1 Better Late Than Never – Crowe’s Point

Author: Irene
Rating: PG
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction based on the characters established and defined in the movie and book titled Gladiator It is strictly for entertainment purposes. Please do not copy, publish or alter this work in any way without the written permission of the author.

 

Part One

 

“Did it happen again?” Anthony looked at Terry with concern.

 

“Yes.”

 

There was no physiological reason for his symptoms – rapid increase in heart rate, sweaty palms, butterflies in his stomach. Or for them vanishing as quickly as they occurred.

 

“So that’s twice now.” The doctor reviewed his notes.

 

“This is the third time. The previous one was yesterday, then twice last weekend.”

 

“Have you been pushing him too hard?” Anthony asked this of Maximus, who’d been out running with the Australian when the latest episode occurred.

 

“No,” answered the Roman general, gazing at his brother. So alike – only the absence of beard and location of battle scars physically distinguished the two. And they had so much more in common; Maximus had lost his wife and child; the former of Terry’s had divorced him, the latter was in the land of celluloid and might as well be dead. Maximus loved all of his brothers – though it was a formidable task to feel so with Sid and Kim. Terry, however, was special, arriving at the Point only shortly after Maximus awoke, thinking himself in Elysium. Not as hot-tempered as Bud, but every bit as loyal, or as phlegmatic as John, but as much a team player. The dry-witted older brother to the other Australian derivatives of the Creator.

 

“Was there anything in your film that would have made you ill?” He questioned Thorne earnestly.

 

Terry scanned his memory. Altitude sickness from the rescue in Tecala’s mountains? Had he eaten anything unusual at the Bowman’s home?

 

“Not that I can think of,” he admitted to his brother and the medic. “It’s strange how it occurs, then goes. I feel fine now.”

 

“I’d like to take a blood sample, run a few tests.” Anthony wasn’t going to let him leave so quickly.

 

“I’ve given enough blood the past month,” grinned Terry wryly, but he extended his arm.

 

“So you can tell something from looking at the blood,” wondered Maximus. “But you do not believe the same can be gained from viewing the entrails of a sheep.” This modern time was so confusing. He watched as the doctor drew a small test tube of the liquid.

 

“Come back – oh, tomorrow, or sometime after that, when you’re feeling fine,” Anthony requested. “I want to draw a comparison sample.”


 

Sophy typed frantically into her e-mail.

I followed the directions you sent, to the letter – I thought. Arrived at an abandoned airplane hanger Friday evening. Spent the night at the world’s worst motel. Backtracked the next morning, and ended up outside a fortuneteller’s house.

 

Only me, she thought disgustedly, launching the e-mail into cyberspace. The directional capability of a turnip. No, even a turnip knows which way is down. Sophy recalled an oceanography class she took in high school. She was well on her way to the highest grade in the class, except when she plotted the ship’s course – exactly backwards. At least the teacher had laughed about it.

 

Thinking about it, she did too. I’ll get to Crowe’s Point eventually, she reasoned. Maybe I can persuade Chelle to tear herself away from Colin for a day and come out to wildest Fairfax. Surely I can follow someone else’s car. Oh, rats! She won’t do that until after the wedding. And if I can’t figure out how to get there by next weekend, I’ll miss the wedding.

 

Pull yourself together, Lewis, she ordered. You’ve got five days to research this.

 

“Will you be coming back?” her admin shouted down the hall, after her.

 

“Probably not; you know how bad the traffic is in downtown DC in the afternoon. If anyone needs me for anything not classified, have them call me at home or on my cell phone.” Good. A congressional hearing offered a convenient excuse to head from Langley over the George Washington Parkway and into the city. I’ll stay until noon, and when the Senators recess for lunch, I’ll head over to the Library of Congress for a quick search.

 

Sophy raced through the underground tunnel from the Russell Senate Office Building to the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, pausing only to wave her driver’s license at the succession of guards, and to slide her briefcase through the x-ray machines. She scooted onto a chair in front of a terminal, and clicked open Thomas, the Library of Congress’s search engine.

 

Every bit of material published and copyrighted within the U.S. usually ended up here.

 

“Crowe’s Point,” she typed. The vast database sprang to life.

 

“No such entry. Try again.” Shit.

 

“Crowe’s Hotel.”

 

“Bates Hotel.” The database tried to be helpful. Double shit.

 

“Crowe AND (Tavern OR Point OR Hotel).” There. When in doubt, go Boolean.

 

“Cameron Crowe, Russell Crowe, Tavern on the Green, West Point, Bates Hotel.” The database was as desperate as she was. None of that was going to help (although she was tempted to put in a request for all publications at the LC for the second item; nah, they were probably all checked out to congressional staff).

 

Sophy looked at her watch. I’ll stay at the hearings another hour, then head to Interior. They had great maps.

 


 

Tina watched the movers carry the shoji screen and tatami up the hotel stairs.

 

“I can believe it,” she confided to Chelle. “I had to give her two sets of directions so she could find her way around the chat room. She is trying again this weekend, isn’t she?”

 

The Canadian nodded. “Her best friend will take care of her little girl.”

 

“She has a child?”

 

“Taylor. An eight year old. Lots of freckles, really cute.”

 

Tina dropped her voice. “Well, if she’s married, why’s she coming here?”

 

Chelle became uncharacteristically solemn. “Her husband died in a bad accident on the Beltway – that’s DC’s ring road – over a year ago.”

 

“Oooh.”

 

“She told me she didn’t want to date – there are too many weirdos out there-”

 

“I work for a police department, believe me, I know.”

 

“I told her about the Point. The Boyz. How safe it was – well, most of the time.” She glowered at Sid, sauntering smirkily down the hallway, his green suit practically glowing. “She AIM’ed me last night and asked if anyone could drive over to her house and she could follow them. But with your wedding coming up; there’s no way.”

 

Both women winced in sympathy.

 

“She’ll find her way.” Tina put her arm around her friend’s shoulder. Usually that was difficult to do – Colin’s was in the way. But he was outside, tossing a football with Terry, Jeff, and Andy. “When they really want to, they always do.”

 


 

“I want a kiss from my favorite sister in law.” Josh climbed down from the ladder and his latest ‘honey-do’ job.

 

“Your only sister in law,” Sophy replied, careful not to get Persian Cream paint on her charcoal gray pantsuit.

 

“Mommy, may I go-” It was hard to hear Taylor over her giggling and that of her two older cousins.

 

“Yes, dear.” The three girls scampered upstairs, ready to do battle on the latest Gameboy. They’d eat pizza, while the adults dined on more sophisticated fare.

 

Proffering a glass of Zin, Leslie met her little sister in the kitchen.

 

“Les, it smells great.”

 

“You think so?” Leslie fluffed her dark curls in mock modesty. “Josh almost fainted when I threw the whole bulb of garlic in.”

 

“Just one?” Sophy laughed. “From what Grandma said, in the old country they always used two.” She took a swallow of wine.

 

“What a miserable day. I need this.” She sampled the delicately simmering sauce. Ummm. Matt had brought back some wild mushrooms from his hunting trip in the Blue Ridge.

 

“I thought it was supposed to be a light day, attending the hearing. That’s what you told me on voice mail.”

 

“A little surprise when I returned. Probably around the time you were seeing your last patient of the day, I was holed up with one of the Agency polygraphers.”

 

“She was an eight month old with colic. It couldn’t have been any worse.” Leslie doled out more wine, and leaned against the counter.

 

“Well, ordinarily it wouldn’t be, except I had to go through all the exceptions. You know, ‘except for these two Frenchwomen and those two Italians, and the Scot, and the Welshwoman, and the Canadians in your chat room, I have no relationships with any individuals who are not citizens of the U.S.” And then I had to name the URL.”

 

“Oh, your buddies will love that,” replied Leslie dryly.

 

“Not to worry. The polygrapher thought I had a cold when I started wiggling my nose. Then he forgot all about it.”

 

Leslie sighed. “You know, you could make your life so much easier if you would do that more often.”

 

“Yeah.” Sophy made a face. “But that’s not how they do it here.”

 

“I don’t understand why you worry about that.” Great. Now Josh was ganging up on her. “Didn’t you graduate at the top of your class at WIT? What a shame to waste what you learned. ”

 

“No. There were eleven students with higher scores.” Sophy could be painfully honest.

 

Josh scoffed. He sent the brushes to the sink and started the water to clean them. “Big deal. You were concurrently taking a full course load at that fancy college too. I can’t imagine living a binary life for four years.”

 

Sophy shrugged. “I slept a lot on weekends.”

 

“Maybe one of you did.” Josh recalled Leslie’s little sister tagging along to a number of parties.

 

Leslie waved a now-cooked pizza onto the cutting board. She pushed the brown tabby off the stool in front of the breakfast bar. “You – upstairs. Tell the girls it’s time to eat.” The cat stretched indolently before lightly jumping down to the wooden floor and off to fulfill his assigned task.

 

“Speaking of weekends. Are you trying to head out again on Friday?”

 

“Yeah. Carolyn has all sorts of fun plans for Tracy. They’ll fly up to New York.” She smiled. “My kid is so sweet. When she woke up last Saturday and saw I was home, she offered to read the map for me. She was irritated when I said it was for adults only and wanted to know precisely why.”

 

Leslie rolled her eyes. “Her omniscient cousins will fill her head up with version of the birds and bees, I’m sure.”

 

“Thanks, I needed that,” replied Sophy with a wince. “I want to lose five pounds in the next four days. You’ve just killed my appetite.”

 


 

Anthony found Terry in the cubbyhole Arthur had commandeered for his office. The brothers were engrossed in the confrontation on the chessboard. It was clear from the highlighted “A” and “T” scrawled on a piece of paper that the brothers (or rather, Arthur) were keeping score.

 

The doctor waited until Arthur exulted. “Check!” Terry evaluated his alternatives and groaned, pushing the board away. Arthur responded with the giggle he shared with his brothers and the Creator.

 

“Go ahead,” Terry glanced at the physician. “Interrupt his victory dance. Please.” He fished out his wallet and pulled out a crumpled Australian bill, which Arthur happily grabbed.

 

“Remember the other part of the bet.” The younger man’s eyes glinted.

 

“What other part? We had a ten dollar bet.”

 

Arthur turned to Anthony, as if the doctor had heard it before. “He promised he’d sing ‘Amazing Grace’ with me at Cort’s Sunday service.

 

The former priest chuckled. This was worth enforcing, even if it meant a small white lie on his part. “Thorne,” he rumbled, “Arthur told me his plans for your over breakfast this morning. A deal is a deal.”

 

Arthur’s eyes widened, but he kept silent.

 

“Damn. From now on, I’m just betting against Bud.”

 

“Oh, sure,” trilled Arthur. “He’s too impatient for chess. He just pitches the set out the window and swears at it when he loses.”

 

“Didn’t Cort use one once for target practice?” asked the doctor.

 

“Yes,” replied the Australians together. Terry continued. “He made a bet with Zack that he could shoot out all the black squares if it was thrown up in the air. He succeeded, too. I’ve never seen gunplay like that. And with the antique pieces he uses – it was amazing.”

 

“Didn’t he have to reload?”

 

“He shot with both hands. And Bud handed him replacement pistols after he’d spent the rounds from the other two. I checked the pieces after. One bullet for each square – no misses.”

 

It was hard to believe that the quiet-spoken preacher had been a deadly outlaw. As alike as the brothers were, they were also very different. Makes my practice that much more interesting, mused Anthony. That reminded him – the reason why he’d stopped by.

 

“Blood work came back normal, Terry. Testosterone level a bit elevated, but that was probably exercise-induced.”

 

Terry was relieved and concerned all at once. “What could be causing my symptoms, then?”

 

The doctor threw his hands in the air. “I could toss a dozen hypotheses in the air and let Cort shoot one down. That would be as likely to be right as any guess I might make. You’ve been here almost a year now, right?”

 

The older Aussie nodded.

 

“None of the women -or Rick- have ever exhibited your symptoms.”

 

Terry gave a half smile. “I wouldn’t know, Doc – I haven’t made a connection here.”

 

Arthur gazed at his older brother sympathetically. He’d been here longer than most, and was just now becoming involved with a lovely young lady, Savannah. But he was different, wanting to save himself for marriage. The rest – well. He made a mental note to pray for them all tonight.

 

“Sorry I couldn’t tell you more. Take care.” The doctor headed out, to the gym. Bud had told him over coffee this morning he was adding 20 pounds to the weights he was bench pressing – Anthony wanted to be there, just in case the detective pulled a muscle. Or dared Hando to match him, and the skinhead took him up on it.

 

Terry thought he’d walk out with the doc.

 

“Not so fast,” Arthur complained. “Meet me in the chapel tomorrow night; we’ll practice.”

 

“I don’t know the words, or the music to Amazing Grace.” There – that should get me off the hook, he figured.

 

“I loaned Savannah my hymn book. We’ll walk over to her room, and borrow it back so you can make a copy.” As slender and- Terry hated to admit this about a brother – geeky – as Arthur looked, he took quite a grip on Terry’s arm. The boy must be hiding some muscles under that sweater, Terry realized. He grinned. He’d only have to do this once, endure a few days of ribbing from Zack and Alex. For once, he was glad there was no special woman at the Point for him. It would be just like a sheila to remember this, and tease him about it forever.

 

They walked into the hotel, quiet on a weekday afternoon. Down a corridor to Savannah’s room. Terry considered kidding Arthur about knowing the location of the young woman’s room so well, but thought better of it. Arthur already seemed embarrassed by it as he motioned for Terry to wait outside the door whilst he ventured in.

 

A moment later, Arthur returned, hymn book in hand. “We can go down the back stairway to the copier room in the basement,” he informed Terry.

 

As they passed the last room on the hallway, Arthur noticed it was furnished. “Must be our new visitor. Or at least, she’d be a visitor if she ever found her way here.” Curious, he walked into the open doorway.

 

“Take off your shoes!” Terry found himself whispering as he followed his brother in. He hadn’t gone uninvited into a girl’s room since his eighth year at Trinity, when he filched Phoebe Clancy’s journal on a dare from a ninth year schoolmate. That was some journal – who’d have thought sheilas wrote racy stories like that? “These tatami mats are very fragile, and they’ll stain.”

 

The room was furnished in Japanese style – spare, simple, and gorgeous. A calligraphic hanging graced the wall facing the small altar, on which a tiny-leaved maple was balanced. A rice paper screen stood between the room and the sliding glass exit to a tiny garden. Terry opened the glass. A collection of carefully placed rocks rested on combed sand, which flowed towards a small pool, in which three tri-colored koi swam, shaded by papyrus and a pure white water lily.

 

The peacefulness of the suite contrasted with his thudding pulse. Terry looked about for the bathroom, to throw some cold water on his face. He opened a doorway and turned on the faucet above the wooden tub.

 

“Apples, mate,” he assured his worried sibling, who’d followed him into the stone-floored room.

 

Arthur motioned for Terry to sit on the small, three-legged bench under the shower head.

 

“This has never happened to you during the week, has it, mate?” he asked quietly.

 

Willing his pulse to slow, Terry shook his head. “Friday night, Saturday morning. Only for the past two weekends.”

 

“Did it happen all night, all morning?” Arthur, as attentive to detail as ever, was eliminating other possibilities.

 

“No,” Terry responded frankly, wondering what Arthur suspected. “It crept up on me, then it backed off. Same way in the morning.”

 

“As if something – someone – was approaching and then retreating.”

 

“Yes, precisely.” Terry was puzzled. Arthur, however, was not.

 

“I know what’s bothering you, mate,” he murmured. “The sheila who’s supposed to occupy this room – she’s connected to you. Apparently she has no sense of direction and can’t find her way here. When she’s closer – or you’re in her room, which is very personal for her, you feel it. When she becomes lost, you don’t.”

 

Terry was half convinced. He stood up – too fast. Dizzily, he leaned for a moment against the rough wooden wall of the bath, then returned in stockinged feet through the main room.

 

As soon as he crossed the threshold, into the hallway, the sensation eased. He felt normal again, melancholy. In the room, last Friday evening, he’d felt excitement, anticipation thrill down his spine. He tried it again, stepping into the room.

 

He hadn’t felt like that since that one and only night with Alice.

 

“Look.” He confronted Arthur. “Don’t tell anyone, right?”

 

Arthur nodded. “Just remember, Terry. If she’s special – and for you, she is – she’s special enough to wait for.”

 

Pleading the need to have a conversation with a couple of Senate staff regarding some budgetary matters, Sophy left Langley after lunch.She took care of the budgetary matters (“What do you think – is this dress a good deal, or what? Ok, I’ll buy it!), then transported herself over to The Map Store on K Street.

 

“Crowe’s Point?” she asked, hopeful. After all, this store, a Farragut Square landmark, carried cartography alerting the interested to the location of the best tango parlors in Buenos Aires, the hottest jazz clubs in New Orleans, and the lowest-priced deals for designer clothing in New York City, in addition to the Michelins, the Baedekers, and the Rand McNallys one could find anywhere.

