Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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The Forever Women

by Jon Wesick




1

"Just tell me and all this will stop." The man with the hideous face plugged an extension cord into an outlet and steadied himself against the wooden table while he caught his breath.

The plastic surgeons had done their best by stretching skin from his thighs over what remained of his face but he had no nose or eyebrows.

"Anton, please! This isn't like you," the woman with violet eyes said. "I know the man who set up clinics throughout Africa is still inside."

Naked except for her wedding ring, she sat arms and legs strapped to a wooden chair. Her hair, at least the hair that hadn't been ripped from her scalp, was black and shoulder length. Blood from numerous wounds covered her skin and dripped on the concrete beneath the chair.

"Liar!" The man with the hideous face struck her with his good hand and knocked a tooth loose. "You were in the same explosion as me. You walked away unharmed and I ended up like this!" He pointed to his shriveled arm. "Why?"

"I was lucky. Your body shielded me. Anton, just let me go. We'll forget all about this and go back to the institute. There's so much good we can still do."

"Enough of your lies. I want the truth." Anton plugged a circular saw into the extension cord and approached the chair.

2

The saying that doctors make the worst patients does not apply to psychiatrists, or at least it did not apply to Dr. Stephen Brexler. Despite rigorous adherence to his oncologist's instructions, despite weeks of nauseating chemotherapy and radiation, Dr. Brexler's cancer would not go away.

"Stephen Brexler," a therapist in floral scrubs called into the waiting room.

Brexler put down his magazine and followed her into one of the treatment rooms where he removed his shirt and lay on the couch. He was in his mid-sixties with a gray beard and thick shock of gray hair. His illness had robbed him of his physique. His belly had gone to fat and his once muscular arms were now sticklike.

"How are you doing, today?" Using the pendant hanging from a cable, the therapist rotated the linac's gantry and centered the laser crosshairs on the dot tattooed on Brexler's stomach.

"Be better if I was in Maui and had a girl like you on my arm," Brexler said.

The therapist smiled and stepped out of the room. The linac buzzed for thirty seconds as it sent x-rays into the tumor in Brexler's abdomen. When it stopped, the therapist entered, helped Brexler up, and began cleaning the couch for the next patient.

"See you, tomorrow."

* * *

Call it vanity, but Brexler had kept his illness from his colleagues at Saint Elizabeth's. His seniority helped. Psychiatrists were known to be eccentric and anyone with his experience could get away with coming in late and leaving early. He swiped his key card into the reader. The door buzzed letting him into the locked ward. He'd worked at Saint Elizabeth's so long that he hardly noticed the patients in bathrobes and slippers shuffling like zombies or staring blankly at the TV. Doped into near catatonia by powerful psych drugs, many lost motor control, their hands trembling as if they had Parkinson's disease.

"Hope there's something more interesting than the usual eating disorders today." Brexler picked up a handful of charts at the nursing station.

"Suicide attempt," the head nurse said. "Passed out when taking a power tool to his head."

"Now that's the kind of novelty that gets me up in the morning. Send him in once I get settled." Brexler got a coffee and took it to his office.

Once he went over the charts, he phoned the nursing station and asked that they send the first patient in. The patient was the most hideous man Brexler had seen in his life. Brexler's first reaction was to gasp but through decades of training and practice he maintained a facial expression that was both compassionate and accepting.

"Suicide attempt." Brexler put down the chart and looked at the patient's face. "You must have been in a lot of pain to try something like that. Care to tell me what's going on?"

The patient remained silent so Brexler continued.

"Your method was unusual. Most people try pills but it was almost like you wanted to punish yourself. Why do you feel you deserved so much pain?"

Again, the patient remained silent.

"No matter what you've done, redemption is possible. I'd go as far to say that redemption is life's sole purpose. It might not appear so, but the universe is a loving place. In my career, I've seen miraculous examples. Murderers, wife beaters, and child molesters have turned their lives around, but they had to accept what they've done. The first step is admitting your problem. Please tell me. I'm here to help."

While Brexler waited for reply, he searched the patient's face for some hint of an emotion but the scarring made him impossible to read.

