EPISODE #2009-8

The entire time that she was bullying Steven into getting her Carl's e-mail, the entire time that she was sifting through it note by note, searching for clues to his intentions, Rachel had never stopped to consider what she would do once she actually had the information in her hands. 

Well, now that time was here.  Now she knew that tomorrow morning Carl would be flying out to Canada.  She knew that he had rented a car there that he planned to drive to an unspecified destination for an indefinite period of time. 

What she did not know was how she should react to her discovery. 

Rachel considered her options for over an hour.  She could confront her husband, here and now, demand to know what was going on and what he knew about Felicia, Jenna and Dean.  But, if she took that tack, how could Rachel be certain that Carl was telling her the truth?  And what if her challenging him too early somehow kept her friends from being found? 

She supposed she could contact the Bay City or even the local Canadian police.  (Though what she would tell them, Rachel wasn't exactly certain.  "My husband has rented a car without telling me, please arrest him," seemed rather flimsy evidence pointing to a crime about to be committed.) 

Finally, Rachel decided to call Cass and Lila.  It was their prodding that had driven her to this illicit snooping.  They might as well get an update on her progress. 

She reached Cass at the office and told him what she'd found out. 

"That's fabulous!" Cass cheered.  "Rachel, we can't thank you enough.  I'll call Lila and we'll hop on the next plane to Canada.  With any luck, Carl will lead us straight to Felicia!" 

"No," Rachel said.  Speaking quickly, before Cass had a chance to protest.  "Carl is my husband.  I need to be the one to handle this." 

"Are you sure?" Cass asked cautiously.  "We don't know what he's up to.  It could be..." 

"Dangerous?" Rachel attempted a laugh, but it come out sounding more like a sob.  "I realize that." 

"I'd hate to put you in such a position." 

"You mean one where my husband might be tempted to kill me?" 

"No!  No, of course not.  Nothing like that.  I just meant... " 

"What?  What did you mean, Cass?  What else could you have possibly meant but that?" Rachel heard the rising hysteria in her voice and struggled to squelch it.  She could do this.  She had to do this.  She had no choice in the matter.  Ultimately, this had to be her battle, and no one else's. 

Cass pleaded, "Just be careful, Rachel.  We don't know what you might be walking into." 

"No," she agreed.  "But I do think it's high time I found out once and for all." 

"Okay," Allie demanded.  "You've kept me in suspense long enough, don't you think?" 

She'd come up poolside, kneeling on her knees by the edge, watching Sarah, dressed in a crimson one-piece bathing suit, swim brisk, methodical, back-stroke laps through the cobalt water.  Allie had to shout in order for her voice to register below the chlorinated waves. 

Sarah opened her eyes to indicate she'd heard, then closed them again, completing one more lap before she swam over to Allie's perch.  She held on to the side, treading water and squinting up at her cousin in response to the glaring sunlight. 

"I wasn't keeping you in suspense," Sarah insisted.  "I just needed a little more time to think the details through." 

"You said you knew how to fix things between GQ and me." 

Sarah pressed both her palms into the concrete around the pool and lifted herself up, water dripping off her hair.  She plopped down next to Allie and said, "Here's the thing: Any girl can get any guy, as long as she's willing to become exactly the girl that he wants.  Man of your dreams is into sports?  You get into sports.  Man of your dreams loves music?  Hey, suddenly you're all about those rhythms.  He wants a Southern belle, you start drawling and batting your eyelashes.  He likes being dominated, you get out your whip.  Piece of cake.  The only trick is figuring out what a guy really wants, rather than what he says he wants — because most of the time, they don't know their own minds.  Well, they think they do, but they don't.  It's up to you to get it straight.  Once you've zeroed in on that, though, it's smooth sailing the rest of the way." 

Allie stared at Sarah, mouth open, unsure of where to start.  "Okay.  Two things.  First, where does your real personality end up fitting into all that phony sports-loving and eyelash-batting?" 

"Who cares?  You want to be yourself, or you want to land the guy you've set your sights on?  Let's face it, how impressive can your 'real' personality be if it prompts the man of your dreams to run in the opposite direction?" 

They'd been friends for over a decade, and this was the first time Allie had heard this philosophy of Sarah's.  She was having a very hard time believing it.  "So you're saying that the way to get the man you want is to pretend to be somebody else?" 