 

Neither she nor the owlish proprietor could find the map of her dreams.

 

It was a resigned Sophy who called her sister as she gazed into a tiny gold-rimmed, mirrored compact.

 

“I only hope it will work,” she sighed.

 

“Why wouldn’t it?” Leslie wondered about Sophy’s lack of confidence.

 

“Crowe’s Point is a magical place. There might be a conflict.”

 

“I doubt it,” her sister replied. “I checked in the Anthology, by the way – I’d already thought of that. This will be much better. You hate to drive in the dark anyway.”

 

Sophy could just make out the contours of the beach as she rounded the bend in the deepening twilight. In the circular driveway, she picked up her rollaboard handle and walked the rest of the way towards the hotel.

 

A young man came out to greet her. “I’m Andy,” he announced, extending his hand. She smiled at him a bit foolishly. He was sooo young. And sooo cute. She briefly considered stepping into the role of Mrs. Robinson, older woman.

 

Unaware of the indecent thoughts racing through the visitor’s mind, Andy continued. “A lot of Americans don’t know me; my movie wasn’t widely shown in the States, but that’s all right.” He peered into the darkness. “Are you parked in the far lot? You needn’t have.”

 

Sophy snapped out of her X-rated reverie and snapped her fingers – she had forgotten. “No, it’s right there; see, the Z3? It’s marine blue, so it’s hard to see at this time of night.”

 

Andy blinked; she was right; he hadn’t noticed it until now.

 

“May I help you with your suitcase?” Sophy seemed to have her hands full, with the handle of the rollaboard, her shoulder bag, and what looked like a wooden knitting needle between her teeth.

 

“Ehs, eeeze,” she answered around the object in her mouth, as he pushed the door open.

 

“Well!” roared the woman behind the reception desk. “Finally, eh?” The fellow behind the desk with her looked up. He was wearing a tight black tee shirt and jeans. A chain tattoo decorated one arm. Those sideburns – ah, this was Colin. Even from her vantage point, Sophy could se he was having a great time “helping” Chelle behind the desk. The poor woman was trying to process Sophy’s paperwork and Colin was doing things hidden by the reception desk to distract her.

 

A couple stood to Sophy’s right. The man was chatting with his back to her. He was wearing a dark green British military-style sweater (oops, I guess I should call it a jumper then, thought Sophy.) He turned around.

 

Sophy was treated to the most beautiful aquamarine eyes she’d ever seen outside of a movie screen. The only sound that came from her mouth was a pant; her power of speech momentarily vanished.

 

“Hi, I’m Laura.” A casually-dressed woman introduced herself. “Maximus does have that effect on first-time visitors.”

 

Sophy, blushing for the first time in a decade, fought the urge to spring into an airborne somersault.

 

“This is Sophy Lewis.” Chelle helpfully stepped in as Sophy’s vocal surrogate. “You know, we should have a bottle of something medicinal under the reception counter for this very circumstance.” The Canadian turned back to Colin, who was nibbling at her neck. “How am I supposed -ummm- to check -giggle – Sophy in while you’re – ah, ah, oooh. Um. Sophy, I’m sorry, can you just figure this stuff out yourself?”

 

Sophy nodded, dumbly, her eyes still fixed on the general. He was even more stunning in modern clothing than in his gladiator togs. She didn’t want to stare; he did, after all, belong to Laura.

 

Another voice distracted her. “G’day. Could I get you a beer then?” Sophy beamed at the new arrival. It was Jeff Mitchell, grinning back. He wore a shirt much like the one he selected for his first date with Greg, only the dark teal of this one echoed the lighter color of his eyes.

 

“I think I’m gonna like it here,” she managed to breath out, nodding.

 

“Oh, I wish you hadn’t said that,” moaned Laura. That’s his line. Wherever he is, it always brings him ’round.” She turned to Chelle. “The rest of the Boyz are in the Tavern, right? I think we need to get Sophy settled and lubricated with that beer before she sees any more. Remember when you know who first arrived – and passed out?” She giggled. “We don’t want to repeat that.”

 

“No worries,” shouted Jeff, over his shoulder, heading out for the promised beer. “If she faints, I’ll carry her up to her room; she’s just a little sheila.”

 

Sophy pressed her feet hard on the floor, just in time. Tearing her eyes away from the bemused Maximus (this happens to him all the time, Sophy reminded herself, blushing again), she scanned the beautiful entry area. The circular stairway floated, weightless, above the marble floor, an architectural marvel. The chandeliers sparkled – it was magical.

 

“Right, then, here you go.” Jeff, standing behind her, lowered a VB over her shoulder. “Can she meet -” he placed his hands on her shoulders, to keep her facing forward, while he questioned Chelle and Laura. There were more of them back there, Sophy realized. She looked up pleadingly at the two women. They shook their heads.

 

“Not until you finish that beer.”

 

“I’ll be here for the next hour, then,” she protested. “I still order beer in the UK by the half pint.”

 

“Yeah,” agreed an American-accented male voice – western? “Mitchell, move. We can’t see her, and we’ve seen enough of your ugly butt already during footy games.”

 

Sophy tried craning her neck around to view the speaker, but Jeff’s shoulders were too broad. Then again, she reasoned, sucking on her beer, having Jeff Mitchell’s hands on me is not a bad thing. Ultimately fruitless, but temporarily satisfying. She pretended to struggle, just so he’d have to keep his hands firmly on her.

 

Terry stared moodily at the empty bottles before him.

 

“All right, you path- path- pathetic bludgers – TEN-HUT!” He saluted. “Aaah, yer bloody losers, the lot of ya.”

 

He turned, or rather, wobbled, in Andy’s direction. “Don’t creep up on me, mate, I might, I might….” He looked at his hands. “These are deadly weapons, ya know.” He giggled.

 

“Terry, the new visitor is here.” Andy was puzzled; Terry had been walking past the reception area of the hotel all day – except when he was talking to Andy as the younger man was preparing the Tavern for a busy weekend night. “Bud and Alex have already gone over. And Maximus-”

 

“Aaah.” Terry swatted the air with his hand. “They always fall for Maximus. Wasso special about himmm, eh? Talks like a Pommy bastard. I know. It’s the skirt. The skirt. Well, I can wear a bloody skirt too.”

 

Andy felt a tap on his shoulder. The sight of Arthur, in the Tavern, nearly floored him.

 

“Leave him to me,” Arthur whispered, pulling out a piece of paper on which he’d written some highlighted notes.

 

“Why don’t I make you a nice cup of hot tea?” he offered the ex-SAS’er.

 

Terry spat (actually, he made a Bronx cheer, but being Australian, he had no idea what that was). “Beer.” He pounded the last bottle, now empty, on the table for emphasis.

 

Looking at his notes, Arthur tried another tack. “Sophy, that’s her name-”

 

“So-phi-a.” Terry enunciated the name slowly and as clearly as his shitfaced state would allow.

 

“Sophy will be in here as soon as she drinks her beer-”

 

“Wha? Tell her to come in here and join me.” Terry stood up. His years of military training were evident – his swaying was almost undetectable.

 

“Can Mashimus hold his beer as well as me? Nooooo. But all the sheilas who come here…. Arthur!” His voice became that of a drill sergeant barking at a recruit. “What color are my eyessz?”

 

“Greenish-blue.” Arthur hesitated to add, “and bloodshot,” even though it was now true.

 

“The sheilas say ‘turquoise’ or ‘aquamarine’-” he raised his voice to a falsetto on those adjectives “when they talk about Massh. I demand, I demand -” he thought for awhile. The neurons weren’t firing too fast. “A recount. Yeah. My chads are pregnant.” He started to giggle.

 

Arthur looked about helplessly. Terry was going to be really furious with himself if this was Sophy’s first glimpse of him. He waved over Lachlan, chatting quietly with Lisa at the bar.

 

Lachlan read the mute cry for help in the Welshman’s eyes. There was only one solution.

 

“Air Corp versus SAS, mate. Bet I can hold my whiskey better than you.”

 

Lisa groaned. This was not the night she had in mind.

 

“Yer on.” Terry accepted the shot glass, and poured its contents down. “And God Save the Queen.”

 

Lachlan copied Thorne’s action. “And thank Christ for Australia.”

 

“You want s-ssome, Lisha?” Terry bowed politely in her direction. “The glass ish clean – ” he gestured to the shot glass.

 

“No, thanks,” she replied, dryly. “I’ll stick with my preferred beverage.” Actually, at this point, she had fantasies of taking the bottle, as soon as it was empty, and smashing it over Lachlan’s head. This was supposed to be helpful?

 

Terry downed the shot. Before Lachlan could take another turn, Thorne addressed Arthur. “Have sssome on me, mate.” He hiccuped. Arthur shook his head, shuddering. Terry shrugged and swallowed.

 

That gave Lisa an idea as to how to salvage her evening. She poured the next shot. “Is that her coming in? The new arrival?”

 

Terry’s eyes, now slits, opened a bit, anxiously. He didn’t see anyone new. Even the lurkers had been here before. Lisa carefully edged the glass towards his left hand. Nervously, he bolted it.

 

Smiling, she poured another. “Let’s see. Lachlan, you just had one, right? Terry, it’s your turn.”

 

He smiled at her. Lisa noticed the irises seemed to be wandering. “What a great lady,” he murmured, after he drank. “Lachlan, Lisha is a lovely lady. A princessh. He doesn’t treat you nearly well enough, do you know tha-” He leaned over to kiss her, and passed out on the way down.

 

“Omigod, this guy is heavy!” groaned the woman. “Lachlan, make yourself useful and get -him-off-me!” The two other brothers, one sober, the other in an alcoholic state of happiness, each grabbed an arm and started to drag Thorne out of the room.

 

“Oh, sh- no.” Arthur caught himself, just in time. Sophy had finally finished her beer. Feeling a light buzz herself, she was walking into the Tavern, still very much in awe of the sights.

 

“And that is -” Bud lifted up the head of the dragged man by his short hair. “My brother, Terry.” He released his hand from the hair. Terry didn’t rouse.

 

Arthur was just as glad Terry was out. If he’d seen the look on Sophy’s face

 

Part Two

 

Arthur was going to have to do some serious public relations work on Terry’s behalf. What was it the Seppos called it? “Spin”?

 

“What would you like? Another beer?” Bud saw the scowl on the newcomer’s face. He waved at Aurore; perhaps a conversation with another lady would improve her mood.

 

“No,” replied Sophy, wearily. “The Macallan. Twenty-five if you have it. Straight up.”

 

Bud walked away to place the order with Andy, who’d returned to his bar station. The lady had good taste.

 

He felt a pair of arms embrace him from behind — Aurore. But then, thought Bud, enjoying a “welcome back” kiss, all of the ladies who visit us have good taste.

 

Bud removed his mouth from a very comfortable position long enough to explain the circumstance. Aurore understood at once. She had been shocked herself to see Terry in such a state.

 

“I will join you, with reinforcements,” she told him, and returned to their previous table to seek help from her friends.

 

In short order, Sophy found herself surrounded with a wonderful group of women and their astonishingly handsome escorts. Jeff came by, too, to introduce her to Rick. What a great couple they made. After the wrecked date in The Sum of Us and the challenge of caring for his brain-injured father, Sophy was glad to see the plumber so happy.

 

Unfortunately, Sophy was now on her second shot of whiskey, more than her hundred pound frame could absorb on an empty stomach. Even the great music didn’t pull her out of the melancholy in which she started to slide. Frankly, Sarah McLaughlin and Sting were making it worse. Sophy didn’t want to be jealous, but watching the couples’ above the table antics, and knowing full well what was happening down below…

 

“Guys.” She pretended to yawn. “I had a long day making the world safe for democracy. I’m turning in.”

 

“Mmm- mm,” responded Tina, her mouth still on John’s. She unwrapped an arm just enough to wave. In that brown Aran patterned sweater, he did look like a teddy bear, all fuzzy and warm and comfortable. Sophy wrinkled her nose wistfully. Rather than disturb all the paired bodies between herself, wedged in the back of the booth, and the exit, she stood up on the booth bench seat and stepped over the back.

 

“Here. Let me help you down.” Arthur put his hands around her waist and lifted her down.

 

“Thank you,” Sophy replied, looking up at the reddening face. He returned shyly to Savannah, taking her hand.

 

“You shouldn’t have to walk out alone,” the Canadian offered. “Your room is near mine.” She used her free hand to give Sophy’s a squeeze.

 

Sophy felt her eyes grow hot. A cynic like herself shouldn’t be feeling like this. She had had too much to drink.

 

“So what are you doing tomorrow?” asked Arthur pleasantly.

 

“There’s a trail through the woods. I think I’ll walk it.”

 

“It’s several miles,” Savannah observed.

 

“Good,” the older woman replied. “I’ll enjoy the solitude.”

 

“It might not be solitary all the time,” Arthur noted. “Maximus and Hando — and Terry, too, they run along the trail, and practice swordplay, fighting.”

 

“So I’ll see Maximus and Hando tomorrow morning then,” returned Sophy. “Terry — by the look of him, he won’t be moving until noon.” Hearing Sophy turn sarcastic, Arthur was sorry he’d brought the subject up.

 

In the privacy of her room, Sophy ripped off her jacket and threw it against the wall. You’re being unreasonable, she criticized herself. You’re slightly drunk.

 

“Hell,” she said out loud. “I’m horny.”

 

“Then I am the answer to your prayers, cherie,” said a smoky voice.

 

Sophy wasn’t sure if she was more irritated or more amused. “I wondered where you were tonight, Sid.”

 

Ah, one that was eager to play. He licked his lips and came out from behind the screen. He hoped- no, he was sure — she appreciated the way the purple suit draped against his perfect body.

 

“I brought my kimono. For afterwards, cherie.” He pulled out the green and black silk garment and swung it around his shoulders.

 

Sophy shook her head, smiling. What a conceited bastard. She opened the door.

 

“Sorry, Sid. If you’d only knocked, instead of lying in wait for me, you might’ve gotten lucky tonight.” With a swooping gesture of her arm, she pointed the way out.

 

“You don’t really mean it,” he murmured, seductively, wrapping his arm and the kimono around her in one panther-like motion. Sophy found herself locked against his muscular chest as the RC simulacrum ground his arousal against her thighs. Against her better judgment, she tilted her head up, affording him free access to her mouth, which he greedily plundered, inserting his tongue almost immediately.

 

//Big mistake. //Her better judgment was alarmed.

 

//Oh, shut the fuck up,// replied her baser instincts. //What in the fuck have you done for us lately?//

 

Sophy took advantage of the argument to continue the kiss, inserting her tongue to explore the reaches of Sid’s willing mouth.

 

//This is not who you came here for,// argued Better Judgment.

 

//So you want me to wait around until he sobers up? I don’t need that here any more than I do in the real world.//

 

Sid’s fingers pulled the silk tee shirt out of Sophy’s pants and played with the back of her bra strap, seeking to release it.

 

Better Judgment was frantic. Having no arguments left, she screamed.

 

Resignedly, Sophy pushed herself away, turning her head when Sid sought to revisit her lips. She ducked down, neatly escaping from his embrace.

 

Sid’s blue goo was racing through his body. “You are a little tease, aren’t you?” He stepped closer to her — Sophy retreated. “I am so going to enjoy teaching you a lesson, ma petite.”

 

//Oh, shit,// said Better Judgment, Baser Instincts, and Sophy all together.

 

//This is all your fault — why didn’t you just stick with beer? You would’ve filled up before you got so loaded.//

 

//My fault? Who let her hands start traveling down the front of his pants?//

 

//I warned you, now-//

 

//Fuck off, not now! If you’re so brilliant, dig us out of this!//

 

“Threatening me isn’t going to persuade me.” Sophy edged towards the door, hoping Ted Bundy wasn’t still an active component of Sid’s character module.

 

Sid recognized her movement, and inserted himself between the door and his captive. “There are advantages to taking me as your lover. Recall that an infinite loop can run forever. My ladies are always satisfied.”

 

Sophy backed up towards the window. If she wasn’t mistaken, there was a drainpipe within arm’s reach of the ledge.

 

“Which one of my pathetic brothers are you saving yourself for?” Sid retrieved his memory records of the evening; first, in the reception area, where he’d watched from the balcony as she checked in, then at the Tavern, where he’d sat in a dark corner with Tawny and Lady? It would be amusing if she intended to seduce Biebe, he thought, sadistically. Although surely Fat Boy wasn’t her type. Bud? No, she’d just been polite to him. Colin? He laughed to himself over that one. Zack? He was FBI, she CIA; but he didn’t think the chemistry was there. The younger brothers he dismissed out of hand; she was clearly attracted to an authority figure. Wigand? No way he’d believe that, after feeling the passion in her kiss — she wanted someone fit who could rock her all night long (she had requested the AC/DC number of the same name in the Tavern).