"Immortal life," the patient whispered.

"What was that?" Brexler leaned closer not sure he'd heard correctly.

"I was so sure she had the secret to immortal life. The car bomb in Africa, the one that left me like this." The patient pointed to his face and ruined arm. "I remember the shock, smell of burning flesh, my ears ringing. Before I passed out, I held my wife in my arms. She had no pulse."

"You were in shock," Brexler said. "The mind plays tricks."

Brexler's words had the opposite effect of what he'd intended. The patient let loose with a high-pitched wail.

"Then I killer her for nothing. I sawed off her limbs and cut out her violet eyes to find a secret that doesn't exist." The patient hung his head.

"Anton ... can I call you Anton?" Brexler knew he'd have to notify the police. "I know you're feeling hopeless now, but we'll do everything we can to make you better."

After the patient left, Brexler wrote in the man's chart. The best he could do was keep the patient's paranoid schizophrenia under control with a heavy dose of Haldol.

3

Flesh sought flesh. A severed arm fought its way out of a weighted garbage bag and moved as if drawn to a bit of torso. Feet found legs. Legs found hips. In the weedy muck at the bottom of a lake, a woman's body knit itself together as if the stagnant water were amniotic fluid. Supercharged cells healed scars and repaired damage. The heart started to beat.

"Arrgh!" A gasping woman with violet eyes broke the water's surface.

The singers were just beginning the "Toreador Song" from Carmen when Stephen Brexler's cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He made his way from his private box to the lobby before answering.

"This is Dr. Brexler."

"Sorry to disturb you, sir. The police brought in a Jane Doe who was wandering naked out by Miller's Lake. She's clearly suffered some kind of trauma. Normally, she could wait until tomorrow but we're trying to collect a rape kit and she won't let anyone near her."

"I'll be right in."

Brexler returned to his private box and said goodbye to the busty blonde he'd treated after an uncle had raped her when she was a teenager. Technically, he wasn't supposed to sleep with former patients, but with his impending mortality he had little reason to follow the rules.

* * *

When Brexler entered the hospital room, the Jane Doe moved as far away from him as the bed would allow. Knees to chest, she held the sheet in front of her as if it were a shield. Strangely for someone who'd suffered an ordeal, she had no cuts or bruises. From her smooth skin, Brexler guessed she was in her early twenties. She wore a hospital gown, and twigs and bits of leaves stuck to her matted hair. Her most startling features were her violet eyes. Could she be the wife of the man with the hideous face? Brexler took out his cell phone to get a picture.

"It's all right," Brexler said in his most soothing voice. "I'm here to help. My name is Dr. Brexler. Can you tell me yours?"

When Brexler approached the chair by the bed, the woman turned away.

"Do you know where you are? Did somebody hurt you?"

The woman remained silent.

"Such pretty hair." Brexler held out a comb. "Do you want to neaten up a bit?"

The woman snatched the comb and returned to the far side of the bed where she ran it through her tangles. While she tended to her hair, Brexler kept up his patter.

"Can I get you anything? Some makeup? How about some clothes? These hospital gowns are ghastly. Don't you think? What's your size?"

The woman remained silent.

"I've got an idea."

Brexler left the room and returned with a measuring tape. When he approached, the woman shied away.

"Don't be silly. I need to get your size if you want new clothes. You do want new clothes. Don't you?" Brexler ran the tape across the woman's shoulders. "Now hold out your arm." When the woman complied, Brexler jabbed a hypodermic needle into her bicep and plunged the sedative into her. "It's okay." He patted her head. "Just a little something to help you sleep."

He caught her when she collapsed. As he laid her head on the pillow, he noticed something odd. Needles usually leave a little pinprick or drop of blood but her arm had none. He left the room and spoke with the OB/GYN on call.

"She'll be no problem. I gave her a sedative." Brexler turned to go and stopped. "Oh, I have a hunch. Could you draw a little extra blood so I can check it out? Thanks."

* * *

Next morning, Brexler phoned the woman's attending physician.

