his gun, Carmine slowly walked over to Ice while in the background, his two goons managed to shake off their injuries and flank their boss, one to a side, like a pair of bloody bookends.
He moved forward until he stood just before her kneeling figure, his gun still hanging loosely at his side. "Mr. Cavallo wanted you brought to him so he could finish you off himself."
"He doesnt have the balls to finish off dinner," Ice replied, her voice jeering and cold.
Carmine tilted his headin acknowledgement, I think--before stopping one of his goons from backhanding Ice for her insolence. Then he continued on in his even, quiet tone. "Since that now seems an impossibility, I really have no choice but to end this here."
Reaching out his free hand, he almost gently cupped Ices chin.
She jerked it away, staring daggers through him, teeth bared in a snarl of pure challenge.
He tilted his head again, then removed his hand. "Id say Im sorry, but at this point, I dont think youd believe me."
"Ya got that right."
"Anything youd like me to pass on?"
I watched, panic-stricken, as she jerked her head back once again. A second later, a shining glob of spittle sprung from between his eyes.
Once again he prevented his cohorts from exacting revenge, then casually reached up and wiped Ices gift away, smirking slightly and shaking his head. "Goodbye, Morgan. Despite how it now seems, it was an honor to know you."
Then slowly and deliberately, he raised his gun until the muzzle was just six inches from her forehead.
"No!!!" I screamed. "Ice!!!"
Again, my pleas went unanswered.
"This is just a dream," I whispered to myself, tears streaming down my face. "Just a dream. Thats all it is."
To prove the point to myself, I pinched the tender flesh of my inner arm as hard as I could.
The vision didnt change.
Reaching down, I jabbed two fingers into the swollen skin of my lacerated knee.
Blinding pain tore through me, enough to wake up the stiffest corpse, and still no release from this nightmare.
Blinking tears of pain and grief from my eyes, I almost missed what happened next.
Almost faster than the eye could see, Ices fist shot out, scoring a direct hit to Carmines groin. The gun wavered, then dropped completely as he used both hands to cup himself. His eyes bulged and, almost in slow motion, he fell to his knees, mouth wide in a rictus of noiseless agony.
I found myself cheering loudly as the two remaining goons, in a universal empathy of men everywhere, winced and automatically reached down to protect their own private parts.
Which gave Ice time enough to roll away and come, more or less steadily, to her feet.
"Get her!" Carmine gasped, his face as pale as Id ever seen a face become.
Gathering the wit they managed to share between them, the two goons began to lumber toward my lover. She grinned, then beckoned them closer. I could tell she was testing the weight of her injured side, trying, I imagined, to tell if it would hold her weight if she needed to lash out with her foot.
They came within range, both throwing wild, overhand rights that she managed to block easily, catching their fists, one to a hand, and propelling them backward several steps.
Unfortunately, the move also served to unbalance her, and when she put all her weight down on the injured side, her leg buckled and she went down to one knee, teeth clenched tightly against the pain I knew was shooting through her.
"Come on, Ice," I murmured. "Get up, sweetheart. Dont let them beat you."
Forgoing whatever little finesse they managed to possess, the two men settled for using their greater combined body mass to tackle Ice to the ground, pin her there, and begin to rain blows on her unprotected body.
At first, she simply lay beneath the heavy weight, her arms instinctively rising to guard her head.
"Fight, Ice!" I screamed, stooping down and scrabbling around for any rocks which might be big enough to heft. "Fight, damn you!"
There was nothing, however. Beneath the mist, the ground was as smooth and unyielding as a varnished floor.
Having landed a particularly vicious blow to Ices chest, one of the men rested his beefy weight back against her injured hip, laughing. "Aint much of a challenge now, is she Tony?"
"Sure aint," Tony agreed, displaying the IQ of a slugs slime trail.
"Nice tits, though," the first said, leering at Ices chest through the gaping tear in her shirt.
"Not bad," Tony said, treating himself to a nice long look. "Think I like the blondes better though. Now theres a rack!" He cupped his hands out in front of himself to illustrate said rack as I looked on, grinding my teeth.
"Oh yeah. Id like a piece a that snatch!" Grinning, he looked down at Ice, threading blunt fingers through her hair and pulling her head up. "How bout it, dyke? Wanna watch when I fuck your little girlfriend senseless? Make her scream for me? Bet shed like a little man-meat shoved up that tasty little cunt of hers, huh? Maybe in her mouth first? Wash the taste of pussy out of it?"
And as I watched, Ices face, her whole body, seemed to change before my eyes. My racing mind likened the change to some werewolf movie Id seen when I was youngerMichael Landon was in it, I think.
Her eyes, normally the palest of blues, darkened until they were almost black. Her face flushed, suffused with rage, and the tendons in her jaw and neck stood out in bas relief. I could almost feel the dark energy radiating from her body as her muscles quivered and jumped, bunching up like a predator cat about to spring.
With one single thrust of her hips, she managed to unseat the man atop her, sending him flying several feet up and back, to land on top of the still gasping Carmine.