"Not just anybody else.  The one woman he can't resist." 

"I don't believe this actually works." 

Sarah emphasized each word, "Every single time." 

"But, can't guys see through it?  Can't they tell you're just faking?" 

"They're guys, Allie.  They're stupid." 

Allie shook her head.  "Okay, let's pretend for a minute that you're right." 

"I am." 

"Fine.  How is your little theory supposed to help me with GQ?  He wants a Black girl.  How exactly am I supposed to turn myself into that?" 

"He doesn't really want a Black girl," Sarah waved her hand dismissively. 

"You know what GQ wants better than he does?" 

"I repeat, Allie.  He's a guy.  Guys are stupid.  White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, they're all stupid.  It's really a beautiful thing from a multicultural perspective when you think about it.  A sort of uniformity within the diversity." 

"Sarah Matthews-Wheeler, Martin Luther King.  Both with three names.  Coincidence?  I think not." 

Sarah gave Allie a playful shove on the shoulder, practically knocking her over and into the pool, then got back to the point at hand.  "Anyway, GQ thinks he wants a Black girl because he's been told he should want a Black girl.  The fact is, you and he had a great time in Italy, right?" 


"And the whole time you were having this great time, did the Black girl issue come up even once?" 

"Well, no." 

"When did it come up?" 

"When it was time to go back to the States." 

"Do you know what that means?  It means that he liked you well enough in Italy, where no one he knew — namely Mommy, Daddy, the folks at Jack & Jill, the President, who cares? — could get on him about it.  He just didn't like you well enough to face the music back in the US of A." 

"Thanks," Allie groaned.  "I can always count on you to bring me good news." 

"I am bringing you good news, you aren't listening, as usual.  Obviously, if he was fine with you in Italy, this Black-girls-only rule is just to keep his parents off his back.  He says it because he thinks he has to, but he doesn't really feel it.  If he really felt it, he wouldn't have hooked up with you in the first place.  Now, all you have to do is make yourself so irresistible to him that he forgets to care about what other people think and goes after what he wants again, which -- no duh -- will be you." Sarah challenged, "What happened right after you kissed him in the computer lab?" 

"He pushed me away and said that he liked me, he really liked me, but we could only be friends, that he'd already explained everything to me and he wasn't going to change his mind." 

"No," Sarah said.  "I asked you what happened right-right after you kissed him." 

"Oh," Allie understood.  "He kissed me back." 

"See!  He likes you, he wants you, he's just a dumb guy.  It's not his fault, everyone knows testosterone makes you brain-damaged.  We have to make it clear to GQ that he can't live without you.  Once guys understand that, you'd be amazed how quickly all their high-falutin' social and moral and political principles fly right out the window." 

For a moment, Allie actually considered what Sarah was saying.  But then she shook her head and insisted, "It'll never work." 

"Trust me, it always works."  Sarah sighed.  "Okay, I'll prove it to you.  Pick a guy, any guy in Bay City that you think absolutely, positively, can not be gotten using the patented Sarah Matthews-Wheeler Irresistible Woman Method." 

Without a moment's hesitation, Allie replied, "My cousin, Steven.  He's brilliant.  He'd never fall for some girl manipulating him like that." 

"Your cousin, Steven." Sarah repeated.  "If I can make your cousin Steven fall for me, will you then do what I say about GQ?" 

Allie gaped at Sarah.  "Are you kidding?" 

"Do we have a deal?" 


"What?  You don't believe my method works.  I'm offering you a free demonstration.  Act soon, this is a limited-time offer." 

"You're treating this like it's a joke.  It's not a joke to GQ.  It's who he is.  It's what he's about.  It's important to him." 

"Important to him, irrelevant to me." 

Realizing that a lecture on the history of miscegenation in America and all its subsequent cultural, political and social implications would be lost on Sarah at this point, Allie switched to an objection she suspected Sarah would understand more easily.  "Steven is totally not your type." 

"Have you been listening?  It doesn't matter.  The only thing that matters is that I become his type." 

"I don't think you can." 

"Then you've got nothing to lose," Sarah pointed out and held out her hand to shake.  "Do we have a deal?  If I land Steven, then you'll listen to me about GQ." 

"It might be too late, by then," Allie sighed.  "He might have already found someone else." 