"Jim, this is Steve calling about your Jane Doe. I think we ought to transfer her to psych. She seemed disturbed and I couldn't live with myself if she harmed herself. She what? Transferred to a private clinic? When did this happen? Okay, I guess we did our best."

The mystery nagged at Brexler. He dug around. The "private clinic" that had taken the Jane Doe did not exist and its address was a vacant lot, so he called the police and after several transfers got through to the detective in charge of the case.

"Detective Lamar, this is Dr. Stephen Brexler at Saint Elizabeth's calling in regards to the Jane Doe you brought in a few nights ago. I was the consulting psychiatrist and thought my clinical impressions might help you. It's clear she suffered some kind of trauma." Brexler went on with lots of medical jargon. "Anyway, that's my medical opinion. Let me know if there's anything I can do. I'm here to help. Oh, by the way, did you ever find out who she was?"

"It's a funny thing," Detective Lamar said. "We checked her fingerprints and they came back belonging to Rose Garibaldi. Only problem is Miss Garibaldi was arrested in 1932 for moonshining."

"Wow! Glad to know my tax dollars are paying for such an outstanding computer system."

"Yeah. Thanks for your offer, Doc. If anything comes up, I'll be in touch."

After hanging up Brexler stared at the phone. Interesting. Very interesting. He dialed the OB/GYN to get the sample of the Rose Garibaldi's blood.

4

Jenny Manczarek didn't like her new name. "Jenny" sounded like an ungainly, old airplane and everybody had trouble spelling the last part but Jenny Manczarek was the only identity available after she's walked away from that "fatal" car crash. It wasn't a bad life. In exchange for twenty hours of work a week, the Sisterhood provided a place to live and paid her tuition. Her work wasn't hard, mostly clerical tasks. When the new guest came to the Clio Institute (named after the Muse of history), Jenny had to clean the second floor because the housekeepers were no longer allowed there.

She collected a breakfast tray from Mrs. Sullivan in the kitchen and carried it up the stairs where she ran her key card through the reader. The lock buzzed and Jenny pushed the door open with her hip. On the way to the guest's room, she plucked a carnation from one of the many bouquets and placed it on the tray before using her key card to access the guest's room.

"Time for breakfast." Trying to keep the orange juice from spilling while she closed the door behind her, Jenny looked down at the tray. "I have a nice Denver omelet, whole wheat toast, and …"

Something heavy hit her from behind. Luckily for her, she'd turned so the object thudded off her shoulder instead of her skull. Things went blank for a second and then Jenny found herself rolling in broken glass on the floor. Her left arm was numb and she tried to remember what the teacher had told her in her self-defense class. She drew a blank. Someone was screaming and it wasn't her. Jenny had enough presence of mind to roll her body into a ball and get her legs between her and her opponent. She kicked out and landed a lucky hit. Her attacker stumbled back and tripped just as Diane and two other women rushed into the room. All three piled onto the guest and held her down until Diane could inject a sedative.

"Are you okay?" Diane asked Jenny once they'd strapped the guest to her bed.

Jenny sat up. A shard of broken glass had pierced her palm and her hand was slick with blood.

"Come on." Diane wrapped Jenny's hand in a napkin. "Let's get you to a doctor."

Medical care was not strictly necessary. Jenny's body could easily repair her injuries, but Diane Krall knew from personal experience that new members needed the reassurance that the Sisterhood took care of its own. She took Jenny to the office of a sympathetic doctor who the Sisterhood compensated generously for her discretion. By the time they returned to the Institute with a bottle of painkillers, Jenny had practically healed her wounds.

After she got Jenny squared away, Diane returned to her office, set her purse by the desk, and stood looking out the window. She needed a new way to deal with Rose. Time and a caring environment just weren't helping. If the Sisterhood reduced Rose's diet to zero, it would force her body into suspended animation for long-term storage, but they'd have to do that elsewhere. Damn her for her stubbornness, anyway! Diane had warned her not to marry Anton Jacquard. Mortals were fine for affairs but you could never stick around for more than a few years. The phone rang.

"Who the hell is it now?" Diane picked up. "Hello."

"Diane, it's Salvador. Look, I don't think I can make it tonight. My pulse rate is over ninety and my throat feels like it's full of broken glass."