 

“Forget about Maximus, if you have the hots for him — Laura’s got a ring through his — nose.” He laughed. Sophy glowered, taking another step towards the window.

 

“No, not Maximus. Of course. You want the modern, Aussie version of the gladiator. You want Terry.” Sid began to giggle, pleased with himself when he saw the flicker of emotion cross Sophy’s face. “And he was such a drunken disappointment. Yes,” he pretended to be concerned for Thorne, “I’ve seen more and more of this pathetic behavior from him, lately. Health problems, too.”

 

“Now, Darling,-” he had Sophy backed up against the window “-I assure you, an evening with me, and you’ll wonder what you ever saw in him.”

 

Sophy opened the window. A delightful breeze wafted in, redolent of pine and ocean water. She looked out. Wherever the Point was, it was far away from city lights. The black velvet sky sparkled.

 

Sid rested a hand on her back, then began to slide it up and down, going a bit lower each time, until he cupped her buttocks. Sophy felt his breath on her neck, then his tongue, as he licked her nape.

 

“Do you want to make love outside, ma cherie?” His hands crossed around to her breasts.

 

“Oh, Sid,” she murmured.

 

He spun her around, a look of triumph on his face. He hoped Thorne was really hung over tomorrow. It would make telling him the story of Sophy’s seduction so much more delicious.

 

Sid picked Sophy up and started for the back stairs.

 

“No,” she pouted, tracing the outline of his ears, ruffling his carefully coiffed hair. “The front stairs. Don’t you want to be watched?”

 

Sid giggled, ecstatic. After they finished, he’d take her to Tawny’s room and bring Lady in, too. There were many actions he’d like to watch them do, before he joined in. He was sure he could persuade his lovely ladies to do it.

 

Part Three

 
Sophy rested her head on Sid’s shoulder as he carried her through the corridor and down several flights to the mezzanine and the gorgeous main stairway she’d admired earlier in the evening. She could hear his heart beating; after seeing Virtuosity, she’d wondered if his cyberbody was internally configured like a human one. Apparently, it was.

 

Sid backed into the last doorway and there they were, on the balcony overlooking the grand foyer. The bar must have closed, for Colin, Chelle, Laura, and Maximus were saying a few words to each other before they slipped off to enjoy the balance of the evening in pairs. Sophy felt Sid pull her head to his. He took his time with this kiss, nibbling her lower lip before thrusting his tongue next to her own.

 

“Ma cherie. This is it.”

 

“It certainly is,” she responded, sweetly. “Now, Sid, you have a choice.”

 

His eyes glowed eagerly.

 

“You can either set me down here, and let me return — alone- to my room, and now one will know you’ve been given the brush-off. Alternatively, you can carry me down these stairs and I’ll scream. Colin, Maximus, and Massimo will rescue me and word of what happened will be all over the Point before breakfast.”

 

The expression on Sid’s face reminded Sophy of the way her Word program froze up two days ago when she added a large table to a document. I wonder if he’s rebooting, she mused, looking at his eyes, suddenly opaque.

 

Sid lowered her feet gently to the floor. There was no way he would face such humiliation.

 

“Thank you, Sid.” She meant it. “If I was at the Point for the sole purpose of getting laid, no strings, you’d be the Boy I’d go for.” She meant that too.

 

A small cognitive subroutine in Sid’s main program alerted him that he’d just received a slight insult. His ego, however, dismissed the alert. Besides, he had another means to capture her. He’d picked it up after she’d left it on the reception desk.

 

“Ah, my little one,” he replied, silkily. “You’ll be begging to return to me.”

 

A ray of sunlight tickled Irene’s nose, waking her. Eager to do as much as possible during her short stay, she bounded out of bed. She opened the window. It had rained during the night. The scent of wet grass and trees, sparkling in the sunshine, was delicious. The place was definitely magical.

 

Quickly washing up, Irene tossed on a pair of denim cutoffs, an old t-shirt, and her Nikes, ran a brush through her hair, some lipstick on her mouth, and headed down the hallway. It was very quiet. Probably most of the couples were sleeping in — she grinned. I bet they weren’t sleeping last night.

 

Arthur manned the reception desk. He was pleased to see the new visitor looking so perky, unlike her melancholy a few hours before.

 

“Anyone else alive?” she questioned, curious as to the habits of the experienced visitors.

 

“Savannah is in the restaurant, getting something to eat — she’s bringing it out here, to eat with me, actually-” he blushed. “Johnny’s outside, trimming hedges. Maximus, Hando, and Terry left for their run not five minutes ago.”

 

“Is it like this on Sunday, too?”

 

Arthur made a face. “Although most of them try to attend Cort’s service, if only as a courtesy to him.” Since she brought the topic up, he continued. “Will you be there?”

 

“When I’m home I go most every Sunday. If I didn’t, my choir director would strangle me.”

 

“Savannah,” Arthur said gaily to his girlfriend, porting a tray laden with a teapot, cups, and steaming muffins. “Sophy sings in her church choir.” He turned back to the other woman. “We’ll be singing Amazing Grace tomorrow — would you like to join us?”

 

“Sure. Parts, or in unison? I’m a soprano.”

 

“Unison,” he replied wistfully. “But in the future, maybe we could practice some other hymns?”

 

“I’ll bring my hymnbook,” she replied. Arthur beamed.

 

He noticed Sophy was scanning the top of the reception counter and its lower shelf.

 

“Are you looking for something?”

 

“Yes.” He detected a note of concern in her voice. “A — a wooden stick, the width and length of a knitting needle. It’s a sort of good luck charm. My parents bought it for me.”

 

Arthur and Savannah looked at each other and shook heads. “We’ve completed the morning paperwork, and that left over from last night. Nothing like that,” Savannah replied.

 

“I had it last here.” Sophy made a face. “I know I set it down on the counter, when I completed my registration form. Well, Jeff was here, maybe he picked it up when we walked over to the Tavern.”

 

She changed the topic, anxious not to appear too concerned. “Those muffins look scrumptious. I think I’ll go get something. Need anything else?”

 

The couple shook their heads. Sophy strolled into the restaurant, and scanned the buffet. The muffins did look yummy, but then, any fat and sugar-laden food worth 500 calories would. She was pleased to spot a glass bowl labeled “non-fat yoghurt — homemade” and scooped herself out a dollop into a paper coffee cup. Finding some fresh blueberries, she anointed the yoghurt with a generous helping. With this and a plastic spoon and a bottle of water, she left the buffet.

 

She waved to Arthur and Savannah on the way out.

 

Johnny, hedge clippers in hand, was looking at her little roadster.

 

“I bet it really flies,” he remarked, not taking his eyes off the vehicle. Sophy opened the driver side door and popped the hood. Johnny’s eyes widened.

 

“Check it out, if you like,” Sophy smiled as he immediately stuck his head down to view the engine. “Oh, and here.” She produced the keys. “You can take it for a spin, if you want. Blow the carbon out.”

 

“Ta,” the young brother responded gratefully, with the same warm smile and flashing blue-green eyes of his older, more familiar brothers. Smiling back, Sophy wished she was half her age; she’d have offered to go with him. As it was, she felt — well, a little too young to be his mother. More like an older sister. And who wants to go for a ride with an older sister?

 

Jogging down the gravel driveway, Sophy banished her melancholy from her mind. The weather at Crowe’s Point was gorgeous, the hotel and its setting were gorgeous, and of course, the men were gorgeous. She was going to have a great weekend.

 

Stoically, Terry followed Maximus and Hando up the hill. His head throbbed with every pace — hell, his whole body ached. He was rooted, and only halfway finished the torture test Maximus called exercise.

 

“Why-” Maximus had asked, when he roused the former soldier out of bed and threw him into a cold shower, “did you, I believe the phrase is ‘tie one on’ last night?”

 

“Yeah, mate,” agreed Hando. “You were bloody rotten.”

 

Hearing the skinhead and his much-respected brother say that made Terry wince. He couldn’t tell them why. Admit he was nervous? What if he felt the connection and she didn’t? He’d arrived at the Point last Christmas, still grieving from the events of his movie. The happy couples reminded him — as if he needed reminding — of his aloneness. At least in the movie, he had a son, and a divorced wife. Here, he had none of that, though his brothers had done their best to be a comfort. He’d been so busy being a soldier, a kidnap rescuer, he had few memories for comfort. At least Maximus could recall happy occasions with his wife and child — Terry remembered only the day he apologized to Henry about missing the upcoming rugby game.

 

This new visitor, Sophy, he’d discovered he some things in common with her. And yet not. He had a child — so did she, though hers was real. Judging from Chelle’s remarks about Sophy’s baby-sitting plans, Sophy made time in her busy schedule for her child. He’d been a negotiator — that was part of her role at the Agency. He had a vague feeling he’d dealt with Agency employees before, whilst a soldier in the SAS.

 

So to steady his nerves, he’d had a Bushmills on Friday afternoon. One hadn’t worked, so he tried a second. After the fifth, he lost count.

 

He thought it wasn’t like himself, but how could he be sure? His plot was so thin. The Creator had filled in what details he could during filming, but the director had cut the heart out of it. Terry yearned for the memories discarded on the cutting room floor. They might be painful, but at least they’d tell him more about himself. So he could tell her. She sounded very interesting. He was terrified he’d be boring. He could not envision carrying on a conversation for longer than an hour with what he had – a mission in Chechnya, Luthan Risk’s London offices, the playing field of his son’s school, a drug lord¹s mansion and a marketplace in Tecala, and the rescue of an American scientist.

 

“Mate, yer draggin’ today!” Hando, laughing, had circled back around to tease him into catching up. Way up ahead, Maximus stood, running in place. The man was inexhaustible. Terry’s lungs burned. Why in the hell was he doing this anyway?

 

Because he didn’t know what else to do, replied his interior voice. Reaching Maximus’s position, he dropped to the ground.

 

“That’s good,” remarked his Roman brother. “Perfect position for push-ups. Start with 50.”

 

At least Hando was also groaning at that. Terry was prepared to tell his brother off, when he heard footsteps coming up the path.

 

“Don’t let me interrupt,” said an unfamiliar, drawling female voice. Terry caught a glimpse of shapely calves fold up into a sitting position on the grass. He was damned if he was going to quit now.

 

Sophy watched the physical display, impressed. Hando was the most slender of the three athletes, his whiplike arm muscles accented by the skeleton tattoo. He gave her the once over and grinned.

 

“G’day.”

 

Sophy grinned back, recalling how Trisha had been bragging about the skinhead last night, about his reading, his growing toleration of the multiracial, multiethnic society at the Point. That was a relief; at work, she’d drafted a reciprocal agreement with a foreign sister organization to infiltrate a fascist group within its borders in exchange for the other espionage group to investigate similar groups within the US. To comply with strict US laws regarding internal investigations, she had to wade through monthly reports of the sister agency’s findings. The attitudes and actions of the neo-Nazis were infuriating and revolting — a guaranteed monthly migraine.

 

She only glanced at Maximus this morning; the ‘desensitization’ Chelle had promised had started.

 

Sophy tried to look at Terry without looking at him, and was aware he was doing the same. It was easier for him, she pouted mentally; he had the distraction of his exercise. He had the same, soccer-player physique of his gladiator brother, but his hair was a lighter brown and longer, showing its waves, and he wore no beard.

 

“G’day.” He offered the same greeting as his younger brother, along with a large hand.

 

Terry found himself holding her small hand longer than the handshake would require, looking into expressive brown eyes fringed with long lashes darker than the light brown hair cascading about the oval face.

 

“Is ‘Terry’ short for anything — like ‘Terence’, or is it just Terry?” she asked. Her vowels were spoken with a slightly syrupy drawl, different than the speech of his brother Cort or of Tina, but very charming.

 

“No, just ‘Terry’. At least, I think so,” he added honestly.

 

Terry decided to take the bull by the horns. “I, uh, was a bit under the weather last night.”

 

Sophy’s mouth twitched. “So I noticed.” Seeing the remorse paint his face, she melted. “That happened once to me, in law school. It was a two for one happy hour. I had a second Hurricane on an empty stomach, and-”

 

“Only two?” interrupted Hando. “Two pot screamer,” he teased.

 

Sophy stood up and walked over to Hando, practically touching him. She looked up.

 

“What do you weigh, about 13 stone? Well, I’m-” she did a quick calculation “-a hair over seven, so cut me a little slack.”

 

“I hate to interrupt this fascinating conversation about drinking bouts,” remarked Maximus, dryly, “but are we not supposed to be in training?” He stared meaningfully at his exercise partners.

 

“Um, see you later?” asked Terry, hopefully.

 

“Sure,” Sophy replied. She watched them race away.

 

“Sooner than you think,” she murmured.

 

Sophy headed off in the opposite direction, enjoying the warming sunshine. Chelle had told her Crowe’s Point was a composite of locations important to each of the brothers; thus, as warm as it was here (which she guessed was Maximus’s Hispania), in another section, it was Alaska and cold.

 

It would be interesting to see all of the locales from a higher vantage point. That oak, a hundred paces ahead, looked like it would suit. Sophy yawned, and stretched. She bounded up the tree with ease, climbing higher among its branches, edging out along the highest one that would tolerate her weight.

 

The view was magnificent. Over there, the hotel and tavern, and where the brothers slept (on those rare, celibate nights, she smiled). Beautiful gardens — the Sydney Botanical Gardens, where Jeff’s Greg had worked? A beach, filled with stone sculpted by the ocean, ah, that was the Twelve Apostles; that must be a melancholy place for Hando to visit. It was juxtaposed against tall firs and remains of an Alaskan snowfall. In another direction, rolling hills — she could make out Mannie’s and East’s small dwellings and stables, and what looked like the central square of a small Australian town — Johnny’s hometown?

 

She focused again on the fields surrounding the forest — three small figures moved, slowly, from this distance, one periodically turning around to watch the others. Maximus the drill sergeant, she grinned.

 

Now, to climb down. Ugh- this was always the worst part. She was built for up, not down.

 

“All in all, a good workout.” Maximus slapped his towel against Terry’s butt as they strode sweatily back to their quarters.

 

Terry had to admit to himself that he did feel better. All that running, and lifting the weights at the fifth mile, had burned the hangover out of him. A shower, and he’d be ready to do a little sheila-hunting.

 

He bent down to scratch the head of a cat that had decided to sprawl directly in front of the doorway, in the ‘I own the world’ manner of all cats. The little brown tabby arched her back and emitted a loud purr.

 

“Well, well,” teased Hando. “New sheila, Terry? At least she’s not a dog.” He whooped as his older brother grabbed him by the waist, wrestling him to the ground.

 

Sid, nattily attired in a cream-colored linen suit, edged carefully around his sweat-stained brothers. He scooped up the cat, which voiced her outrage with a loud meow, then launched herself away, claws extended. He laughed, looking at the resulting scratch.

 

“Broke the skin; you should put something on that,” remarked Terry, as he walked in the door.

 

Sid smiled back. “I will.” He headed down the path, towards the gravel driveway by the hotel.

 

The Z3 was freshly washed; Johnny had thought to surprise Sophy as thanks for the loan of her car. Sid touched the glass of the driver’s side view mirror. His healing left a tiny hole in it.

 

Perfect. “I’ve been here, ma cherie,” he murmured. He admired the healed skin.

 

Part Four

 

Not that she was eavesdropping, but Stephanie couldn’t help but overhear the cell phone conversation by the swimming pool.

 

“Your daughter?” she smiled at Sophy.

 

“Yeah. She flew to New York this weekend with a dear friend of mine. Taylor loves her ‘Auntie’ Carolyn.”

 

“Is she childless?”

 

“No; her daughter is grown, and not yet married or in a relationship. So Carolyn enjoys spoiling my child. You know, wave the wand and make sweets appear, that sort of thing.” Sophy grinned, just at her recollection.

 

“I know I’m prying, but-”

 

“Don’t worry,” Sophy laughed. “I’m not shy, at least not that way. Ask a question I don’t like, I’m not in a courtroom, I just won’t answer. Cross-examine away, Counselor.”

 

“You can plead the fifth,” the other woman laughed. “Chelle said you’re a widow?”

 

“Yeah. Bad accident on the Beltway. Guardrail and tractor trailer, near Tysons Corner.” She looked away for a moment. Steph felt bad about bringing the subject up, and winced sympathetically.

 

“No, it’s ok. The therapist says its good to get my feelings out. Dandy, actually, his name was Daniel, was a wonderful guy, good dad. He died instantly. We hadn’t argued, or anything like that, the morning of, so I don’t have that sort of guilt to carry around.”

 

“Have you started to date again?”

 

Sophy sighed. “No. I suppose I’m spoiled. I have my daughter, my older sister and her husband and kids, and Carolyn, and other friends at church and at work. One of my office pals dragged me to a singles dance last month. I liked the dancing — I love music, and to dance — but, ugh, it was like a meat market. Reminded me of why I only went to one freshman mixer in college.”