"Get real, Allie.  Obviously, with you around, GQ can only date Black girls, right?  Or else he'd come off like a hypocrite.  And this is Bay City.  It's a little on the pale side, or haven't you noticed?  It's not like GQ has a ton of options.  Believe me, he'll still be available.  Besides, I don't expect Operation Make Cousin Steven Fall For Me to take that long.  Do we have a deal, or not?" 

Allie didn't like it.  Allie didn't trust it.  But Allie was also curious.  And desperate.  So she stretched out her hand, and she said, "Deal." 

Amanda was in her office at Cory Publishing, looking over a mock-up for the next issue of Brava when her phone rang.  Kevin Fowler was on the other end, asking, "Ready for that second date you promised me?" 

Truth be told, Amanda didn't feel ready at all.  His kiss the previous night had shaken her more than she'd expected, and she wasn't sure if she was prepared to face another potential maelstrom.  Nevertheless, while her mind was saying one thing, her body was clearly the force in control, as Amanda heard herself answering, "Yes," even before she knew what was happening. 

"Great.  Only this time, I get to make the arrangements.  Shall we say tomorrow, eight o'clock?"  Before Amanda — or rather Amanda's newly liberated lips, acting wholly independently of her common sense — had another chance to blurt out an unsanctioned agreement, he added, "In the morning?" 

"Eight in the morning?" Amanda repeated. 

"I'll see you then," Kevin said.   

And hung up before she had the chance to follow up. 

Grant was enjoying a nice glass of Merlot, as well as the periodic surprised, surreptitious glances in his direction from fellow patrons who'd previously felt pretty certain that their former Congressman, Senator and Mayor had died over a decade earlier, when he spied Marley and Jamie entering the Bay City Grill. 

In the spirit of public decorum — Grant was nothing if not civic-minded, he was prepared to magnanimously ignore the noxious pair's presence, on the condition that they tacitly agreed to do the same. 

Alas, it was not meant to be.  Rather than turning around immediately and departing or, at the very least, walking straight by him without a word, Jamie and Marley instead zeroed in on Grant's table, approaching it both positively aglow with flared nostril self-righteousness. 

Grant cast a longing glance at the mouth-watering filet mignon, baby potatoes, and asparagus that had just been placed in front of him, and hoped that this little scene wouldn't take long, nor ruin his appetite.  

"Marley," he nodded at his former sister-in-law.  "To what do you I owe the pleasure?" Then he indicated Jamie and inquired, "Should I ask the kitchen to bring out a leftover bone for your lapdog?" 

He was rewarded by a thin sheen of pink crawling up Marley's cheeks as she snapped, "You have no right to speak to Jamie that way." 

"I don't?" Grant widened his eyes in mock confusion.  Then dropped the act to demand, "According to whom, exactly?" 

"Me."  Marley smiled and took the seat across from him, rather brazenly helping herself to a glass of his painstakingly selected Merlot.   

Grant had to admit, if the intent of her uncharacteristic behavior was to throw him off-balance, then it was working.  Only a little bit, of course. But she did have his attention now in a way that Vicky's milk-toast sister had, honestly, never managed to seize before. 

Struggling to regain the upper hand, Grant was forced to go with a weaker than he would have otherwise liked bon mot as he asked Jamie, "Having women fight our battles for us, these days, are we, Dr. Frame?  What an excellent role-model you make for a growing boy." 

"Where Kirkland, Steven and the girls are concerned, my battles are Marley's battles," Jamie replied easily. "We're their parents."  

"Ah, yes, We Are Family, et al....  Somebody call Sister Sledge." 

"Absolutely," Marley smiled, swirling his wine in her glass and ignoring Grant's musical sarcasm. "And as one of the heads of our family, I'm here to clear up a few... misunderstandings... while you sit there, keep your mouth shut, and listen.  Am I making myself clear?" 

Grant wanted to reply.  He felt that a caustic remark was the least he could do.  But, Marley's conduct continued to throw him off his game. 

"A simple nod will suffice," Jamie supplied helpfully in response to his rival's befuddled muteness. 

Grant's eyes flicked from Jamie back to Marley, his confusion and subsequent irritation falling away as he took her in.  The fire in her eyes, the tilt of her head, the attitude.... That was it!  That's what was making him so bewildered. 