Diane sat on her desk and played with the phone cord. After her hectic day she would have enjoyed a quiet night in, but several members of the July 9 Collective were going to attend the private party, and Salvador was her entrée. Besides, Rose would be asleep until morning.

"Sal, we already talked about this. You know you always get this way before anything that will advance your career. It's some kind of self-sabotage thing you have going on. Maybe if we had a few hundred hours to talk about it, I could get to the bottom of your issues, but for now you need to get going. I'll pick you up at eight. Wear something that will get you noticed, because I surely will."

Dealing with artists could be exasperating, but after living for hundreds of years, Diane found ordinary people dull. Only creatives drew her attention, not that she had any special intellectual gifts. The only reason she could keep up was that she'd had lifetimes to study, and with her experience she liked to think she helped them along. It was a win-win. Scientists and artists amused her, and she, in turn, offered them guidance.

Diane selected a silvery, floor-length gown with a zipper that could expose her right breast. To this she added a single earring that dangled to her shoulder. A limousine would make the best impression, so she had the chauffeur take her in the Institute's Bentley. Salvador had certainly dressed, or undressed, to be noticed. He'd shaved his hair and covered his skin with blue body paint. A variety of shapes decorated the background, including a red lightning bolt descending the shaft of his penis.

"Well done!" Diane kissed Salvador on the cheek. "Now try not to get any of that on my seats." She took a mirror out of her purse to see if any blue had rubbed off on her lips.

Salvador had been tight-lipped about the event's location. When he finally gave the address, it turned out to be an E Z Rest motel. Either due to lowbrow chic or lack of funds, the organizers had rented the entire second floor. In the elevator, Diane unzipped her gown to show her breast. When the door opened, a woman in dominatrix garb greeted them.

"Welcome to where all your desires come true. Find a play room and enjoy."

The doors were open and all the motel rooms contained people having sex.

"Salvador, you cheeky bastard!" Diane wagged her finger. "You brought me to an orgy."

"I thought maybe we could …" Salvador tried to put his arm around her.

"And ruin your paint job?" Diane pulled away. "Absolutely not!"

He followed her helplessly as she searched the rooms for the artist she'd come to see. She finally found Bjorn Hammersmith on top of a sallow blonde woman in room 219. He was an overweight man with a hairy back. What remained of the hair on his head was bushy and auburn. Diane took the chair by the desk and waited for Bjorn to finish while Salvador stood outside the doorway. Even for an exhibitionist like Bjorn, a strange woman watching him was too much. He turned his head and asked, "What do you want?"

"Salvador," Diane yelled. "Get in here!"

Salvador ducked inside and kept his eyes focused on the carpet.

"This is Salvador. Don't ask me how he does it but he makes holograms of the 3-D projections of four-dimensional objects. Obviously, there are a lot of math and computers involved. Since higher dimensions inspire the New Cubism that you represent, the two of you need to talk. I'll leave you to it." Diane picked up her purse and left.

A blonde man with a mustache and a weightlifter's physique caught her eye. A flirtatious look was all it took to convince him to ravish her while she waited for Salvador to finish his conversation. Diane lost track of time. After she finally said goodbye to her lover, she found Salvador standing by the elevator. The paint on his body was as immaculate as when he'd arrived.

"Where have you been?" he snapped.

"Having a marvelous conversation with Dwayne." Diane zipped up her dress and pushed the button to call the elevator. "Have you been standing here the whole time?"

The limousine's back seat was too small to contain Salvador's hurt and a conversation at the same time. Diane found his attitude, like that of most men, childish. Did he think he could control her body just because he brought her to an event, or that she was some kind of prize to be won by his artistic talent? And now, in spite of his hurt feelings, his lightning bolt was getting bigger.

"Darling, not now. It's been a long night."

"Just a little touch." Salvador tried to place Diane's hand on his penis.

"Sal, we talked about this." Diane pulled her hand away. "Ours is an intellectual intimacy."

"But there's no one else I feel closer to than you."

"If you really learn what a woman wants, then maybe we'll see."