 

Stef nodded, mentally recalling some horror stories of her own.

 

Sophy’s eyes took on a faraway look. “I wandered onto this website, Chelle invited me to the Point. It appealed to me as much as the singles dances and the Parents Without Partners meetings didn’t. I suppose, because it’s not part of the Real World. I know some women have decided to stay here, but I don’t want to. But at least here, I can have, well, maybe have a relationship that doesn’t threaten or interfere with my Real World life.” She confronted Stef, “That’s dreadfully selfish and timid of me, isn’t it.”

 

Stef picked her response carefully. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve gone through a lot, and fairly recently, at that. Besides, you’re doing what you think is best for your daughter — in her uncle, she already has a male figure. If you became serious with someone again, outside of here, who knows how it would affect her?” It was then that she noticed the identity of the diver standing close by who was taking an inordinately long time to dry himself off. Oh, thank goodness, here’s an excuse to change the subject, even if I still feel a little uncomfortable around him.

 

“Hey, Terry. You’ve met-”

 

“Yes.” They responded together, and smiled awkwardly.

 

“Great! Say, listen, Soph, nice meeting you, but I’ve gotta run. I think I missed a spot and I’m starting to burn.” She tossed on her coverup, picked up her book left the pair wondering what next to say to each other.

 

“Good book?” Terry glanced at the cover of what Sophy was reading. Stephen Jay Gould.

 

“Yes, I like science written for the layperson. In this book, he’s making arguments supporting his variation on evolutionary theory; punctuated equilibrium. Your home country, you know, is very important to his research.”

 

Terry mentally groaned. He’d been reading voraciously since his arrival at the Point, to fill in the gaps of his knowledge of his homeland. He hoped he knew enough to discuss the subject intelligently. “Because of its age?”

 

He basked in Sophy’s responsive glow. “Yes! The Australian land mass has been pretty much the same for hundreds of millions of years, while the other continents were rising and falling into prehistoric seas. Gould says it’s the best place on Earth to find the shells of the sort of snails he studies.” She made a face. “No, I’m not crazy about snails. But I’d love to travel to Australia one day and see the stromatolites, and the largest land-based meteorite crater. And dive the Great Barrier Reef.”

 

Terry seized on this last. He felt vague memories of having dived there during his initial SAS training. “You scuba dive then?”

 

Sophy gave him a half smile. “Nothing like what you must have done — no rebreathers, or helium-oxygen mixtures, or diving below 100 feet. I have a ‘Chicken of the Sea’ patch on my dive bag. But the light is better above 60 feet anyway, which is my preferred range.” Her smile broadend. “I love to dive — it’s like flying underwater.”

 

The conversation opened a door in Terry’s mind. He was astonished to find himself telling her about setting listening devices in the frigid waters off the Falklands as a very young soldier. More recently, he’d collected ransom payments left in the wrecks of sunken drug-runner planes off the Columbian coast.

 

“Would you like to dive here?” He watched the surprise and pleasure on her face.

 

“Sure. But I’ll need a full wetsuit for the waters off the Twelve Apostles. I knew Crowe’s Point was an all-purpose resort, but don’t tell me there’s a fully-stocked dive shop here too!”

 

Terry shook his head to both her statements. “Around the bend from Hando’s beach the water really warms up. It’s like the Gold Coast, but without the high-rise hotels and the glitz.”

 

Sophy grinned back. “Good. I hate the ‘downtown on the water’ look. I like my beaches tropical and deserted. But I didn’t bring my gear.”

 

“Chelle has the number of a rental place that will deliver. They bring me full tanks.”

 

Suddenly Sophy became worried and quiet. Terry was about to blame himself when-

 

“Great white sharks?” she asked timidly.

 

“No, you won’t end up as an hors’doeuvre. I’ve only seen them when I dive at night, and then only far out, in the deep water. Besides, after I did, Lachlan and I strung a shark net.”

 

“Lachlan dives too?”

 

“He should,” came the bemused reply. “He risks his life flying those old fighter planes; diving’s a walk in the park.” He stood up, looking at his watch. They could call the dive shop, have a quick lunch, and enjoy an hour’s dive. The coral reef was only a quarter of a mile off the beach.

 

Terry looked again at Sophy’s bikini. He didn’t think a buoyancy compensation vest or the tank within it would rub against the top and cause it to slip (damn). She caught the glance.

 

“I usually dive in a one-piece.”

 

Terry looked sheepish. He hadn’t meant to be so obvious.

 

“Yeah, the bikini top gets in the way, so I ditch it.” Sophy’s eyes glinted as Terry’s widened. She howled.

 

“Just kidding.”

 

Sid, reading and catching the sun in a his bright red Speedo, was not amused. He should have been happy; after all, he’d had a splendid night of sex with Tawny (after she’d threatened to remove his character module when he casually mentioned his plans for a menage a quatre) , who was asleep next to him on the recliner, her bikini top conveniently removed so he could fondle her breasts while he read. But he was Sid, the insatiable, sociopathic self-evolving neural network. The new visitor was too tempting a challenge, especially after she’d teased him. His recliner conveniently close by, he’d been eavesdropping on her conversations with Stef and now Terry.

 

Multitasking between reading and eavesdropping, Sid was trying to dream up an insulting names for Terry- it would make his ultimate conquest of this woman in which Terry’d evidenced an interest so much more satisfying. The infuriating problem was that Terry offered no characteristic he could use, unlike John Biebe (the beached Alaskan whale) or Bud White (the butthead). This brother wasn’t a hothead, he wasn’t pompous, he didn’t use his body as a canvas for tasteless permanent skin mutilation, and he didn’t sport Elvis sideburns. Terry had, Sid had to admit, good taste in clothing, even if he never wore the double-breasted suits Sid favored. But then, his marriage had failed, and he’d been unable to seduce the blonde in his movie away from her husband, so he must be a lousy lay.

 

Unlike me, he smirked, recalling how Tawny had screamed. And moaned. And writhed. Most of the night.

 

He watched Sophy’s rounded little ass leave the pool with Terry. Ah, ma cherie, I permit you to go down to see the fishes with Terry. But, I promise you, you’ll prefer to go down on me. He returned to the print-out of his morning’s research on the Internet.

 

Part Five

 

Terry helped the driver load the now-empty tanks into the truck. The only fault with the afternoon was that it had ended, but it had left the promise of a great evening.

 

He knew he’d never had so much fun on a dive. Any fleeting concerns he might have had that Sophy was exaggerating regarding her scuba knowledge were eradicated when she expertly checked out her equipment (and his) and hooked her bottle up to her vest. She’d declined the offer of even a two pound lead weight, a decision proven right when they were at depth. Her buoyancy control was superb, as she hung a couple of feet above the delicate coral at all times. She was right, too, about being able to last forever on an aluminum 80. When his air was down to 400, she motioned for him to breathe off her safe second regulator; she still had over twice that amount left.

 

Of course, the only way he could breathe off the second was to swim next to her. Terry took full advantage of this, wrapping his arm about Sophy’s waist as they drifted along, admiring the wrasse, squirrel, and parrotfish flitting about the coral heads. Better yet, he was sure she equally appreciated this position, snuggling next to him to the extent permitted by the air cylinder mounted on her back, and blowing teasing bubbles at his mask.

 

Finally, their air down to the safe minimum, they surfaced and swam the rest of the way through the surf to the shore. They ate their lunch — now sandy, because they’d had a water fight in the surf, and drank their beer (he) and lemonade (she), and rested on the beach, transfixed by the perpetual motion of the water and the overwhelming sense of comfort caused by enjoying another person’s company so much that one can merely sit with him or her and not need to say much of anything at all.

 

Only when the sun touched the waves did they shift from indolence to action, Terry hoisting the tanks and Sophy carting the rest of the gear back to the inn.

 

Walking back to his room to shower, Terry fell in with John.

 

“You don’t swim in water, you skate on it,” John teased.

 

“Mate, when sheilas ice skate in bikinis I’ll agree with you,” Terry laughed back.

 

“Well, at least we’re agreed on one thing — you don’t drink it,” came the reposte.

 

John switched topics. “For the wedding — do you think I should get a haircut?”

 

Terry looked at his Alaskan brother to see if he was pulling his leg. He compared John’s shoulder-length hair against his own trim.

 

“What does Tina want?”

 

“Tina.” John loaded the one word with a chapter’s worth of meaning- loving, happy, and tender. Terry felt a twinge of envy- Biebe’d enjoyed a great relationship with his wife and boys in his movie. In a few short days, he’d have the same with Tina — they’d exchange vows and Tina would live at the Point permanently.

 

“She’d love you, mate, if you got a mohawk and dyed it green.”

 

“Yeah,” the sheriff agreed, beaming. “You know, she told me the other day she was even starting to like Hando a little bit. Think she’d fancy a number one cut?”

 

The image of Mystery’s finest as a skinhead was too much. Terry lost his deadpan and wrapped his arms about his brother. They wrestled each other to the ground, giggling. The look Bud shot at them brought a fresh fit.

 

“Bud — I’ve decided all my groomsmen have to — get tattoos! Go see Hando, he’ll tell you what we’ve decided on.”

 

Bud well knew when he was having his leg pulled, literally, now, as well as figuratively. The three of them rolled about, laughing insanely.

 

Jeff strolled by, arm in arm with Rick. “What, a footy game, and you didn’t include me?” He launched himself into the pileup, and promptly reached for a sibling’s side to tickle.

 

Tina, a list of wedding ‘to do’s’ in hand, stopped short at the pile-up. Four brothers and a boyfriend rolled apart and stood up, the occasional giggle still escaping.

 

Perhaps it is a good thing that John and I can never have a child, she mused. A handful of toddlers like this would require a forklift.

 

“Who is playing on my piano?”

 

Sid strode into the ballroom. Arthur, Savannah, Sophy, and Terry were gathered around the Steinway; Anthony was seated at its bench.

 

Arthur jotted a quick note to himself. “Right. Let’s try verse three again.”

 

Terry and Sid would have been surprised to learn they both groaned at that statement. If Sophy had not wanted to sing in church tomorrow, Thowra couldn’t have dragged Terry here. But Sophy loved to sing, and Sophy was enjoying the rehearsal, so Terry was contributing his baritone and Arthur was singing the tenor line.

 

As for Sid, he thought his brothers all showed an amazing lack of grace. Still, his next intended conquest was here, wearing a bias-cut slip dress of royal blue silk. Poor Arthur. He was trying his best to look away and avoid any impure thoughts. Ah little one, mused Sid, all I have for you are impure thoughts. You cannot be wearing a bra under that dress. I bet there are no panties, either. If I circle around the piano, I bet I can see whether Terry measures up to me. No, I’m sure I’m larger.

 

“Sid?” Sophy spoke up.

 

“Yes, my sweet?” Ah, she was clearly pleased to see him. The only real man in the room.

 

“As long as you’re here, would you tell us if our balance is ok? We have a soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, but some of us have stronger voices than the others.”

 

Terry grinned as they started again on verse three. She roped you into that one, Sidney.

 

Sid, the wanna-be musician, listened critically. He was pleased to hear that Sophy had a lovely voice, her soprano spiraling above the lower ranged voices. He thought he could see her nipples when she inhaled. She could sing for the three of them tonight. But not a hymn, please.

 

“That was great.” Arthur was enthusiastic. Sunday service would be great. Terry took Sophy’s arm, prepared to make an evasive maneuver to counter Sid’s likely offense. Sophy’s stop at the piano bench took him by surprise. He was a little irked — another woman attracted to the former priest?

 

“Let’s get together tomorrow morning and work on the Ave Maria, shall we?” Sophy asked the doctor.

 

“Did we decide on the Schubert or the Mozart?”

 

“I don’t really care, they’re both lovely,” Sophy responded. “But we absolutely must sing it in Latin.” She grinned in the retreating Arthur’s direction. “I think a little high church is in order, after six verses of Baptist hymnody. You wouldn’t happen to have a little incense stashed away — I’d love that.”

 

Terry was assaulted by a suddenly remembered image of himself, dressed in a pure white cotta and a red robe, a boy soprano in the Trinity choir. He’d been kicked out of a budding choral career when he put a frog in the choirmaster’s music stand. Where else was he to put it? The chalice? Frogs and alcohol don’t mix.

 

“Whatever you sing tomorrow, ma cherie, I shall be glad to conduct.” Sophy looked up, puzzled, at this remark of Sid’s.

 

She turned ashen when she saw what he took out of his pocket. She lunged for it.

 

“Uh uh uh! I’ve already thought of that,” he smiled. “I found this most fascinating and educational site on the World Wide Web. This belongs to me, now. And-”

 

Here Sid recited a string of words that sounded vaguely Latin to Terry’s ears. Anthony stared from Sophy to Sid and back to Sophy again. Terry saw the former priest cross himself, wide-eyed.

 

“And now, you do too.”

 

As Sophy fainted, Terry caught her.

 

Part Six

 
Anthony alternated his glance from the fainting woman to Sid, and back again.

 

“Keep out of this, you meddlesome defrocked quack!” Sid waved a stick – was it a conductor’s baton, wondered Terry- and muttered a phrase that sounded to Terry like the Latin he’d learned at school.

 

The fallen priest blinked again. His eyes were glassy when he opened them. “Leave us,” demanded Sid. Anthony walked out obediently. (The former priest found himself in his room, five minutes later, humming a tune from Rocky Horror – “Let’s do the time warp again…”)

 

Sid now faced Terry, whose arms were wrapped protectively around the slowly awakening Sophy.

 

“I’m not going to erase your memory. In fact, I want you to recall every detail of it. She belongs to me now.” He lunged for the startled woman.

 

Terry used the momentum of his brother’s movement to throw him onto the floor. The impact loosened the connection of Sid’s character module-he lay stunned, his consciousness wavering.

 

Sophy looked up, suddenly wide-eyed. Sid was motionless on the floor. The baton no longer glowed.

 

She gave Terry a quick embrace, regretfully cutting short the responsive kiss.

 

“There’s no time – he’ll come to in a minute! We’ve got to phone my sister. Warn her that Sid has stolen my wand, and -”

 

“Your wand?” Terry was incredulous. Sid groaned.

 

Sophy looked at the unconscious man warily, gauging whether she had time to answer. Terry wondered why she didn’t just grab the stick from his brother’s hand. He reached for it himself.

 

“No! Don’t touch it while it’s glowing!” She grabbed Terry’s hand. “It will burn you horribly; down to the bone.” She shuddered.

 

“I’ll be blunt. I’m what you call a witch. My entire family is. When I said my daughter and friend Carolyn were flying up to the city for the weekend, I meant it.”

 

“Brooms and all that?”

 

Sophy snorted and rolled her eyes. “Oh, please- that’s a silly invention of the medieval mind.” She reverted to the essential topic. “Your brother may be a jerk, but he’s very smart. Somehow he’s found the spell to use my power against me. I can’t fight against myself, only-”

 

Terry swallowed hard at what he saw next. Two Sophys.

 

Sophy A spoke up. “Don’t let Sid know what I’ve done Dividing my power and putting half of it out of harm’s way is our only hope.”

 

Sophy B interrupted. “I did this periodically through college – it was the only way I could keep up with a double course load. Please – do everything my sister tells you to do!” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek – and vanished.

 

Before Terry could ask more, the remaining Sophy hushed him. “He’s coming to.” She pointed to the wand – its tip was glowing, but not nearly as brightly as before.

 

Sophy snuggled back into Terry’s willing arms, dreading what would happen next. Her baser instincts wallowed in remorsefulness.

 

Sid scowled at his brother, but softened his expression towards Sophy.

 

“Come to me. You must, you know.”

 

Terry felt Sophy move. He tightened his embrace, shifting his arms so she could not slide out from under them.

 

“Thank you,” Sophy whispered. “The only way I can avoid this is if you keep me locked up.”

 

Terry rose, carrying Sophy tenderly in his arms. `Locked up.’ That caught the attention of his baser instincts.

 

“Now this is really silly,” chuckled Sid. “Do you think I can’t follow you?” He flourished the wand abruptly and muttered.

 

Whatever it was that Sid said, it caused Terry to feel like he’d been hit in the kidneys. He staggered, but did not release his precious load. He continued out of the ballroom.

Sophy smiled when she saw the number of residents and visitors milling about in the foyer. “This will preoccupy him,” she whispered to her would-be lover. “He’d rather shred his neural network than have anyone see you taking me from him.”

 

Terry nodded- the pain had abated, but he hadn’t caught enough breath to talk. He walked towards the stair, over to where Bud was standing, arm around Aurore. “Do me a favor, mate, and -” Bud and Aurore were glassy-eyed and unresponsive.

 

Sid chuckled. He waved the wand again. “Sophy. What a useful little toy this is. I’m so glad I found it at the front desk when you checked in.”