She reminded him of Vicky.  His Vicky.  Even with the superficial changes to Marley's face following the fire she'd been in, she still had Vicky's eyes, the basic shape and bone structure of her face was still the same, her voice, as well.  He understood now what had been bothering him ever since she'd sat down.  Marley wasn't acting like herself at all.  And that was because she was channeling her sister, bringing Kirkland's mother back to life and into this room in a transparent bid to intimidate Grant.  Or to scare him. 

He knew that he should call her on it.  He knew that he should dub her merely a pale imitation and laughingly insist that Marley could never, not in a million years, hope to be a fraction of the spitfire that her sister had been. 

But Grant couldn't.  Not right now.  Because, right now, for just a split second, he'd seen Vicky alive.  And he was loath to let that go.  Not just yet. 

So instead of drop-kicking Marley and her six-foot-tall shadow back to the curb where they belonged, Grant merely followed Jamie's earlier advice and nodded, to show that he was ready to listen to whatever they had to say. 

Clearly surprised by his acquiescence, Marley began, "Here's the thing, Grant.  I actually do believe that a part of you loves Kirkland." 

"How magnanimously noblesse oblige of you." 

"But," her eyes narrowed, more comfortable with her own fury now that Grant was acting more like himself.  "No way in hell do I believe that you can ever bring anything good to his life.  You, Grant, are a vampire.  A soul-sucking leech who feeds off of anyone and anything to make himself feel better, even those you claim to love.  Maybe you don't even realize it. Maybe it's just who you are, and that's your tragedy. I don't know and frankly, I don't care.  My only concern," she pressed on, holding up a hand when he opened his mouth to cut her down.  "Is Vicky's kids.  You may be Kirk's biological father, but you have proven time and again that beyond that accident of biology, you aren't fit to take care of a cockroach, much less a child." 

"Bitch," Grant seethed.  Not the most poetic sentiment ever uttered, but it fit the situation. 

Not to mention triggered a strangely satisfied grin from Marley.  A grin that, to Grant's eye, was pure Vicky. 

"Jamie is Kirkland's father," Marley said simply. "And I will see to it that he stays Kirk's father for the rest of their lives." 

"That's for a court to decide," Grant clipped in response. 

"Then let a court decide it.  It sure beats emotionally manipulating a fifteen-year-old boy with lies about his dead mother." 

"Whatever I told Kirkland about Vicky, especially as it pertains to Vicky and myself, was the truth. I loved her." 

"Believe your own bull if you want.  But quit peddling it to Kirkland.  From now on, you stay away from that child, or you will regret it."   

"Somehow, I doubt that." 

Marley lowered her voice.  "You do not want to push me, Grant.  Not over my kids." 

"Your kids?" Grant laughed with the raise of an eyebrow. "And here I could have sworn that all four were Vicky's kids!" 

"You know what I mean," Marley covered. "I'm raising them.  I love them." 

"Now it makes sense," Grant chuckled.  "This ersatz Vicky impersonation.  You're just completing your takeover." 

"Takeover?" Marley seethed.  "What the hell are you talking about?" 

"You.  Taking over Vicky's life.  Raising her children, playing Mommy and Daddy with one of her exes.  I'm sure the fact that he also happens to be one of your exes is just a bonus." 

The fire dimmed in Marley's eyes as Grant gleefully watched raw cracks splinter her facade. 

Jamie must have seen it, too, because he stepped up to warn, "Not another word, Grant." 

"Ah, now the Damsel in Distress tries to protect his White Knight," Grant snorted, turning his focus back to Marley, who now stared at him with those insipid weak, blinking eyes, not even close to Vicky's anymore. 

"You mentioned an accident of biology," Grant reminded Marley. "Those are fascinating, aren't they?  For instance, have you ever wondered why nature decided not to bless you with biological children of your own?"  

"Son of a — " 

"Jamie!" Marley popped up, struggling to squeeze between the two men as Jamie grabbed Grant by the lapels and hoisted him out of his seat.  "Stop!  Don't!" 

"Oh, no, Jamie, please do."  Grant calmly addressed the owner of the clenched fist hovering threateningly close to his face.  "Just don't forget to smile for the security cameras.  When I bring these tapes to court, I want our judge to have a crystal-clear view of your countenance." 