* * *

Jenny was watching a comedy in her room when the two women who'd helped restrain Rose dropped by.

"We thought we'd check on how you're doing," Nancy Ludwick, the more athletic of the two, said. "Today's events must have been pretty scary."

"And I baked brownies." Fern Walters held up a plate and the brownies gave off a delicious aroma. She was a tall earth mother with dark, bushy hair.

Nancy sat on the chair by the desk and Fern perched on the foot of Jenny's bed. Like most lesbian couples alive in the 1950s, Fern and Nancy avoided displays of affection in public. No matter how much society changed, that paranoia was baked into their character.

"What's that woman's story, anyway?" Jenny bit into a brownie and tasted the bitterness of dark chocolate with the sweetness of dried cherries.

"You mean Rose?" Nancy looked at Fern.

"Rose's kind of a free spirit," Fern said. "It's always gotten her into trouble."

"She's reckless!" Nancy said.

"And you're not?" Fern's smile indicated she and Nancy had had this discussion before.

"If my parachute doesn't open, I'll have a painful recovery but I won't put the Sisterhood at risk."

"I don't understand," Jenny said. "How did Rose put us at risk?"

Fern and Nancy looked at each other.

"The thing is." Fern took Jenny's hand. "Women like us can't marry men. It would bring a lot of unwanted attention when they notice we aren't aging like they are."

"People fear what they don't understand," Nancy said. "If mortals found out about us, they might lock us up."

"Or worse," Fern said.

5

Jenny Manczarek took a seat in back of the lecture hall, set up her laptop on the fold-down writing surface, and waited for her Psych 101 class to begin.

"Hey Jenny," a blonde with a ponytail said. "Marci and I are going to see Jane's Agenda at Basho's Frog Pond on Friday. Want to come?"

"Yeah, sounds good."

"Okay, let's get started." A professor with a chest-length beard tapped the microphone. "Today's guest lecturer is Dr. Stephen Brexler who's been the chief psychiatrist at Saint Elizabeth's for over twenty years. I first met Dr. Brexler when I did my internship. He was demanding but always insightful. Today, he's going to talk about some new work with PTSD. Stephen."

Brexler came to the microphone.

"Thank you, Bill. I must say, I've never seen such an intelligent-looking class before." Brexler waited for the applause to die down before continuing. "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a debilitating condition that affects people who have survived traumas, such as soldiers, or rape victims. I could quote statistics but it might be more meaningful to describe the struggles of one of my patients. Let's call him Alex.

"Alex is a veteran of the Iraq war who saw a roadside bomb decimate his platoon. On his return from combat, he suffered insomnia, and loud noises sent him scrambling for cover. He had rages and abused his wife. The court ordered him into therapy, which is how I met him. Antidepressants didn't work and he resisted cognitive behavioral therapy. Then we tried a new treatment. MDMA, what you call Ecstasy."

As always, that part got the students' attention. Brexler described how MDMA affected neurotransmitters, summarized the thinking on how this supercharged talk therapy, and cautioned that the clinical use differed from use as a club drug.

"The result is that after just three treatments, Alex is doing fine," Brexler concluded.

In actual fact, the patient did not exist. "Alex" was a composite of the patients Brexler had read about in medical journals. After class, a mob of fawning undergraduates pestered Brexler with naïve questions. He was used to it. People clung to the notion that psychiatrists had some kind of mystical knowledge of the mind that could free them from conflict and sadness, when in reality, all Brexler did was prescribe pills. He answered questions graciously, and then a woman with violet eyes approached.

"My aunt sounds a lot like Alex," Jenny said. "Nothing seems to help. Do you think MDMA would work on her?"

"Tell me more," Brexler replied.

* * *

Rocco Entebbe couldn't believe his luck. By agreeing to perform a simple kidnapping, he'd been released from the forensic psychiatry unit after serving less than a year of what could have been a decade's commitment. Compared to the alternative, staking out a secluded mansion and dealing with colleagues who didn't appreciate the fine art of ritual murder were minor annoyances at best.