Then she rolled, and as she did so, shot both hands out and grabbed Tony by his jacket, throwing him to the ground and pinning him beneath the weight of her own body. Sitting up, she reached down and grabbed his head and began bashing it down on the ground, over and over and over again without pause, guttural snarls coming from deep within her chest.
Even when it was obvious that Tony was well past the point of resisting, Ice continued to pound his head into the ground, her hands covered in his blood, her face and the remains of her shirt spotted with it.
The other two helped each other off the ground and plodded, limping, to their cohorts aid. Hearing them, Ice stood and whirled, unleashing her mindless fury on them both in a way Id never seen beforeand prayed mightily that Id never see again.
I tried to remember that this was all a dream; likely my own minds attempt to come up with a scenario for what had really happened in lieu of ever hearing it from Ice.
I tried to scream, to tell her, and my mind, to stop, but my voice was a tiny, insignificant thing, lost amidst the sounds of rage and pain which filled the night air to overflowing.
I tried to put my hands over my ears to block out the sounds, but they came through clearly.
I tried to close my eyes to the sights, but it seemed as if my eyelids were made of window glass, dooming me to stand silently by and watch as my mind turned the woman I loved into an animal..
She beat them bloody; beat them till they fell. And when they fell, she picked them up and beat them again. And again.
Soon, even Ices reserves were spent, and the fight began to take on the look of a ballet attempted underwater.
A straight-from-the-shoulder right to the goons face and he went down, only the whites of his eyes showing. When Ice took a second to catch her breath, bending over at the waist and putting her bloody hands on her knees, Carmine stumbled away and reached down for the gun hed dropped when Ice had punched him earlier.
Turning, he lifted his arm slowly, as if the gun were made of the heaviest iron plating, the muzzle shaking wildly as he pointed it in Ices direction.
Seeing him, Ice straightened and stared, absolutely no fear in the dark of her eyes. "Put it down, Carmine. Its over."
"Yes, it is," he said, his voice high and wavering. "For you."
"Even if you kill me, Cavallo will see to it youre a dead man as soon as you set foot back in the states."
Carmine shrugged. "So, I wont go back then."
"Then why kill me?" Ice asked reasonably, using the opportunity to take a couple of steps closer to him when she noticed, as did I, the gun barrel dip just a touch.
"Because I gave my word."
"Promises can be broken."
"Not this one." The gun became more steady. "Goodbye, Morgan."
My scream and the guns firing sounded simultaneously.
Blood sprayed from a newly bloomed hole in Ices thigh.
But this time, she didnt go down.
Like a robot impervious to pain, she continued to step toward him as his eyes widened and a very real fear came into them. He lifted the gun again, but the only sound heard was the impotent click of the trigger.
Ice grinned. A terrible, horrible smile. "Ya should have taken my offer, Carmine."
One step closer. Two. Three.
More clicks sounded as Carmine continued to fire a gun which was obviously empty, or jammed. In pure panic, he hefted the weapon again and, with the last of his strength, threw it at Ice, who batted it out of the way with an unconcerned, unhurried swipe of her hand while continuing her slow, deliberate advance.
With a gibbering moan, Carmine dodged left and hobbled as fast as he could to Tony, reaching down and grabbing the gun from the holster at the mans back.
Ice was on him before he could even think to turn around, her hand grabbing his wrist and wrenching the gun away.
Pulling an arm tight around Carmines neck, she lowered the gun and gave a coup de grace behind the left ear of Tony, who was face down and moaning in agony.
Then she dragged Carmine with her as she moved over to the second thug, killing him in the same way as he struggled to get back to his feet again.
She dragged Carmine to the center of the clearing, then forced him to his knees as she followed behind.
She put the gun to his temple.
"Anything youd like me to pass on?" Her voice was dark with intentional irony.
"Please. Dont kill me."
"Too late." Her finger tightened on the trigger. "Goodbye, Carmine. Tell the devil Ill see him soon, huh?"
"Ice. Noooo," I moaned.
But of course, she couldnt hear me.
A split second later and the deed was done.
Without any emotion whatsoever, she pushed his already toppling body over, then rose back up to her feet, her body swaying as the gun hung limply from one bloody hand.
After she had gathered what remained of her strength, she turned back toward the road and looked up. For a split second, I thought she saw me.
Her eyes widened.
Then she stumbled and almost went down.
Gritting her teeth, she began once again to move in my direction, as if pulled to my presence like a magnet to iron.
I held out my arms to her, calling her to me even as, within the very depths of my soul, I felt, for the first time, fear of this woman who was my lover.
She crossed the distance between us in a numb, shuffling gait, blood pouring from her many wounds, head down, gun swinging without purpose by her side.
And then, as Im sure can happen only in dreams, she walked right through me as if I wasnt there at all.
And what I felt . . .god . . .what I felt as she passed through my soul. . .
A cold, empty void of the deepest rotting black.
And amidst the horrid darkness, the tiniest of guttering flames, one soft breath away from dying.
A flame that bore my image.
And seeing it, I screamed.
To Be Continued...Part 9 (Conclusion)
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