 

Terry looked worriedly at Sophy.

 

“I told you – he’s channeling my power through the wand.”

 

Once inside his room, Terry placed Sophy on his bed and quickly locked the door. His hostage rescue instincts took over. He checked his window, then sat down on the bed next to Sophy.

 

Admiring his broad shoulders showcased by his tailored jacket, Sophy placed her hands on them. Despite the craziness of the situation, Terry felt his tension ease. He pulled her to him. Seizing her top lip between his own, he sucked it gently, releasing it only for its lower companion. Surrendering to his desires, he connected his mouth fully with hers. She flicked her tongue over his.

 

“Let me be sure I have this right,” breathed Terry. Sid’s stolen your wand. He’s using your power – well, half of it now, since you cloned yourself – and if he touches you or me with it, they come under his control.”

 

Sophy nodded. Terry continued.

 

“What’s to prevent Sid from coming in the room when I open the door, which I will have to do, eventually.”

 

“I have enough power left to prevent his entry, but not my exit,” she replied.

 

The phone rang. Terry picked it up.

 

“Terry? I’m Leslie Lazarus, Sophy’s sister. Would you please put her on the phone?” Terry handed the phone to Sophy in some surprise. How had the sister known Sophy would be in his room, with him?

 

“Oh, Leslie.” Sophy’s voice began to quaver. “I messed up.” Terry couldn’t hear the sister’s reply but he watched Sophy shaking her head. He could imagine the comforting statements her sibling was making; very similar to those he offered to the families of kidnapping victims.

 

Sophy pressed the speaker phone button. A contralto similar to Sophy’s, but much stronger than her present voice, resonated in the room.

 

“It’s good you thought on your feet and sent your divided self home. He’s figured out how to establish a wall around the Point. We can’t penetrate it.”

 

Terry’s face registered his disappointment. “Then there’s no way you can help her?”

 

“We can only offer advice from afar. Someone there will have to save her. By stealing her wand and claiming her powers, Sid’s essentially holding her hostage.”

 

A grim smile crossed Terry’s face. “Well then, you can rely on me. Hostage extraction is my business.”

 

A male voice entered on the line, Leslie’s husband, Josh. “I’m probably telling you what you already know, but that wand is history.”

 

“Yes, Sophy replied. “It has to be destroyed.”

 

Terry looked at the phone. The voice on the other end was Sophy’s.

 

“Terry, that’s my other half,” smiled the Sophy in his room, realizing the source of his puzzlement.

 

“Your better half,” replied the voice.

 

This was too bizarre. Terry Thorne was a brave man, but dealing with the supernatural was beyond his ken. And just his fucking dumb luck, to fall for a witch! Dino was right. Stick to one night stands. His stomach began to knot, and the tension showed in his face.

 

Sophy sensed his anxiety. “Forget everything you’ve ever been told about us.” She smiled. “No deals with the devil, no black masses, no ritual sacrifices. None of that nonsense.”

 

“No brooms?” He’d asked that, but he wanted the reassurance of a second answer.

 

“Get real. Who ever heard of a flying cleaning device? If that were the case, don’t you think we’d have modernized by now and switched to flying vacuum cleaners?”

 

“Cauldrons and potions?”

 

The Sophy on the other end of the line spoke up. “Well, one could. Or one could buy the microwaveable or freeze-dried versions; they’re quite good, actually, and don’t require hours of preparation. You try finding tongue of newt or the third hair from a black widow’s spinneret in your local pharmacy.”

 

“Black robes?” Terry’s eyes twinkled; his worries now abating, he wondered what the lovely woman sitting on his bed- or the other part of her- would say about this.

 

The Sophy within arm’s reach rolled her eyes theatrically. “Oh, please,” she drawled. “Only those of us who have been color typed as `winters’ – or who live in New York City. I myself prefer midnight blue.”

 

Josh interrupted. “We’re just ordinary people who have a sense in addition to vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.”

 

“Sure.” Terry responded wryly. The ability to fly, or to split in half – ordinary people did that all the time.

 

“I understand you have a source of flowing water.” This was Leslie.

 

“Yes, the ocean,” Sophy responded. “I’ll have to tell you about my scuba dive here when mess is behind us. The sea is less than a mile away.”

 

“Good. Best way to reach it will still be-”

 

“By a shape changer, I know, Sis.”

 

Terry remembered the small brown tabby he’d seen on Maximus’s torture program and in front of the doorway to the quarters where he lived. “Like a cat?”

 

“Meow,” Sophy A smiled.

 

“Terry, if you really want to help my sister, you’ll have to be the one to carry the wand. Sophy can’t – if she touches it again, Sid will control her forever-” Sophy shuddered at her sister’s dreary mention of this fact. “Are you willing to serve?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Let me tell you what shape changing entails,” Sophy B spoke up. “We will have to wait for a full moon. If we get the wand away from Sid, I’ll change you into an animal fast and powerful enough to carry the wand to the ocean and drop it in the waves.”

 

“Like a wolf?” Terry asked. He envisioned one with ice-blue eyes he’d seen one night in the Ukraine.

 

“Yuck!” said both Sophys. “Dogs drool. No, I think a panther.”

 

“A black one, then,” he contributed. “For camouflage, in the dark. Or would you prefer midnight blue?”

 

Sophy cupped Terry’s cheek in a gentle parody of a slap. She slid off the bed, and walked to the window. Craning her neck, she could see a waxing moon.

 

“The moon is in the same phase here as it is in the Real World,” she advised her family members.

 

“Then you only have to avoid that wand for five more nights and four more days,” her brother in law responded. “Good luck.”

 

“I love you, little sister,” added Leslie. She added a word Terry didn’t recognize – it sounded like `Sheefra.’ “Take care.” The phone line went silent.

 

“So.” Terry’s identity as protector assumed the lead. “You have to stay with me, or be locked up for the next five days?”

 

“Yes,” Sophy admitted. “And not just with you, but touching you.”

 

Hot damn! he thought, then composed himself, trying to deal with Sophy as he would any other client who’d been taken hostage. This is turning out to be a bonzer weekend, he mused. Who’d have thought it, after that bloody hangover.

 

Terry stopped his mind from wandering to topics that were fun, but not helpful in the immediate circumstance. “We need to brainstorm how to induce Sid to show me where the wand is.”

 

Sophy sighed. “I wish I knew. Too bad crystal balls don’t exist.”

 

Terry posed another question. “What if we don’t know where the wand is at the time of the full moon? Can we try again in a month?”

 

“Yes, but of course, I’ll have to continue the `stay with you/be locked up’ until we do, assuming my strength holds out that long.” “Unfortunately,” she added sadly, “If this continues for a year and a day, Sid will control me forever.”

 

Terry was pensive. He dimly recalled being involved in hostage negotiations that had lasted far longer. When such hostages were finally released, they needed years of therapy to effect a mental escape from their captors. “Well, he certainly won’t tell me, and if you were alone with him, he’d control you. Can I enlist some help? Would you mind if someone else at the Point knew you were a, um.” He didn’t want to say the name; it carried such bad connotations.

 

Sophy noted his discomfiture. “No, not at all. They are all such wonderful men. Strike that,” added the Agency lawyer. “Kim is a bit of a jerk. Oh, by the way, the politically correct term is currently `MS’ – Magical Specialist. As for the help.” her voice trailed off, and she thought.

 

“It would have to be someone pure in heart. As highly as I think of the women who come here, I don’t know if any of them qualify for that. I mean, have you seen what smut we women send each other by e- mail?”

 

A broad grin swept across Terry’s face. “No, but now you’ve got me curious. I wasn’t thinking of a woman.”

 

A few minutes later, Terry left his room to look for his hoped-for helper. He’d fashioned a nearly unbreakable door lock from a Kryptonite® brand bicycle lock. Although the door could be opened part way, the opening was too small to admit entry. Equally important, according to Sophy, was that the opening would be too small for her reach around to undo it.

 

“I can’t emphasize this enough,” she warned him. “With that wand, if he commands me to come, I have no choice, even though I don’t want to.”

 

Terry knew he was being watched as soon as he left for the game room.

 

Sid fell in step with him. “You can’t win, you know – mate.” Sid imitated an Aussie accent rather well. “I know Sophy. I know what she wants, what she needs-”

 

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” replied Terry in a pleasant voice. “And stop stealing other character’s lines.”

 

No, he didn’t see the person he had in mind yet. Surely he wouldn’t have gone to the Tavern.

 

“She threw herself into my arms when she discovered you were a drunk.” Sid was determined to have the last word. “Let me tell you how wet she was. What a little animal.”

 

Terry was sure Sid was lying. He hoped he was. He could, too.

 

“Yeah, mate, she’s a hot little pussy.” That was rather crude, Terry admitted to himself, but he had to talk at a level Sid would understand. “Left her in my bed; just going to see about bringing some tucker back. I plan on fucking her all night and all day tomorrow.”

 

“With what? Alice thought so little of it she went back to-”

 

Terry’s long fuse had been lit, and it was now burnt down to the flash point. He flung Sid against one of the pinball machines. Blue goo oozed onto the carpet where Sid’s head connected with the sharp edge of the game. TILT went the game, flashing frantically.

 

“Did you damage the game?” Arthur appeared from a nearby game, soda in one hand, Savannah in the other. “You know, those games are expensive; I was going through the books last week doing a reconciliation, and happened across their depreciation schedules. I told Chelle we’d be in a better financial position if we-”

 

“Mate,” said Terry quietly. “I need your help. Excuse me,” he turned to Savannah “-brother talk. Only five minutes, I promise.”

 

Sophy paced around Terry’s room in a tiny circle. How long had he been gone? Too long. Any moment now –

 

“Sophy. Cherie, I know you’re in there. Darling, let’s end this charade; I want you and you want me.”

 

She listened grimly. I’m ok as long as he doesn’t say-

 

“Come to me, little one.”

 

That. Shit. She pulled the door open to the three inches permitted by the lock. Sid undressed her with his eyes. Sophy rolled hers. This was going to be a long five days. She hoped that would be the limit of it.

 

“You’re supposed to want me,” Sid whined.

 

“No.” Sophy snapped her fingers and produced a musty tome bound in dark red leather. “See, right here? Page 234? When the holder of the stolen wand commands the witch to come to him, she cannot refuse.”

 

She shut the book and it vanished. She sure didn’t want him reading what was on page 235.

 

Sid beat his hand against the lock. Several bones broke – Sophy could hear the very satisfying crunch. Sid swore in several languages (wow, I’m impressed, the lawyer thought, until she remembered he’d started out as a composite of serial killers, rapists, and other low lifes from around the world) and stormed down the hallway to the window at it’s end. She peeked out, curious to see how he reconstituted himself, and watched the blue tendrils connect to the glass from his strangely bent appendage.

 

“I’ll show you more, ma petite, when we are together at last.”

 

If that happens, Sophy mused grimly, I’ll re-enact Lorena Bobbitt’s cutting little scene with her husband. That was an image worth laughing about, and she did.

 

She heard footsteps in the hallway. Terry. Something about the military preciseness of his footfall had made her think it was he.

 

“Breaking and entering? I thought that would be beneath you, Sid.”

 

Terry sounded chipper – he must have been successful. “Please excuse us; I’m changing before dinner. You might want to too. You’ve got blue goo all over your sleeve.”

 

“I’m so glad – Terry seems to have found someone at last,” murmured Tina to her fiancé. John looked especially gorgeous in the candlelight of the dining room. The thin teal thread in his charcoal grey suit matched the color of his eyes. Then again, I love him in his sweaters as much as in the Armani. Or out of it.

 

“They can’t keep their hands off of each other, that’s for sure.”

 

Biebe chuckled. As bereft as he had felt upon his arrival at the Point, he knew Thorne had felt worse – an unhappy personal life in the movie, and last Christmas, all alone.

 

“Wonder what’s bothering Sid?” Tina thought he’d been scowling a lot tonight. Odd, given the alluring dress Tawny was wearing. Hmm. Did Terry just wink at Tawny? And didn’t Sophy just do the same, too?

 

“Probably just some joke at Sid’s expense,” replied John. “Whatever it is, I’m sure my weirdest brother deserves it. How many suits does Sid need to change a lightbulb?

 

*Okay, readers, we got a lotta work to do! I need a punchline for this joke*

 

Terry turned back to Sophy, grinning. “It was your comment about the writing, love, that made me ask Tawny if she’d help. She was all too pleased to assist.”

 

Part Seven

 

Slightly buzzed from several excellent bottles of Veuve Cliquot, Terry carried a giggling Sophy up to her room.

 

He slid open the door to her “ryokan,” then locked it from within, using his Kryptonite® lock. He stepped out of his shoes onto the tightly woven tatami. The futon and two yukata had been laid out, together with a porcelain container of sake and two matching celadon cups. Terry turned his full attention to the beckoning Sophy, stroking the silk covering her thigh. Sophy removed his hand and kissed it. Then she placed it under her dress upon her warm, soft skin.

 

“If you’ve ever seen shunga, their erotic prints, you know the Japanese have perfected this to a high art,” she murmured, throwing Terry’s loosened silk tie on the floor and unbuttoning his shirt. “We start with a shower and a bath.”

 

“Where do we end up?” Terry gestured to the futon.

 

“There, or in the garden, or on the table-” she pointed to the low, round table, pushed over against the wall “-or any combination that you like. It’s time, Major Thorne, to give you some memories.”

 

In one sure movement, she stripped off his shirt and pulled his head down to hers for a penetrating kiss, thrusting her tongue deeply into his mouth.

 

“Tell me what you want.” Wrapping her arms around his broad, bare shoulders, she pulled herself up, wrapping her legs about his hips.

 

Terry cupped her ass, bare but for a silk thong. His manhood strained against his pants, ready to reciprocate the passionate assault.

 

“You. All night.”

 

“We have five nights. Are you sure you only want one?” Sophy bit his earlobe and started nibbling on his neck. “Let’s take off those confining pants, shall we; I’ll see if I can influence you to revise your answer.”

 

Relishing the sensation of her bare skin in his hands, Terry continued to knead Sophy’s delightful little bottom while she expertly undid his belt and lowered his zipper.

 

“Oooh, carrying a concealed weapon, Major.” She reached into his boxers. “Fortunately, I have several safe places where you can hide that.”

 

Before Terry could reply, Sophy was kneeling in front of his fully- aroused shaft. “Oooh, poor little Terry; he’s crying.” Delicately, she flicked her tongue at the bead of moisture on the head. Big Terry moaned, and moaned again as Sophy took all of him into her mouth. He ran his fingers through her hair as he thrust himself back and forth.

 

Just before his self control succumbed completely to his desire, he withdrew. “Shower,” he grunted. Perhaps a cold one would help.

 

“As you wish.” Sophy turned towards the tiny bathroom, then stopped.

 

“Oh, I should be touching you, shouldn’t I?” Unable to contain a giggle, she reached behind herself for little Terry. Thorne put his hand over hers, to stop her from stroking him- shit, he’d come all over the tatami if she kept that up!

 

“Just you wait;” his voice, husky, had dropped half an octave. “They are going to hear you screaming all the way up and down this hall.”

 

Sophy’s response was to undo her teal lace demibra, swirl it in the air, and toss it on the floor. Terry’s head and hands moved to her breasts, twirling the nipple of one between his thumb and forefinger while sucking greedily on the other. The woman’s teasing giggle stopped, supplanted by an intake of breath. Looking up, Terry could see she’d closed her eyes and was lost in the sensation.

 

“Terry,” she breathed. “This one” that he fingered, “is jealous. Please kiss it too.” He shifted his mouth to the other nipple, just as swollen and hard as the first.

 

“Thank goodness this isn’t a real ryokan,” she managed to whisper. “The innkeeper would turn off the hot water before we took our bath.” She leaned against the stone wall, no longer trusting in her balance.

 

“Mmm,” Terry replied, pulling down her thong. “My turn.” He slid down to face the brown curls adorning her mons. “Now this is truly a concealed weapon,” he murmured. “I’m going to have to take it and use it against you.”

 

He spread the delicate lips apart in search of the hidden bud within. Finding this, he blew on it gently, enjoying Sophy’s shuddering response. Bending down to the skin behind her kneecap, he started to lick his way back up along the inside of her right, then left thigh. He noted with pleasure that she widened her stance as he approached his goal.

 

I don’t know whether I thank the script writer, the director, or the Creator, Terry thought, but I’m glad I know how to do this. He began to swirl his tongue around the sensitive bit of tissue.

 

“Oh, Terry, please-”

 

He sucked at it, lightly, tasting her.

 

“Don’t stop.” Hearing this, he debated his next action. Stop and tease, just before she came? Or have her come, and continue his tongue-lashing until she cried for mercy? The latter, he concluded. I just hope Arthur’s not around; I don’t want to embarrass him.