Rocco drained a cup of cold coffee and opened the Ford Transit's door with the intention of relieving himself in the bushes when an ambulance drove past. It was one of those white and orange vans with a square back and six-pointed Caduceus symbols on the sides.

"Look alive, people," Rocco radioed over the walkie-talkie. "This could be it."

Rocco pulled the black ski mask over his face and checked that his AK-47 had a round chambered. Rocco preferred American firearms for personal defense, but nothing beat a Russian gun's intimidation factor. Minutes later the ambulance exited the tree-lined drive.

"Target is an ambulance heading east on Hemlock," Rocco radioed. "Intercept at point bravo."

Once the ambulance was a few blocks ahead, Rocco put his van in gear and followed close enough to keep his target in sight but not so close as to arouse suspicion. The key to a successful grab was superior force. You want to hit your target so hard and fast that resistance is unthinkable. Allowing your victim the faintest possibility of resisting is what gets somebody hurt.

"Twenty seconds out." Rocco closed the gap with the ambulance as it rounded a blind corner.

The ambulance skidded to a stop in front of a dump truck and imposter signalman blocking the road. Rocco parked close to its bumper to prevent his target from backing away.

"Now! Now! Now!" Rocco grabbed his AK-47 and jumped out.

A half-dozen masked men with guns drawn surrounded the ambulance.

"Out of the car, motherfuckers!"

A gunman yanked open the door and dragged the driver out of the cab. Within seconds the scene was secured, with the driver and attendant face down and zip-tied on the grass. Rocco checked in back of the ambulance. As expected, the woman's face matched the photo the doc had given him. Even better, her hands and feet were already tied to the gurney.

"Help me move her."

Two gunmen transferred the woman and gurney to Rocco's van.

"Thank you, gentlemen." Rocco handed out envelopes of cash. "Follow the getaway plan and perhaps we can do business again."

Once the gunmen cleared his path, Rocco drove off at an easy pace toward the rendezvous. Fifty thousand dollars was almost in his pocket and he didn't want to blow it by arousing some traffic cop's suspicion. He peeled off the ski mask and put on the radio. Fifty thousand bucks! It was not enough to retire on but it would cover his living expenses for a year or two. Maybe he could allow himself a little indulgence, a month in Honduras or El Salvador, where a few extra corpses wouldn't arouse suspicion. It might be better to invest in his "business." What kind of armament could he buy to make his service more competitive? Lost in thoughts of a bright future, Rocco only noticed the woman had snuck behind him when she slit his throat with a razor blade.

6

Dr. Stephen Brexler ordered oatmeal and handed the waitress his menu. He preferred eggs and hash browns to oatmeal, but the new chemo drugs made him nauseous and he didn't want to associate vomiting with the foods he loved. Brexler looked around the diner. If the drugs made him queasy at the sight of Formica tables, booths upholstered with orange plastic, and customers with stringy hair and tattoos, it would be no great loss. The waitress set a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of tomato juice in front of him.

"Get you anything else, honey? Some coffee maybe?"

"No thanks." The thought of coffee almost made Brexler retch.

He forced himself to eat one slimy spoonful after another. If the abduction went as planned, he'd need his strength for a long day at the lab. In was funny how things worked out. A decade ago, he was furious with animal-rights protesters. Now he was grateful. If not for them, he wouldn't have access to a secluded lab with tight security. The cages were big enough to hold the Jane Doe and no one would hear her screams through the sound-proof walls. He stared out the window at a woman with a tramp stamp climbing out of a pickup truck. His cell phone rang.

"Dr. Brexler, this is Detective Jim Lamar at Metro PD. Is this a convenient time to ask a few questions?"

"Always happy to help our boys in blue," Brexler said.

"Did you treat a Rocco Entebbe?"

"The court ordered him committed to Saint Elizabeth's after the jury found him not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. I'm the chief psychiatrist."

"And you released him?"

"In my expert opinion, medication controlled his impulses well enough that he could be reintroduced to society. Unfortunately, one can never be one hundred percent sure in cases like this. Did something happen?" Brexler tried to keep the worry out of his voice as he crumpled a napkin. That little weasel Rocco was probably ratting him out right now.

"We found him dead in a stolen van."