"Damn you," Jamie snarled as he flung Grant back into his seat.  For his part, Grant settled down as if he'd been carried in on a royal barge. 

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a portable comb and proceeded to smooth down his mussed hair, even as Grant noted, "I wonder if anyone has ever calculated the odds of identical twins, one fertile, one barren.  I daresay, they must be astronomical.  Ah, well, speaking of fortunate accidents, how lucky for you, Marley, that Vicky perished in that airplane crash.  I always wondered, you know, whether Vicky's loving sister might have had something to do with helping it's engine trouble along?" 

Even Jamie couldn't summon up an appropriate invective for an accusation so foul.  He and Marley merely stared at Grant, dumbstruck.  Both had trouble believing that Grant could really be implying what he seemed to be implying. 

Enjoying his captive audience, Grant went on, "On second thought, I suppose not.  Getting rid of Vicky wouldn't have gotten you her twins, not with Jake still being alive.  And I don't suppose you had anything to do with his taking that swan-dive off a rooftop in Oakdale.  Never mind, Marley, I'm sure you're completely innocent of any wrong-doing.  You just got lucky, that's all.  Vicky's death saved you from a lonely and pathetic old age.  Well, I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, sweetheart, but your luck's run out.  Your days of playing house with Vicky's husband and my son, are over." 

His appetite for food thoroughly gone, yet feeling quite satisfied nonetheless, Grant threw a handful of bills on the table.  As his parting shot, he reminded Marley, "You are not your sister. You never have been and you never will be." 

Having Carl's travel information in hand made it rather simple for Rachel to plan her own itinerary.  She arranged to take an earlier plane into Canada, and rented her own car a full hour before.   

After that, there was nothing left for Rachel to do but sit in it outside the airport's only exit and wait for her husband to drive by so that she could follow him. 

Well, that wasn't exactly true.  There was one more thing Rachel could do, and that was ask herself over and over and over again what the hell she thought she was doing and how in the world did she dream this scenario could possibly result in a happy ending? 

Even if Carl were completely innocent of any wrong-doing in Felicia and her family's disappearance, wouldn't Rachel's suspicions of him be enough to drive a stake through the heart of their marriage? 

And if he wasn't innocent, what then?  They had children together.  That meant they were bound for life, like it or not.  Rachel briefly thought about the pain Matt had gone through when he learned that his biological father, Mitch, was in jail for having tried to kidnap him, not to mention that Mitch had once been part of a plot to kill their beloved Mac.  The knowledge had devastated Matthew.  But what Carl had done — even if this latest was not a part of his overall curriculum vitae — was so, so much worse.  How could she ever tell Cory and Elizabeth about it?  Then again, how could she not? 

The questions that had no answers kept swimming around Rachel's head, increasing speed and intensity until she was thrilled to spy the non-descript, gray Ford Taurus Carl had rented inch off the lot and merge with the sparse highway traffic.  Following Carl gave Rachel something else to concentrate on, instead of the cacophony in her head. 

She made a point of keeping at least a few cars distance between them at all times.  This was relatively easy to do on the highway, and even on the main streets they drove through.  It got considerably harder, however, when Carl abruptly took a turn off the primary road he'd been following for over an hour and ended up on a barely paved, side-path. 

They were headed through farm country now, with nothing but flowering fields and an occasional barn on each side, and sometimes her car and Carl's were only ones to be seen for miles.  Rachel reassured herself with the certainty that Carl had no idea she'd hacked into his e-mail or that she would be following him now.  However, just to be on the safe side, when Carl finally pulled up to the edge of what looked like an electric fence surrounding acres of abandoned farmland, Rachel ducked her head, increased her speed, and blew right by him. 

She drove far enough ahead to be sure that Carl couldn't see her, then ditched her car behind a tree and hurriedly doubled-back. 

Rachel caught up with her husband just as he was brushing aside a clump of deadwood in order to reveal a door in the fence, complete with what looked like a state of the art security system. 

From his wallet, Carl removed a credit-card sized strip of plastic, inserted it into a blinking slot, then entered a code into the keypad just above it. 

He might have been making a deposit at the bank.  Except that, instead of cash, his actions prodded the door to slowly slide open.  Carl stepped through it.  Which is when Rachel called out his name. 