 

Sophy felt her senses give way into an uncontrollable wave of pleasure. An ecstatic moan escaped her lips. Terry continued, adding the thrust of two fingers into her core. He could feel the orgasm pulsing through her. His manhood throbbed in rhythm.

 

Now she was starting to cry out. “Oh, Terry! Please! Oh! It’s too much- omigod-” She struggled in vain to break free from the erotic attack. Terry held her legs much too tightly as he laughed and licked.

 

“AaaaaaaAAAAH!” She started to giggle. “Terry! IT TICKLES!”

 

The patio door to the ryokan garden room was open. The sound carried through it and out into the mild night air.

 

“TERREEEEEE!”

 

Colin, having a quiet drink with Chelle in the moonlight, snickered.

 

“Don’t you say anything to her tomorrow to embarrass her,” she warned him. “Or tonight I will make you scream, and the talk will be all about you.”

 

Sophy awoke with the broadest smile on her face since her life changed a year and a half ago, when Daniel – no, she warned herself. Don’t go there. He went instantly, and he’s at peace.

 

Daniel. He’d always said he wanted her to be happy. “If anything should ever happen to me,” he’d say, the way one does when one is young, and healthy, and feels that one will never sicken, or weaken, or worse, “I want – I hope – that you will find someone else, who will love you as much as I do.”

 

Feeling Terry’s muscular arm covering her, his warm breath against her neck as he lay sleeping, spooned against her, Sophy knew she’d found that someone.

 

I could stay here, she mused, dreamily. Fly back and forth to and from work.

 

No, that couldn’t be. Taylor needed to grow up in the Real World. And she wanted to be with Taylor.

 

I could split myself, she considered. No, too exhausting. She wasn’t sure if she could continue the division for five more nights, until the full moon. Even during that awful May when her college and WIT exams occurred at the same time, she’d only split for three days. And that was over fifteen years ago. Time marches on and takes its toll, even for witches. No, her visits to Terry and the magic of the Point would have to be occasional, snatched from random weekends, or when Taylor went to summer camp, or visited her grandparents, or aunties.

 

Well, maybe I could split myself for a night, once a week. Then the half at home would have a good night’s sleep, and the half here – she smiled – would have no sleep, but a good night.

 

“I see you smiling,” came the smoky baritone behind her. Sophy rolled on her back. Terry raised himself on his arms above her.

 

“No, you don’t have to fix your hair.” Terry took Sophy’s hand, which she was using to straighten out her bed head, and kissed it. “Good morning.”

 

“It certainly is,” she agreed, admiring the view. She touched her face, smiling. “We never did take that bath – I didn’t even wash off my make-up. I bet my mascara’s under my eyes. I must look like a raccoon.”

 

“You do – but a cute raccoon. A noisy raccoon,” he added wickedly.

 

Sophy had continued to call his name and cry out after he’d carried her to the futon and continued his lovemaking.

 

“Well, what do you expect? I am a lawyer. You weren’t exactly on a stealth mission yourself, Major Thorne. You know, your accent gets really thick when you’re -”

 

Terry interrupted the chat, which was getting him aroused, with another kiss. “We have to get up – we promised Arthur we’d sing with him.”

 

Sophy was impressed to see the number of residents and visitors attending the service. She’d been told Cort was a good preacher; brief and to the point. He certainly was the best looking minister she’d ever worshipped with.

 

“Cherie.” Sophy jumped at the voice, behind her and Terry. Whew, that was close, thought Terry. He’d only taken his hand off Sophy’s for a moment to pick up a hymn book.

 

“I’m sorry,” said Tawny. “Sid does his best to alienate every visitor to the Point. Deep down, he truly is a wonderful man.”

 

Sophy smiled politely; she didn’t want to antagonize the other woman.

 

Please keep him away, she thought. Tawny’s face registered no change of expression. Sophy assumed her attempt at mind to mind transmission hadn’t worked; she must be too weak. I’m only half the woman I used to be, she mused.

 

Johnny waved to Terry. “Mate, we’ve saved you some seats.” Dom, Jack, Arthur and Savannah were in the row, as were Stef and, wonder of wonders, Hando. In front of the empty seats were Andy and Jenn, Jeff and Rick, Lisa and Lachlan, Colin and Chelle, East and Kath and NJ and Mannie.

 

“What did you say to them?” Terry whispered to Arthur.

 

“Just that our big Aussie brother needed some help.”

 

Hando overheard. We’re a gang, mate.”

 

“A mob,” Johnny added quietly.

 

Jack shot Terry a salute, which he returned, smartly, feeling a lump grow in his throat.

 

“Thanks, mates.”

 

Cort noticed the cluster of Australians and their ladies seated together in the middle of the chapel. He looked questioningly at Terry.

 

“We’re organizing a footy game, mate,” offered Jeff. “You Yanks, with your wimpy excuse for a ball game, you wouldn’t understand.”

 

Zack, walking in with Bugdog, overheard that. He turned to Bud in mock disgust. “This, from a country that plays cricket?”

 

The service took place without incident, including the singing of Amazing Grace and the Ave Maria. Arthur found the latter a little too high church for his liking, but he was impressed by how well Sophy and Anthony worked together as vocalist and accompaniment.

 

After lunch, Sophy discovered the Point was becoming a different place, an almost males-only enclave, as most of the ladies bade goodbye to their partners and left for the Real World.

 

“I’d stay if I could, and help out,” whispered Tawny to Sophy, giving her a reassuring hug. “I’ll be back Friday evening – if Sid bothers you, don’t worry, I’ll deal with him then.”

 

“Thanks.” Sophy hadn’t the heart to tell her that next Friday might be too late to stop Sid.

 

Terry saw Sophy’s forlorn expression and sought to cheer her up.

 

“How about that Japanese bath you promised me?”

 

“Oooh,” she responded, bowing. “Domo arigato gozaimasu. I thought you’d never ask.”

 

Terry answered the knock at the door. It was Jeff.

 

Rick followed his boyfriend. “I’ve never seen a Japanese bath,” he said shyly, explaining his presence.

 

“No worries. Thanks for coming, mate.” Terry responded to Rick and thanked his brother.

 

“Hey, thanks to you,” said Jeff. “Dripping faucets drive me crazy. Do you know how much the water loss costs the Point? Besides, it’s wasteful. I can replace the washer in two ticks; where’s the bath?”

 

After directing Rick and Jeff to remove their shoes, the four of them walked into the bathroom. They all barely fit in the tiny, stone- floored room. Kneeling, the plumber expertly removed the faucet above the wooden tub.

 

Curious, Rick glanced around. The room was spartan – a tiny wooden tub, a small three-legged bench. “So this is how the Japanese wash?” he questioned.

 

“First, you shower.” Sophy pointed to the shower head. “You scrub yourself completely, using lots of soap. And you must rinse thoroughly; bringing any soap into the bath water is considered very rude.”

 

“Then you climb in the tub and soak in the hottest water you’ve ever experienced in your life,” Terry added.

 

“You two fit in this?” Rick asked.

 

“It’s very deep,” Sophy pointed out. “And yes, we did. Terry climbed in first; I sat on his lap.”

 

“Done,” said Jeff, rocking back on his heels, away from the plumbing fixture. He wiped off his tools carefully and placed them back in his kit.

 

“Wow, that was fast,” said Sophy.

 

“Um, Jeff?” Rick motioned Mitchell over. He whispered in his ear.

 

“I don’t see why not,” said Jeff, out loud. He turned to Sophy.

 

“Could we borrow your bathroom, sometime; I mean, when you’re not using it, of course.”

 

Sophy was amused to see Mitchell and his boyfriend both blush.

 

“Sure.” She looked at Terry. “We can go back to your room tonight, right?”

 

Thorne nodded to Sophy and to the two men. “Sleep in a real bed, I’d like that.”

 

Sophy smiled at that last sentence. Jeff caught the gleam in her eye and started to laugh.

 

“Don’t let him dissuade you,” she told the plumber and his partner. “Futons are very comfortable. Especially when you have extra padding under you.” Giggling, she barely got that last part out.

 

It was after midnight when Jeff woke up. The floor in the “ryokan” was creaking. Someone other than he and Rick was in the room. As quietly as he could, Mitchell folded back the sheet. Rick shifted position, but did not wake. Jeff looked at his partner fondly. A road train could pass by you, love, he thought, you’d still sleep.

 

The intruder was behind the screen separating the room’s entranceway from the rest of the area. Jeff picked up an empty beer bottle and advanced stealthily towards the screen.

 

Surprise, he decided, would be to his benefit. He pushed the screen aside and snorted at the sight of the prowler. He lowered the beer bottle.

 

“Shit, Sid, you scared the hell out of me. What are you doing in here? And what is that you’re holding- a baton? Sorry, no symphony orchestra to direct, just me and Rick.”

 

Sid scowled and looked around the room as if he expected to find someone hiding in a corner.

 

“Borrowed it from Sophy. Have you ever taken a Japanese bath? Sophy and Terry said it was great. They were right.”

 

This information did nothing for Sid’s mood. The thought of Sophy curled up naked with the glorified insurance salesman was infuriating.

 

“Where are they?” he demanded.

 

“Terry’s room, I imagine.”

 

Sid stalked out. As soon as he left the environs, Terry looked for the room’s phone. Ah, there it was, next to the ikebana. He picked up the receiver and pressed the number for Terry’s room.

 

“Terry? Mate, sorry to wake you, but Sid just left here, clad in a purple silk kimono and a scowl. He’s headed your way.”

 

“Thanks, mate.” Terry stepped over to examine his window and door. The locks on both were secure. “Appreciate the warning.”Sophy watched him, groggy but anxious.

 

“What is it? Sid?” Guessing, she wrapped her arms around her chest nervously.

 

“Don’t be afraid, sweetheart.” Terry climbed back into bed and put his arms around her. He nuzzled her love-disheveled hair.

 

“It’s always scarier at night,” she admitted.

 

“But nighttime-” Terry was puzzled. “That’s the time of the supernatural. And you’re a witch, so-”

 

“So I know more about the supernatural than you do,” she advised him. “And I’m telling you, it’s very reasonable to be more scared at night.” She snuggled against him gratefully. “From what I remember of paranormal physics, which I aced, by the way, one’s nighttime biorhythms differ significantly from those of the day.”

 

“It works that way for humans, too,” acknowledged Terry.

 

“I am human,” Sophy reminded him emphatically.

 

“I know, I know, you just have these few little additional senses.”

 

“I won’t bore you with the biochemical details-” Sophy placed a finger gently on Terry’s lips to prevent a further interruption of her post midnight lecture, “but the result is that at this time of the 24 hour day, Sid can harness a greater measure of my power. That’s why witches practicing the dark arts – the practitioners who gave the rest of us an undeservedly bad reputation, I might add- waited until nightfall to perform their nefarious acts.”

 

The door jiggled. Sophy trembled.

 

“Go away, Sid.” Terry tried to sound bored. Still holding Sophy by the hand, he reached down to the floor and found a shoe, which he flung against the door.

 

Sid responded with a sound of revulsion. “Thorne, you are truly disappointing. I would have thought you would have chosen Allan Edmonds, or at least Johnston & Murphys, or Cole-Haans. Not some no- name shoe. Is that sole plastic?” Sophy heard him tap the lock. She reached for Terry; he stroked her back soothingly.

 

They both saw the flash of blue in the doorway. Terry pressed Sophy down onto the bed and covered her with his body, as if Sid were firing bullets.

 

“Damn. What’s this lock made of? Who cares?” The blue light flashed again, at the door hinges.

 

Terry watched as Sid took the door and shoved it sideways into the room.

 

“I think it’s time we ended this little charade,” remarked Sid, walking over to sit on the edge of the bed. He looked down at the Terry-clad Sophy. “I like what you’re wearing under the terry cloth. I can assure you, this silk-” he pointed to his kimono, ” is far more comfortable.”

 

“Sid.” Terry spoke up. “It’s bloody two a.m. Come back and bother us after breakfast.”

 

Sid giggled. “I will, Thorne. I will.” He stood up and walked back to the open doorway, then turned and blew a kiss. “For you, ma petite. Ah, what you are missing, what you could be enjoying right now, instead of the inept attempts of this uncultured – soldier.”

 

“I’ve always been fond of a man in uniform,” replied Sophy, trying to keep her voice even. Skin to skin, Terry could feel her still trembling. “Especially when he’s out of uniform.”

 

Sid made a face at this and walked away.

 

“Well,” observed the hostage negotiator, when he was sure Sid was out of hearing. “I guess I’m not surprised. We’ll have to find someplace a bit more secure.”

 

Part Eight

 

Colin studied the door hinges. “I can fix them, but the tools I’ll need are back at my repair shop.” Using a pair of pliers, he prized the metal pieces away.

 

Not wanting to upset Chelle with the apparent vandalism, and remembering what Sophy had said about seeking assistance from the pure in heart, Terry had sought out Arthur’s help. By the time Terry and Sophy walked over to the hotel kitchen for breakfast, Arthur was there, with Colin in tow. Arthur and Colin followed Terry and Sophy back to Terry’s room.

 

A few minutes later, Johnny arrived at the doorway, accompanied by East. Staring at the door, Ryan gave a low whistle. “It took a lot of strength to tear that heavy door off the hinges.” East nodded in silent agreement.

 

The horseman tipped his hat to Sophy. “You can stay out at my place as long as you like, Miss.”

 

“Thank you,” said Sophy to Terry’s three brothers.

 

Johnny looked at his boots. Clenching and unclenching his fists, he pumped up his courage to address her. “Miss, we’re sorry about this. Sid’s bothered every lady that’s visited here; of course, he’s gotten his-” Ryan grinned wickedly, “-remember when some of us strung him up naked?”

 

Colin giggled and tried to look innocent.

 

Johnny’s voice became very soft. “One day, I hope a lady will come to the Point for me.” Colin slapped him comfortingly on the back. “Maybe by then we’ll have beaten enough sense into his – what’s it called?”

 

“A character module,” prompted Sophy.

 

“Yeah. So, um, what I’m trying to say, Miss Lewis-”

 

“Sophy. Please call me Sophy, you’re aging me with that title.”

 

“Is we’ll do our best to make you want to return to the Point.”

 

Sophy impulsively walked over to Johnny and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He colored-

 

And Sid appeared, out of nowhere. East tried to block him. The wand flashed blue, and an unseen force knocked him to the floor.

 

East’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain; it gave Terry time to reach for Sophy. She held onto Terry’s hand while kneeling over the dazed man.

 

Sid was stunned. He hadn’t anticipated the force of the blow that would come from the spell he’d silently uttered.

 

“Go get Anthony,” she directed. Johnny dashed down the hall and out the door.

 

“You bastard,” she hissed at Sid. “You haven’t a clue as to what you’re dealing with. You just wait; I’m going to come back here and turn you into a Teletubbies program.”

 

“How is he?” Anthony walked out of the examining room in the infirmary and was met with this one question.

 

The doctor’s face was somber. “He’s got a mild concussion, which has aggravated his old injury.”

 

Chelle winced. “Can he talk?”

 

“Yes, but haltingly. I’ve given him some meds to prevent swelling and I’ll keep watch over him.”

 

The doctor changed the subject to the one Sophy knew would come up. “How did this happen?”

 

Sophy had never argued before the Supreme Court of the United States, but she had friends who had. They’d told her how difficult it was to be constantly peppered by questions from nine different listeners, to endure 18 eyes intently focused on oneself. That was nothing; not counting Terry, she had 42 eyes boring into her, 21 pairs of ears listening to her explanation.

 

“We have four more days of this? What if someone else is hurt?” The normally even-tempered John Biebe had been Sophy the third degree. “Why didn’t you leave your wand at home?”

 

“I told you; I couldn’t follow the map directions, magic was the only way I could get to the Point.”

 

“Mate,” Terry tried to intercede again. He’d been unsuccessfully trying to defend Sophy the balance of the hour, and had met with curt cut offs. “She’s not the one doing this.”

 

“Yes, but it’s her wand, isn’t it,” countered the Alaskan. “When I brought a weapon home, in Mystery, I took care to keep it out of the hands of my children. I didn’t leave a loaded weapon lying about.”

 

“It’s my fault,” spoke up voice in the back of the crowd. Andy came forward. “I met her at the doorway, that night, and asked her about her car. Suddenly, I saw her Z3; it hadn’t been in the driveway before. If I hadn’t asked, she wouldn’t have taken out her wand.”

 

“Andy-” Sophy protested. “That’s not right. Don’t take the blame for me. I should have put my wand away before I walked into the hotel.”

 

She looked directly at John. “You’re right, too. The Agency is always warning personnel to be careful with any weapons they bring home. I’ll pay for East’s medical expenses and the damage that’s been done to the hotel. And when all this is over, I won’t come back to the Point.”

 

“I have a better suggestion.” Arthur stood up. “Sophy’s not wreaking this havoc – Sid is. So why don’t we all put our heads together and figure out how we’ll get the wand away from him in four days? Then Terry can destroy the wand and we’ll be back to normal.”