Brexler sighed in relief. "Do you have a suspect?"

"Whoever did it got away clean," Lamar said. "Did he tell you anything that might help us find his killer?"

"Detective, as you know, I'm bound by doctor-patient confidentiality so, for example, I could never tell you if Mr. Entebbe frequented sadomasochism clubs."

"Got you, doc. Thanks."

"I'm here to help." Brexler put away his phone.

He pushed the bowl of oatmeal away in disgust. He wouldn't be going to the lab, today. With the Jane Doe in the wind, he might never be going. If he couldn't find her, there was always the possibility of a relative with violet eyes.

* * *

It was a slow night. Crystal's only action was a trucker in a plaid shirt who dumped her in the woods when he found out what she was packing under her fishnet stockings. The long walk back to Fourteenth Street raised blisters on her heels because they just don't make women's shoes big enough for her feet.

The blisters caused a dilemma. Ordinarily she'd warn people away from Rachel's corner, but her feet were just too damn sore to hobble over and talk some sense to the new girl. Why did Crystal have to be the Good Samaritan all the time? Then the thought of Rachel's old man taking a razor to the new girl's face got the better of Crystal. Wincing and cursing on each painful step, she walked over.

"Can't stand here, honey. This is Rachel's corner and she gets mighty possessive," Crystal took the girl's arm. "Come on and stand with me. Our customers aren't as swank but we do okay."

They stood there for what seemed like hours. Occasionally, a car would slow but no one stopped. It didn't help that the new girl refused to talk. Conversation would have helped pass the time. Crystal was about ready to pack it in when a high roller pulled up in an Audi.

"Hey baby, you want to party?" Crystal leaned into the open window and could almost smell the money seeping from the man's pores. He seemed more like one of Rachel's clients but you never knew. Some guys got off on "girls" who were a little trashy.

"How are you going to show me a good time?" the man asked.

"You get all this for two hundred dollars." Crystal raised her skirt, pulled down her panties, and gave a glimpse of her penis. As a tranny, Crystal found it best to let clients know what they were getting beforehand to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to a beating.

The client paused as if for some internal debate and then pulled away from the corner.

"Wait! Wait!" Crystal pointed to the new girl. "Two for one."

"Get in."

"You heard the customer." Crystal waved to the new girl. "Come on!"

They drove off with the new girl in back and Crystal riding shotgun.

"Haven't seen you around before, baby. New in town?" Crystal asked.

"Don't get out much."

"I hear you. Busy man like yourself has to make the most of his precious free time. I know a nice motel we can go to."

"I got a place," the client said. "No one will disturb us."

"Sounds fine."

"What's the matter with her?" The client gestured toward the girl in back. "Can't she talk?"

"Baby, she prefers to use her mouth for other things."

They drove to a secluded house that was all angles, blond wood, and picture windows looking out on a lake. Lost in thoughts of being the lady of a house where she could fall asleep to the sound of crickets instead of blaring stereos and yelling neighbors, Crystal walked through the front door and circled the living room, taking in the sectional couch and brushed-steel lamps.

"Let's get the business out of the way so we can enjoy ourselves," Crystal said.

"There'll be a little extra for you depending on how adventurous you are."

"We don't do no rough stuff," Crystal put the money away and set her purse on the couch, "but you better believe we can make you happy." She got on her knees and unzipped the client's pants.

It happened so fast, Crystal wasn't sure what went wrong. Most clients grew as sleepy as a breast-fed baby after they came but this guy's orgasm only fueled his rage. Instead of a head on her shoulder, Crystal found a pair of hands around her neck. She struggled for breath but her vision narrowed and then went black.

When Crystal came to, the new girl was squatting over the client's dead body. Blood soaked the carpet and the new girl's clothes. It took Crystal several minutes to recover from the shock. Then she realized they had to get out of there. Even though it was self-defense, prosecutors loved to pin murders on prostitutes, especially the cross-dressing kind. But the new girl was covered in blood.

"Just wait here, honey," Crystal said, "and don't touch anything."