He whipped around, so shocked that he nearly toppled over and needed to grab a low hanging tree-branch for support. 

Rachel approached him, gingerly picking her way through the dirt and twigs in her path, until she and Carl were standing practically face to face, he on one side of the door, she on the other. 

Rachel asked, "Aren't you going to invite me in?" 

After several days of unreturned phone calls, Matt finally managed to track Donna down to KBAY-TV.  Rather, he pushed his way into an editing room where she was sitting with Jeanne Ewing, one of her local news producers, screening a segment scheduled to air later that day. 

Jeanne was so busy conferring with the editor about how to cut thirty seconds from the piece without ruining its flow, that she barely nodded when Donna excused herself and stepped into the hallway with Matt.

Donna hissed, "What the hell are you doing here?" 

Matt said, "You weren't answering your phone.  I wanted to make sure you were alright." 

"I'm just dandy, Matthew.  I am also in the middle of something." 

"I thought you and I were in the middle of something, too, before you decided to blow me off." 

Donna glared at him and frantically turned her head from side to side, making sure the hallway was deserted and no one could have possibly overheard them.  She grabbed Matt by the arm and pulled him into her office, shutting the door behind them. 

She spun around and reminded him, "We had an agreement.  Nothing in public." 

"And I was fine with that.  Until you started ignoring me in private, too.  What's going on, Donna?  Is something wrong?  Tell me.  Maybe I can help." 

"What's wrong is that I thought I could trust your discretion.  Obviously, I was mistaken." 

"Did I do something wrong?" he refused to give up.  "I feel like we had a fight, except I don't remember fighting." 

"Of course, you don't." 

"What does that mean?" 

"You never notice much of anything, do you, Matthew?  You come over, we have sex, and then you leave." 

"I thought that was how you wanted it!" 

"It is.  But, believe it or not, I do have a life outside of our trysts.  Sometimes, I even have matters on my mind that have nothing to do with you." 

"I'm not trying to pry into your business." 

"Actually, that's exactly what you seem to be doing.  Pursuing me here at work?  Honestly, Matthew, tres juvenile.  Do you really expect me to be thinking of nothing but you all the day?" 

"You're not making any sense," Matt said. 

"I'm sorry you feel that way."  Donna reached for the doorknob.  "Perhaps, under the circumstances, it would be best if we didn't see each anymore.  Obviously, you aren't capable of carrying on an adult relationship." 

"An adult relationship," Matt repeated, dumbfounded.  "Sneaking around, keeping secrets, living in terror of anyone finding out.  This is your definition of an adult relationship?" 

"I don't expect you to understand."  She opened the door.  "I merely expect you to respect my wishes." 

Matt shook his head.  He opened his mouth, then realized that he had nothing to say.  He shook his head again, and stormed out. 

He didn't hear the clatter of her phone as Donna swept it off her desk in a fit of anger.  Or see the tears in her eyes.  

"I always forget," Cass said, as he sifted through the piles and piles of papers, contracts, documents and phone messages arranged in allegedly strategic, multi-colored mountain ranges about his office.  "That every time I ditch my daily grind to take off on a madcap adventure, the work just piles up, it never magically disappears." 

"Exactly," Lila leaned across his desk from the other side, so that she was basically blocking everything on his most urgent To-Do List.  "It's waited this long, it can wait another day.  We've been away from the girls for such an extended spell.  I say we forget work, take the afternoon off and do something really fun all together." 

"What did you have in mind?" 

"Shopping!"  She straightened up, bloom in her cheeks, glint in her eyes, a tremble in her pocketbook.  "Jasmine needs new summer clothes.  A never-ending stream of garage-sale rock-and-roll logo T-shirts and flip-flops do not an appropriate wardrobe make for a young lady of her stature.  I'm even sure I could find something Charlie would like.  In pink or orange, of course." 

"An afternoon shopping," Cass mused.  "An afternoon of holding purses, of sitting outside dressing rooms, of listening to cries of, "Oh, no!  No, no, no, this makes me look fat."  I can't tell you how appealing that sounds." 

Lila teased, "I'll buy you some new pantyhose.  The appropriate size, this time." 

"I wanted to stay close by the phone.  In case Rachel calls." 

"She has your cell number." 