 

“Or what passes for normal around here,” added Steve.

 

Arthur ignored the interruption. “I’ve read that before every movie, the Creator makes a point of getting to know all of the cast and getting them to bond together as a team. And look at how he supported the Rabbitohs – his favorite footy team- when they had that trouble with the league. Most of us are the products of the Creator. So working together as a team should be second nature for us.”

 

A few murmurs of assent were voiced within the crowd. Arthur continued.

 

“Hando – All your gang members didn’t always do everything you wanted them to do, right? But you stuck with them, took care of them. Maximus – if you hadn’t taught the slaves to fight together as a team, they would have been killed, one by one, in the arena. Bud – you hated Exley, right?”

 

Bud scowled, remembering what Exley had done to Lynn. “Yeah.”

 

“But you teamed with him to figure out who’d killed Stensland, Jack Vincennes, and Pierce Padgett. And that shootout – if you two hadn’t worked together, you both would have died.”

 

Arthur continued. “Jack – the plot of your film concerned the way the Australian Army dealt with the accused murderers of Australian soldiers in prison camps. That was certainly a film about teamwork. Colin – you and Midori worked really well as a team.”

 

Michelle gave Colin a hug.

 

“Steve, your character failed at romance because he avoided commitment with Monica; he kept running away from commitment. Jeff, you and your dad were a club of two, searching for love; pity poor Greg-”

 

“Gary,” Jeff joked.

 

“-who at first couldn’t deal with how much your dad was trying to help you.”

 

“Makes me cringe every time I watch that scene,” laughed Rick.

 

Arthur wasn’t finished yet. “In my film, my mates and I had a common purpose.” He blushed.

 

“What was that, Arthur?” teased Zack.

 

“Hush,” said Tina. “John, I hate to say it in front of the group, but you are being a little hard on Sophy. And look what you did for your team in Mystery – you accepted your dismissal from the Saturday game with very good grace, and then you agreed to coach.” She whispered something in Biebe’s ear. He smiled.

 

“All right. I’m convinced. Forgive me, Sophy?” The Alaskan had regained his usual good humor.

 

“You’re forgiving me, for being so negligent. Absolutely.”

 

Some of the Point residents stood up, as if to leave the meeting. Arthur motioned them to stay.

 

“Now, let’s brainstorm how we can keep Sophy safe for the next four days, and how we can find out where Sid keeps that wand.”

 

Sid was not prepared for what awaited him at dinner.

 

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Bud “accidentally” bumped into the cyberBoy at the dining room’s entrance.

 

“We’re here to keep you company while your ladies are away,” smiled John, placing a beefy arm around Sid’s shoulder.

 

“Barbecue tonight, mate,” added Hando, placing himself directly in front of Sid’s path. “A little overdressed for that. Here, let us take your jacket.” Hando flashed an open switchblade and held it to Sid’s stomach. It was a calculated risk – the skinhead knew Sid could be stabbed repeatedly without lasting harm. But he also knew Sid hated to mess up a suit by staining it with blue goo. The risk paid off. Biebe peeled Sid’s jacket off, and tossed it to Bud, who checked the pockets.

 

Sophy, watching the frisking that the Alaskan sheriff then conducted, spoke to Terry. “He could have shrunk it. It could be anywhere on his person.”

 

“Well, Johnny and Zack are tearing his room apart.” He smiled thinly. “Sid’s going to have this to go through every day for the next four days.”

 

“He could hide away.”

 

Terry nodded. “Let’s hope the egomaniac continues to think he’s smarter than the rest of us so we can continue our search.”

 

Sid snorted angrily at John as the latter handed him back his jacket. “Be careful with that – it’s Joseph Abboud, Tubby. Doesn’t come in `Husky’ sizes.” He composed himself before slithering over to Sophy’s and Terry’s table.

 

“I am sorry the events of today upset you so, cherie. I meant no harm.” He produced a bouquet of calla lilies. On bended knee, he offered them to her.

 

My favorite flower, realized Sophy. He must be digging into the wand’s memory. She thought of the six callas she’d conjured up last week to place in the Lalique vase on her office desk. Wisely, she folded her hands safely into her lap. The wand could be hidden within the flowers, a wasp with an eternal sting.

 

“I promise you – no more violence. There is no need.” Standing back up, Sid made a point of turning side to side to glower at the California detective and the Alaskan sheriff, who had positioned themselves next to him. “I wish you a pleasant dinner. Adara? Faribah? Parvati?” He smiled, as if savoring a private joke. Smoothing his Hermes silk tie, Sid then headed for a nearby table as Sophy turned pale.

 

“What’s wrong?” whispered Terry, seeing Sophy’s dismal visage. “What was that he called you?”

 

“He’s trying to guess my enchanted name. We give it to our babies in a special ceremony, similar to baptism. He just mentioned the three most common girl’s names. Thank goodness my parents wanted something a bit unusual for me.”

 

“And if he guesses it, that’s not good, I take it.”

 

Despondent, Sophy shook her head. “Pretty much. Game’s over, winner takes all.”

 

“Why would he be trying this now?”

 

“He’s figured out a way to hack into what you might as well call my wand’s application programs. He can see traces of recent spells I’ve cast – I just made myself some callas last week; that’s how he was able to produce them. Early last month, I went to a baby-naming ceremony.”

 

Terry gave a low whistle. “Is there a list of names he can review?”

 

“Oh, yeah. Not in the wand, but one can find all sorts of stuff on the Internet.”

 

“But the Net is so massive.”

 

“For you, and for me, yes. But remember, Sid can process a massive amount of data in lightning speed. All he has to do now is follow me around for the next few days, reciting names. He doesn’t even need to carry the wand. He says my name, and -” she exhaled deeply “- that’s pretty much it.”

 

After checking on East at the infirmary – the horseman was starting to talk again, to the couple’s relief – Terry and Sophy walked in the moonlight up to his house. The moon was not so full that its light hid the stars. Sophy looked up, admiring the twinkling points of light.

 

“That’s the Southern Cross.” Terry directed her attention to a constellation.

 

“Beautiful. In what part of Australia did you grow up?”

 

Terry strained to retrieve some memories; anything, no matter how vague.

 

“I went to a private boys’ school in Sydney; that’s where I got in trouble when I brought a frog to choir practice,” he reminded her, smiling. “I think my family lived in a small town to the west of the city, but I’m not sure.”

 

He walked for a moment in silence, Sophy sympathetically watched emotion play over his face as he searched to find his past.

 

“I remember being very little, maybe four or five, kicking a football – you would call it a soccer ball- with a young man.”

 

“Your father, do you think?”

 

“No. Watch out for that gully in the pathway, the rain must have washed it out a bit. He was too young for that. My – my brother,” he said in astonishment. “I had a brother.”

 

“Had?” Sophy wondered at his use of the past tense.

 

“Yes,” replied Terry slowly. “Edward; we called him Ned. He was wearing his uniform. He died in Vietnam.”

 

“I’m sorry.” Sophy tried to console him. “I try to help you remember, and I help you pull up sad memories.”

 

“No worries,” responded Terry. “Ned was like a hero to me. After he died, I decided I’d go into the service too.”

 

“How did your parents feel about that?”

 

How beautiful it was out here, and serene. No wonder East and Mannie preferred the countryside to the hustle and bustle of the hotel.

 

Terry pondered again. “Dad had been wounded in Korea, so he was proud of Ned, though sad to lose him. He was proud of me too. I remember him watching me parade, after I’d passed what you’d call boot camp. He used to fly to the UK to see me at Christmas, if I couldn’t get enough leave to go home.” Terry smiled, recalling his dad holding little Harry at the baby’s christening.

 

“And your mom?”

 

Terry grew wistful. “Died, not long after Ned. Caught a cold and didn’t take care of it. The cold turned into pneumonia. She went into hospital, but she faded away.”

 

“Oh, Terry-” In the dim light, Sophy could see the former soldier relieving his memories. She wrapped her arms around him in a gentle hug. He kissed her forehead.

 

“Perhaps that’s why I haven’t had much long-term success with the ladies,” he ventured. “Didn’t see much of my Dad’s marriage with Mum. I think I recall Dad going on a few dates, when I was eight or nine, during my holiday recess. But nothing ever came of them. He loved her; she was the only one for him.”

 

They had arrived at East’s house. Unlocking the door, Terry led the way in, his senses heightened to detect anyone lurking within. A field mouse scuttled across the floor in the corner, making Sophy yelp in surprise, but that was the only other creature within.

 

Satisfied that they were as safe as they were going to be for the next four days, Terry checked the windows and locked the door.

 

“Now,” he murmured softly, taking Sophy in an embrace and tilting her head up for a kiss. “Could we make me some more memories?”

 

Part Nine

 

Rising the next morning, Sophy wrapped a sheet about herself, toga- style. She looked in the little icebox in the corner that served as East’s kitchen. How thoughtful – East had stocked the cooler with a vase of red roses labeled “for Sophy – who’s made my brother so happy,” in addition to the eggs, bacon, butter, and milk. She prayed he would make a full recovery from his injury.

 

Terry crept up behind her to kiss her neck as she was cutting butter into a bowl of flour.

 

“Oh.” She stopped the food preparation. “That is soooo distracting. Hmm. Yes, right there.” She pointed to the top of her backbone. Terry obediently continued to nuzzle there. His hands reached around her to cup her breasts.

 

“You just think I’m going to make you stop so I can fix these biscuits,” she cooed, closing her eyes so she could concentrate on the delicious sensation.

 

Terry chucked and licked behind her ear. Sophy backed up against him.

 

“Ummm. Well, I know what I’m having for breakfast,” she breathed, enjoying Terry pulling her back towards the bed.

 

The sound of Sid knocking on the window broke the mood. Both lovers swore.

 

Sid smiled and waved at them through the glass, then held up a piece of paper. Terry, whose eyesight was perfect, realized what was written on it. Hurriedly, he placed a hand over Sophy’s eyes. “Don’t look! He’s written names on the page!”

 

Terry watched as Sid removed the page from the window and started to read it. Sid’s voice didn’t penetrate the window or the thick stone walls of East’s house.

 

“If he reads your name and you don’t hear it, is that effective?”

 

“No. But I can hear him.” Anat, Devaki, Diona, Ela, Elaheh, Indumah, Laila, Mireli, Pari, Sanura, Vlasta.

 

She hears as well as a cat, Terry thought, looking about the room in desperation for something to drown out the sound. The victrola!

 

Keeping his hand over her face, Terry propelled Sophy towards the old record player. Frantically, he started to wind the instrument.

 

“Hello My Ragtime Gal” tinnily filled the room. Sophy shot Terry a thumb’s up.

 

After the events of the morning, the hostage negotiator considered his strategy for the remaining three days. He was confident East’s dwelling was physically secure. Johnny, Arthur, Dom, Tina and Annabella were bringing food to the house. Zack, Bud, and John were tailing Sid, while Andy, Colin, Chelle, and Maximus were searching for the wand.

 

He turned to Sophy, who was snickering, focused on a laptop screen.

 

“What is so funny?”

 

“Nothing,” she replied, trying to smother a grin. Terry noticed Sophy quickly pulled open another program. Whatever she was previously viewing was on Yahoo.

 

Shrugging, Terry broached a thought he’d been mulling over in his mind. “You said that if Sid spoke your magical name, there was almost nothing you could do to escape his control.”

 

“Almost nothing,” she agreed. She’d opened that Yahoo screen again.

 

Terry caught the word `vampires’ before she hid it again. The K & R consultant rubbed his neck. He’d ask her about that later, when all this mess was behind them.

 

“What do you mean by `almost’?

 

He was grasping at straws. Tina hadfashioned a shade for the window, and Bud, thank goodness, had loaned them some jazz cds to listen to – listening to “Hello My Ragtime Gal” all afternoon had been a new form of torture. Thorne was sadly confident that his cyber sibling would invent a new way to disclose Sophy’s magical name. He wanted to develop a defense against it.

 

“If I change shape before he finishes saying it, he won’t have permanent physical control over me. Unfortunately, I’ll be stuck in that shape until my wand is destroyed.”

 

Terry pursed his lips in thought. “What if you change shape before you’ve shape shifted me?”

 

“That’s a problem. Hmm. I hadn’t thought about that. Well, thank you, Mr. Hostage Rescuer.” She rested her chin in her hand, thinking, then looked up.

 

“How’d you like to practice shape shifting this afternoon? Just in case.” She patted his cheek reassuringly, then reached for the paper and pencil Terry was using to write some strategy notes.

 

“Pronounce these words as if they were Latin. Be careful with your “a’s” – if they sound too much like “i’s” you’ll turn into a toad. Then we’ll have to find a princess to kiss you in order to break the spell.”

 

Cautiously, the Australian began to speak the words of the spell, enunciating with his best BBC imitation.

 

Nothing happened. He was still seated on the chair, looking at the Agency lawyer. The growl emanating from his throat when he tried to speak startled him. He looked around. In amazement, he viewed a glossy black fur coat covering a sleek feline body.

 

Sophy looked into his eyes. “Excellent. Let’s hear you purr.” She ran her fingers through the hair on his head. Terry could feel a rumble coming from his chest.

 

“All right. You won’t have to do anything to reverse the spell if you destroy the wand; you’ll change back automatically. But if you shape change in any other instance, the antidote is easy – just speak the words of the spell backwards.” This Sophy did. Terry could hear the “ah” sounds clearly.

 

“Do I tease you about how you drag out the vowel “i”? he grumbled, looking at his hands and running them across his face. To his relief, he felt only a day’s growth of beard, no feline vibrissae.

 

“Do you want to try it again?”

 

“No.” Terry felt queasy remembering the sight of a black paw where his loafer-clad foot should have been. “I’ll be sure to memorize the spell – and take care with my vowels. The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. How’s that?”

 


 

“That smells great – I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.” John raised the corner of the picnic basket containing the pair of roasted Cornish hens, sharp Cheddar, chocolate cake, strawberries and crème chantilly. Earlier that evening, Tina had suggested they bring Terry and Sophy a special supper. With the strain they must be under, Tina felt the two needed some `comfort’ food. In a separate container, Tina brought two bottles of pinot noir and a crusty loaf of bread.

 

“Get your fingers out of there!” Tina scolded the Alaskan sheriff. “Don’t worry, Teddy Bear; there are more strawberries back in the kitchen. You can have some after we return. If-” Biebe’s fiancée paused. John took the bait.

 

“If what?”

 

“If you promise to be a good boy, later tonight.”

 

At the door, John dialed on his cell phone. “We’re here. No sign of Sid.”

 

Terry cracked open the door to view his visitors. John saw that his Australian brother had placed a chain on the inside of the door, so that it could not be shoved open.

 

“Come on in, mate, Tina. Thanks; we appreciate this.”

 

Tina looked around the room. “Where’s Sophy?” Absentmindedly, she bent down to scratch the head of the small brown tabby brushing up against her leg.

 

“Hiding,” explained Terry. “Just to be on the safe side.”

 

“Poor thing,” sympathized Tina. “Sophy, you can come out now, it’s just us. I’d really like to see you, little one.” She started to unpack the contents of the picnic basket.

 

John gasped as the tabby by Tina’s feet transformed. “That’s – that’s quite a disguise – Tina, look behind you.” It was Sophy, clad in TOFOG tee-shirt and a pair of athletic shorts.

 

Tina smiled. “Amazing. I should have known.” She reached back into the basket for one more item. The wand.

 

The pitch of Tina’s voice dropped to a baritone, and she giggled. “But not as good as mine, cherie.”

 

Sophy gulped and momentarily froze in shock as `Tina’ morphed into Sid.

 

“Little elf, with the beautiful eyes; that’s what your name means, right?” He didn’t wait for her answer, but started to speak again.

 

“Siofra- Oh, damn. Why did you have to go and do that, my dear?” He picked up the cat and stroked it. The animal hissed and extended its claws.

 

“Ah ah ah – I’ve already thought of that.” Sid placed the tabby into the now-empty basket.” He turned to his stunned brothers.

 

“Siofra Indrakshi and I will be leaving you now. Enjoy the meal, Thorne, if Tubby doesn’t hog it down first. I selected the wine myself. I think you have enough of a palate to appreciate it.” He headed for the door.

 

“Oh, by the way, Sheriff, not to worry, Tina’s locked in the pantry; here’s the key.”

 

It was a glum group who watched Sid walk into the hotel at breakfast, although they felt a small measure of satisfaction at the sight of the tear in his jacket lapel. Surely that tear was the fault of the claws of the leashed and collared cat he carried.

 

Ignoring the stares – or perhaps relishing them, Sid waved to Annabella, who was offering a plate of just-baked blueberry muffins to Arthur and Johnny.

 

“Coffee, please. Tanzania Kilimanjaro, none of that robusta swill. And my companion will have milk, and a bit of roast chicken.”

 

“Get it yourself, Sid,” Annabella shot back, and turned away from the cyber sibling.

 

Sid made a small, discontented noise in the back of this throat. “Hired help,” he muttered, taking the wand out of his inside jacket pocket. The cat yowled. Annabella turned to see what the matter was with the animal – just in time to duck as the muffin plate rose in the air and flung itself in her direction. She ducked. The plate shattered on the floor.

 

“Chelle, I’m so sorry; I didn’t mean for the hotel’s property to hit the floor,” Sid cooed.

 

With a delicate flick of his wrist, he waved the wand again. The shattered pieces of porcelain rose and reunited into plate form, then sailed, Frisbee®-like, onto the Vancouverite’s table. Picking up the plate, Chelle examined it. It bore no signs of damage. She considered breaking it over Sid’s head; perhaps a fruitless action, but momentarily satisfying. Colin, reading his fiancée’s mind, held her wrist as she stood up.

 

“Don’t blame you a bit, love,” he whispered. “But I don’t want him waving that thing at you.”

 

At the next table over, Terry was indulging in a fantasy involving Sid’s neck and Maximus’s gladius. The General, seeing the fury in the fellow soldier’s face, murmured in his ear.

 

“He is trying to tempt you into some foolish action – do you not see? The keys to success are patience and planning. I know you are skilled in both.”

 

Terry pushed away his breakfast, uneaten. “I have to go out for a smoke,” he muttered. “Thanks, Max, for that vote of confidence.”

 

The K & R negotiator couldn’t resist scratching the tabby behind the ears on his way out. To Sid’s irritation, the cat responded with a stretch and a purr.

 

Lost in thought, Terry didn’t watch where he was going.

 

“Oh, I’m so sorry, NJ.” He apologized for bumping into the woman. NJ’s reply was lost in a sneeze.

 

Mannie spoke up for her. “We thought we’d have breakfast, then see Anthony.”

 

“It’s nothing,” she protested, taking Mannie’s proffered handkerchief. “Just some virus. Anthony will give me some acetaminophen and send me to Annabella for some chicken soup.”

 

Poor woman, Terry thought. She looked really miserable, eyes watery, nose red. Too bad she couldn’t infect Sid.

 

Infect Sid. Terry started to laugh.

 

Hours after he broached his request to them, Arthur and Bugdog were e- mailing each other, cross-checking their work. Now only one more piece needed completion. Terry knew just the man for the job.

 

The bloke was where the hostage negotiator thought he’d find him, in front of the Tavern’s big screen tv. A horse race was on the screen; Terry’s quarry was on the phone.

 

“Yeah, fifty, no make that seventy-five dollars on Shogun Lodge in the sixth. And two on Courvoisier to show.”

 

The K & R negotiator waited for his nattily-dressed younger brother to finish his conversation with his bookie.

 

“Thorne,” grinned Kim Barry. “Care to place a little bet, say, fifty? As to which horse will place? The race is at Warwick Farm, the track is dry; length is 1600 meters.”

 

“Who’s running?”

 

“You heard the two I mentioned. The odds on Viscount are 11-4, on Make Mine Magic are 9-1. If you want a long shot, there’s Mr. Bureaucrat at 40-1. Magic and Mr. Bureaucrat are carrying 58 kilos of weight, the others only 48.5. ”

 

Terry didn’t recognize the horses’ names or the track. Must be Australian, around Sydney, he suspected. Nevertheless, he withdrew his wallet and counted out some bills. He hoped he’d lose – Kim might be more amenable to the favor he intended to ask.

 

“Magic, please.” The horse’s name appealed to him.

 

Kim grinned. Terry hoped his brother had some inside information. “Buy you a beer?”

 

“Sure,” replied the younger man. Terry reached behind the bar for two VBs.

 

“Cute sheila you had at church.” Kim broached the subject of Sophy after taking a long pull on his beer. “She have any younger sisters?”

 

“Sorry, mate, no. But I understand she has a red-haired cousin, Sabrina, in her late twenties.”

 

Kim’s eyes sparkled at this information. He gave Terry a comradely elbow in the ribs. “I wouldn’t ask the other Aussie brothers, you understand. Good lads, but, you know.”

 

Terry shook his head.

 

“What sort of sheilas would a dishwasher, a failed auto mechanic, a plumber, or a skinhead from Footscray introduce me to? Oh, I suppose they’d be good for a root or two, but I’d prefer one from our class.”

Thorne tried not to make a face at this blatant snobbery.

 

“And it’s Courvoisier and Shogun Lodge neck and neck at the turn, with Make Mine Magic charging down the outside trying to draw up to the leaders.”

 

The commentary provided a welcome distraction from the conversation. The brothers paused to listen. “Shogun Lodge is making his move; he’s attempting to cut Magic out; wait, Magic’s turned on the afterburner – what speed! He’s neck and neck with the bay, coming up to the final 100 meters-”

 

“Good God,” Kim swore. “I think Lyndhurst is got itself another winner.”

 

“-a photo finish; we’ll have to await the results, after this message from our sponsors.”

 

Terry figured he had two minute’s worth of car and shaving cream commercials to persuade Kim to help him out.

 

“I’m sure Sophy would be glad to put in a good word about you to Sabrina, but she’s in a bit of a jam.”

 

“How’s that?” Kim generally kept to himself. He thought Sophy had returned to the Real World on Sunday, like most of the other women.

 

“Bit of trouble with Sid.” Thorne was pleased to see a flash of displeasure cross Barry’s face.

 

“Don’t know what Lady sees in him,” he muttered, enviously. “Those silly green and purple suits. I have twice his fashion sense, and my ancestors weren’t murderers, rapists, and thieves. I don’t think the Creator has any convicts in his background, either,” he simpered.

 

“-and it’s Make Mine Magic by a nose, with Shogun Lodge in second and Courvoisier in third.”

 

“Keep it, mate,” Terry shrugged, as Kim tried to hand him his winnings. “You’ll need it. Sophy told me all the women in her family have a weakness for men who give them flowers.” Relieved to see Kim’s good mood unshaken, Terry continued.

 

“How’d you like to put Sid out of commission for a bit? Would give you a chance to make time with Lady?”

 

Kim was all smiles and ears. Good. The snare had worked.

 

“Here’s all you need to do.”

 

Because his character module was composed of a number of disreputable personalities, Sid’s moods varied according to which sociopath was ascendant. At the moment, an amiable politician with a penchant for forcing himself upon nubile staff members dominated Sid’s temperament. Perhaps charm would persuade the tabby curled up on one of his bed pillows to change herself back into a woman. He’d had no success with the spells he’d cast all afternoon in his yacht’s cabin.

 

Sid sprawled on his stomach, facing the cat. She turned around and raised a leg to wash.

 

“Aren’t you tired of this?” he wheedled. “I thought cats loved to play. I want to play.” He reached over to pat the animal. A dainty paw shot out and pressed against his hand. The claws extended in warning.

 

Perhaps a bit of catnip. “Look what I bought you, cherie.” Until she saw the produce deliveryman hand Sid sprigs of the mint-like plant, Annabella wondered why the cyber brother loitered around the Point’s loading dock this morning. Sid waved a sprig under the cat’s pink nose. She sneezed. Just his luck – she was allergic to the feline intoxicant.

 

“Change back to yourself and I’ll give you champagne. Veuve Cliquot. Your favorite.”

 

The tabby yawned. The whiff of the grey-green herb and the gentle rocking of Sid’s yacht in its slip made her sleepy. Sophy closed her eyes and started to drift off. Thinking of Terry, she began to purr.

 

Mistaking this sound as a shift in his fortunes, Sid pondered changing himself into a tom. A knock outside interrupted this reverie. He padded barefoot up the steps and slid open the wooden hatch.

 

Sid eyed Kim Barry suspiciously. The young Australian was holding a laptop under his arm.

 

“That’s a beautiful shirt. Silk twill?” As Sid nodded, his brother began to step down the teak gangway.

 

Kim gestured to the laptop. “I need a favor. I’m trying to download the Turnbull & Asser catalog and receiving the error message that I don’t have the required software; yet Windows Explorer lists this code.”

 

“Probably the file is corrupt. You just need to uninstall it and reload it.” Sid walked back up the gangway; he really didn’t feel like playing help desk, even though it was flattering that Barry had requested his assistance.

 

Kim turned as if to exit. “Guess I’ll have to wait for Bugdog; she e- mailed Chelle to say she’d be here this weekend. I was hoping to order these sex toys before the new visitors arrive.”

 

His curiosity piqued, Sid seized the laptop. “Won’t take a minute.” He powered on the machine. “If you want, I’ll download the data to myself and check it out – for bugs, of course, then load it onto your hard drive.”

 

Kim shrugged. “Whatever. You’re the expert.” He watched as Sid placed a well-manicured fingertip, so like his own, over the USB port. What a difference from the work-roughened hands of Colin. Kim was convinced he smelled motor oil whenever the mechanic passed by.

 

Sid’s eyes began to flutter as the site server downloaded the data to him. They continued to flutter as he received the tiny virus Bugdog and Arthur had written.

 

Arthur admired the sun setting over the Alaskan firs at the edge of the Point’s property. Terry fidgeted beside him.

 

Other rescue missions had been so much easier. Thorne could fend off tension by checking and rechecking equipment and reviewing operations plans with the other members of his teams. He had no time to worry when travelling to the rescue site or drop zone via chopper, low-flying plane or rebreathing scuba gear. He certainly never had had to worry about the operation going wrong and ending up as a toad.

 

The Welshman consulted his watch. “The sun will set in exactly twelve minutes. The code Bugdog and I wrote will worm into Sid’s operating system precisely ten minutes after sunset and shut him down for fifteen minutes. Sorry we didn’t give you more time, but the risk was too great that Sid would have detected a program having a longer impact. You should have enough time to enter the yacht, find the wand -with Sophy’s help, of course- and steal it away. Even if your pace is only that of a man, it should only take you seven minutes to run from the yacht to the ocean.”

 

Terry nodded, grateful for the Welshman’s obsessive attention to detail. He understood from Maximus that yesterday, the young man had been using surveyor’s tools to measure off the distances.

 

“Are you hungry? You should eat some dinner before you go.” Arthur produced a brown paper bag and opened it up for the hostage negotiator. “Annabella thought you would like this.”

 

Terry looked at the steak and Brie on the wholemeal roll. Arthur waved the VB at him.

 

“No, thanks,” Thorne responded quietly. “All the missions I’ve participated in; I’ve never once been able to eat before I go.”

 

“How about the chocolate chip cookies?”

 

“No, mate. You can have them, if you like. Please do. And do me a favor – thank Annabella and tell her it was delicious. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

 

Arthur launched his mouth at the sandwich ravenously. Wistfully, he wished he’d thought to pack a cream soda in the bag as well.

 

They watched as the last rays of the sun sunk behind the Twelve Apostles. Terry wished he could skip the next forty-four minutes and be at that point in time after the wand had been retrieved and sunk into the waves.

 

“It’s time. Remember, pronounce your vowels clearly.” Arthur choked up, and tried to laugh it off with a joke. “Savannah is a princess, but that- that doesn’t mean I want her to kiss a toad.”

 

Terry took a deep breath and started to speak. He felt no difference, but he could tell from the change in Arthur’s expression that it had happened. As silently as only a feline can, the panther bounded across the lawn towards Sid’s slip.

 

Chelle and Colin, walking arm and arm towards the tavern, saw the dark shape in the new night.

 

“I really need that drink,” she told him. “Now.”

 

The panther, its golden eyes glowing in the moonlight, bounded easily from the pier onto the boat’s teak deck.

 

The hatch slid silently open, pressed ajar by a small brown tabby that huddled itself into a ball as Terry entered.

 

Sid, still dysfunctional from the virus, sprawled across the bed, clad in his purple silk kimono. The tip of the wand, glowing a pale blue, revealed its location, half hidden in the pocket of his jacket, which hung on the back of a chair.

 

Terry reached up to take the wand in his teeth. The wand, sensing it was being stolen from its owner, started to whine – a sound akin to a distant siren, coming closer, closer. Louder.

 

Terry didn’t wait for the increase in decibel level. He bounded up the stairs leading back to the hatch, the cat following.

 

Whatever you do, don’t drop the wand until you can place it in running water – Terry recalled Leslie’s and Sophy’s direction to him.

 

The wand began to play tricks – had Sid programmed it to engage in self-protective behavior? It wriggled. A taipan! If it bit him in his changed shape, would he live? Thorne felt intense pain as the snake sunk its fangs deeply into his muzzle. He vowed to continue on.

 

The snake stiffened back into the wooden stick it truly was. Acrid smoke stung his eyes. His face felt hot. The wand was on fire- he could smell his fur burning. Terry strove to ignore the pain. He pressed on towards the ocean.

 

Far behind the panther, the small tabby ran as quickly as its shorter limbs would permit.

 

Further behind, in the yacht, Sid awoke. Seeing the open hatch, he swore and bounded out. He saw the tabby’s tail as the feline exited onto the moonlit lawn. As long as he could see her, he could stop her.

 

Sophy heard Sid shouting. “Come back! You – must- come -back!”

 

Even though he no longer possessed total control over her, having lost physical possession of the wand, she felt her legs grow heavy.

 

She continued to run, but slower, slower. Can’t be caught. Mustn’t be caught. Whimpering, she changed course, heading for the Tavern. She jumped awkwardly from the lawn to the edge of the building’s slate roof. She hung there, for a moment, almost too weak to pull herself up the rest of the way. Her lower body was numb, as numb as it had been when she’d received an epidural in childbirth. Below, she could hear Sid, positioning himself, waiting for her to fall.

 

No. That would make all of Terry’s effort in vain.

 

Sophy inhaled and pressed her arms against the roof, flinging her hips forward. Wholly on the slate surface now, she used her remaining strength to drag herself up by several slates. There she rested and panted.

 

She permitted herself to look down. Sid had vanished. Success? No. She recalled the ladder the painting crew had used the day before. Sid had surely recalled it too. It was only a matter of time before he reappeared with it, and climbed up to the roof.

 

It wouldn’t matter -if by that time, Terry had tossed the wand into the surf.

 

Terry thought his lungs would burst. Silently, he thanked Maximus for the grueling daily exercise regimen he’d forced Terry through.

 

The wand was again wriggling in his mouth, as if it were a living thing, struggling to free itself. He clamped his jaws down harder upon it.

 

The moon had set, but the stars gave him sufficient light. He could hear the repetitive sound of the sea, not far ahead.

 

His nose itched. He had to sneeze – no! This was a trick, the wand’s final attempt – he could see the water now, phosphorescent. I’ll sneeze the bloody thing into the water, he swore. Anything to keep from dropping it, now that he was so close.

 

“Choooo!” He dropped it, on the sand. Oh no.

 

It rolled. A wavelet reached out from the surf, to wash against it.

 

The light of the wand winked out. Terry collapsed in the sand.

 

Had anyone been strolling by the Twelve Apostles in the moonlight, they would have seen a jet black panther turn into a man.

 

Sid, reaching for the limply hissing cat, found himself touching a weary Sophy.

 

“You lose,” she spat, as she felt her strength returning. “Go away.”

 

Part Ten – Epilogue

 

Watching the sun set, they embraced, grateful that the events of the previous night were only memories.

 

“How is it that the fire from the wand burned me, but I didn’t die from the taipan’s venom?”

 

Sophy kissed Terry’s cheek gently, careful not to rub the reddened skin. He’d have to wait another week before he could shave again.

 

Already the hostage negotiator’s stubble was as long as Hando’s. Sophy thought the hint of beard made Terry even sexier (if such a thing were possible); the former soldier, used to a lifetime of daily confrontation with a razor, felt as if he were out of uniform.

 

Nestling contentedly in his arms, she answered him. “Fire is fire. No matter where one is- Real World or the Point, it burns. But concerning the snake bite-” she shook her head. “I can’t take credit for that. I think you survived because the Point is a magical place. You and your brothers can’t age here, or, I guess, die.”

 

“That makes sense,” said Terry, slowly. “All the falls Colin has taken; Bud is forever punching one of us or getting punched himself -with no long-term ill effects; East suffers a concussion and almost immediately recovers. We don’t stick the wounded part into glass to heal, like Sid, but-”

 

“Please,” groaned Sophy, “don’t mention that name to me.”

 

Terry kissed away her frown. He thought he’d surprise her concerning the modification Arthur was writing to the virus they’d used against Sid. All one would have to do is clap in Sid’s hearing to reactivate the code.

 

“Will I see you again this weekend?”

 

He knew what her answer would be, but he hoped it would change.

 

“Oh, honey, I’ll be back for Tina’s and John’s wedding – that’s the week after next.” They kissed again. It was a kiss good enough to last them through the next two weeks.

 

“But I’ll be back. Oh, yes, I’ll be back. And this time, I promise, without the wand.”