"I don't know what I'm hoping for with her," Cass admitted.  "On the one hand, I'd be over the moon if she found Felicia.  On the other hand, when I think about what it would mean for her and Carl and the kids...." 

"What's going to happen is going to happen."  Lila squeezed his hand.  "There's nothing you can do for Rachel right now.  On the other hand, our girls have missed us.  We barely got back into town before there you were, sneaking out for the office.  Come on, Cass, take a break.  Let's go home, grab the kids, and raise a little hell." 

Her smile convinced him.  So did the fact that, otherwise, Cass was scheduled to spend the next four hours or so reading the tiny print on a case that Cass was pretty sure would be settled out of court as soon as both sides got a look at his bill. 

They arrived at the house about a half-hour after the girls were due back from their last day of school.  As it turned out, though, Jasmine was the only one at home.  She was sitting on the couch, leafing through a fashion magazine.   

She looked up in surprise and exclaimed, "Mama!  Cass!"  The phrasing was her own little private music joke.  "What are you doing home so early?" 

"Nice try, young Miss," Lila crossed over to touch the top of the TV set.  "It's still warm.  You heard us coming.  And that magazine is over a month old.  No child of mine truly interested in fashion would be caught dead reading something so dated." 

"Come on, Mama, it's the last day of school.  I don't have any homework or anything.  And they're doing a top 100 Countdown of the greatest one hit wonders of all time." 

"Television only on the weekends, you know the rules," Lila said.  But then the spirit of the day got the best of her and she laughed, "Oh, what the heck, go ahead and watch for a bit.  Cass and I thought we'd take you girls out for a fun afternoon, but if Charlie's not around, we might as well wait for her." 

"Where is she anyway?" Cass asked. 

"Oh," Jasmine said blithely as she reached for the remote control and flicked the TV back onto VH1 Classics, "She went out with her mom." 

"Rachel," Carl exhaled her name, and with it a virtual Pandora's Box of implications. 

She didn't say anything in reply.  She merely kept on walking, until she and Carl stood face to face, Rachel on one side of the gate, her husband on the other.  The line in the sand couldn't have been more literal.  Or more emotionally loaded. 

For a moment, they simply considered each other warily, almost two decades of history, good and bad, flowing silently between them.  Threats, secrets, promises, fights, tears and sighs, all coming down to a thin strip of dirt somewhere in the wilds of Canada. 

Would Carl let her in, or was she doomed to be locked out forever?  Rachel thought they'd settled this issue already, not just once, but several times.  However, the fact that it continued to rear its ugly head did suggest that the past, both hers and his, was far from prepared to stay dead and buried.  No matter how much each may have wished it. 

Finally, after what felt like an interminable length of time, but in reality was probably no more than thirty seconds or so, Carl mutely stepped aside, allowing Rachel to cross the threshold and stand beside him.   

She surveyed the property, noting that the fence with its hidden, electronic entrance, stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions, suggesting that it encircled a huge, albeit desolate, homestead. 

Carl closed the gate behind them, and took off determinedly in a Northeastern direction.  Rachel followed, struggling to keep up as she made her way through tangled dry grass and clumps of rocky dirt, in high heels.   

At one point, her foot slipped into what appeared to be an empty gopher-hole, and Rachel stumbled.  Carl caught her elbow and kept her knee from hitting the ground.  He helped Rachel to her feet.  As they continued walking, he forgot to let go of her hand.  Rachel didn't remind him. 

Regaining her voice, she asked, "Where are we going?" 

Carl pointed straight ahead, to a speck on the horizon that did seem to be growing as they approached.  "House up ahead." 

"Whose house?" 

"I don't rightly know," he admitted. 

"Why are we here, Carl?  What is this place?" 

Carl sighed.  "When one is in the business of... of..." 

"Less than hallowed pursuits," she quoted. 

"Precisely," Carl winced.  "When one is in the business of less than hallowed pursuits, one often needs to remove oneself from the more unsavory aspects of one's business." 

"In other words, you outsource your dirty-work." 

Carl gazed at his wife with newfound respect.  "I daresay, my dear, you truly possess a knack for this." 

Rachel reminded him, "I'm not exactly a stranger to the world of dirty tricks, myself." 

"Touche," Carl noted, then continued, "In any case, as I was saying, once in a while, one needs to keep one's hands clean and appear utterly blameless in regards to a given state of affairs.  That is where this compound comes in.  Several decades ago, a mystery individual — I've never known a name, or a country of origin, or even whether they're male or female — came out with a most ingenious proposal.  For a price — an outrageously hefty price, may I add — he or she would remove a designated individual from their usual surroundings, bring them here and engage in a variety of precise tasks.  Sometimes, mere detainment would be called for, both short and long-term.  Other times, a bit of helpful persuasion." 

Rachel stopped in her tracks.  "The house we're going to, it exists to kidnap and torture people?" 

"Yes," Carl said simply.  There was no pride in his voice, but then, again, no shame, either.  Instead, all Rachel heard was a challenge, as if he were goading her to keep going.  As if he were telling her that, if she truly wanted to know all, then know all she would.  Carl was ready to tell her.  But was Rachel even vaguely ready to hear? 

"You've used their services, then?"  

"In the past, yes, I have." 

"How recently in the past?" 

"Not since you and I spent our sojourn in New York," Carl told her.  And dared Rachel to disbelieve it. 

"Then why are we here?" 

"Because," he explained as they approached the front door of what Rachel realized was no mere house, but a multi-story structure, with sealed windows that allowed no glimpse in or out, and sensor-triggered doors, that responded to the same card Carl had used to disengage the fence.  "Felicia, Jenna and Dean disappeared apparently without a trace.  I know of only one establishment that can pull off such a feat so wholly." 

Rachel's voice trembled as they stepped inside and, instead of a normal domestic interior were greeted by a series of mazelike corridors, which Carl seemed to maneuver without a hint of hesitation.  "I see you're still a member of the club." 

"It's a lifetime membership," Carl shrugged.   

She followed him around a corner only to be greeted by an unremarkable elevator that took them not up, but down, straight down, much lower than Rachel would have thought possible since they were already on the ground floor.  "If so many people use this place, how do they manage to keep it a secret?" 

"Mutually assured destruction.  Anyone who has availed themselves of the compound's services has no reason to reveal its location, even to implicate an enemy, as their own crimes would be revealed alongside.  And besides, what benefit could come of blowing the whistle?  The proprietor would inevitably set up shop elsewhere." 

Rachel noted, "It seems deserted." 

"An illusion, I assure you.  Guests are — " 

"Guests?" Rachel scoffed.  "Don't you mean prisoners?" 

" — Are transported in blindly.  They have no idea where they are or whose hands they are in.  For the duration of their stay — " 

"Internment," Rachel translated. 

" — They never see or hear from a living soul.  Everything is conducted electronically, inside the house and throughout the perimeter.  Even the fields we passed through are wired with impeccably sensitive surveillance equipment.  As we speak, we are being monitored by the most clandestine, proficient security team in the known-world." 

Rachel wondered if that was her cue to wave hello to the blood-thirsty mercenaries.  Instead, she asked Carl, "How do you know where to go?" 

"It's only the guests who are brought in blind.  Clients — " 


" — Are allowed free reign, if they so wish.  Up to a point, of course.  Different rooms serve different purposes.  As I presume Felicia was in no need of... debriefing... we are headed for the detainment-only area." 

Rachel thought she might be sick. 

The elevator stopped and they got off.  Unlike the institutional corridors above them, this part bore more of a resemblance to a five-star hotel.  A thickly padded golden-hued carpet slid pleasantly below their feet, and the egg-shell hued walls boasted painting that Rachel couldn't quite be sure of on a quick walk-through, but suspected might be minor American artists' originals.  

After the isolation and ominous silence of both the surrounding fields and the hallways, Rachel gasped in shock to see a figure coming towards them from the far end of the passage. 

Next to her, Carl stiffened as well, leading Rachel to guess that running into another "client" — or could this be a "guest?" -- wasn't part of the time-honored protocol.  Her husband blanched white and took an involuntary step backward. 

Distracted by Carl's excessive reaction, it took Rachel a moment before she managed to look away and realize that the man coming towards them was in his late 60s, with gray beginning to streak hair that had once been as jet-black as his eyes.  He wore a designer suit and Italian shoes, but his hands showed the creases and calluses of someone who hadn't been born to either. 

He was definitely familiar to both of them. 

He was also supposed to be dead. 

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