Careful to avoid stepping in the pooling blood, Crystal searched the dead man's home for a change of clothing. Wrapping a towel around her hand to avoid leaving fingerprints, she opened drawers and closets finding a track suit, garbage bags, and some spare cash. While the new girl changed, Crystal fished the car keys out of the dead man's pocket. They bagged the knife, towel, and bloody clothes; wiped surfaces to remove fingerprints; locked the door on the way out; and drove the Audi back to town. Crystal parked in an alley a few blocks from her studio apartment.

"You got a place to stay?" Crystal asked.

The new girl shook her head.

"Well, come on, then. Saving my life entitles you to a few month's rent at least."

Crystal wiped the car's interior for fingerprints and looked at the keys in the ignition. Her plan had been to leave them but, on second thought, having a car could be useful. She pocketed the keys and tossed the bag of bloody clothing in a random dumpster. The new girl followed her onto a side street, up a dingy stairwell, and waited while Crystal unlocked the door.

"Come on in. It ain't much, but it's home."

"Thank you," the new girl said in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

"You can talk?"

In response, the new girl reached for Crystal's penis, maneuvered her to the unmade bed, and made tender love to her.

* * *

Dwayne Telluride's need for intimacy got lost in the shuffle somewhere between the constant, twelve-hour workdays and corporate moving him to a new city. He tried online dating but the women he met weren't worth the effort. All they did was parrot the vapid drivel they heard on gossip shows and cable news without a critical thought getting between their ears and mouths. It didn't help that he was un-athletic and five feet seven inches tall. The jocks turned salesmen got all the women while he spent nearly a decade without getting laid. If he hadn't taken desperate action, he could have waited another ten years, which was why he was cruising 14th Street in his Toyota Prius on a Saturday evening. For a few hundred bucks, he could get a blow job in the front seat or maybe some missionary in a seedy motel. It would be enough to numb the pain of loneliness and desperation for a few weeks.

The whores were out in force. Dwayne maneuvered his car into the traffic jam of johns whose purpose was the same as his. He didn't mind the wait. He enjoyed the anticipation. Short skirts, side boob, and torn nylons - he liked his girls a little trashy. An Asian woman in an evening gown knocked on his window.

"Hey baby, you looking to party?"

"Not tonight, honey. I'll try you next time." Dwayne continued window shopping.

His heart nearly stopped when the woman with violet eyes opened her robe and treated him to a view of the thatch between her legs. Dwayne gave a nod, pressed the remote lock control, and she was inside.

"Hi, I'm Dwayne."

The woman spoke with her hands by reaching for Dwayne's zipper.

"Don't talk much, huh?" Dwayne turned at the next intersection. "Let's go someplace more private."

He drove to the old Bell Refrigerator plant and parked in back of an abandoned warehouse. Dwayne would have preferred a little small talk but the woman had him unzipped and out of his pants before he could say a word. He knew he should reach for the condoms in his glove compartment but the woman's mouth and hands felt so good that he merely leaned back and hoped he'd be lucky.

Rose snuck her hunting knife out of her purse and plunged it into his throat.

* * *

The scene outside Solstice City's police headquarters was a circus. Antennas sprouted like agave stalks from news vans parked in front. Screaming and waving placards with words like "faggot" and "whore," members of the Evangelical Assembled Temples blocked the entrance. Escorted by two uniformed officers, Detective Jim Lamar made his way through the chaos and into the conference room, where the chief of police was briefing reporters on the hunt for the serial killer.

"Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the head of our task force, Detective James Lamar." The police chief shook Lamar's hand. "Jim, thanks for taking time out from the investigation. I'll turn it over to you."

"Thank you, chief." Lamar turned to the reporters. "As you know, several men have been murdered in the municipal area. We believe they were clients of a male prostitute. A witness saw one victim talking to this man who we consider a person of interest." Lamar spoke to the officer running the slide show. "Do we have the artist's rendering, Dave?" The computer projected a drawing of a man wearing teardrop sunglasses and a hoodie. "If you have any information about this man's identity please call the Solstice City police. In conclusion, I'd like to say that prostitution isn't a victimless crime. The only way to stay safe is to keep away. Thank you."

"Detective! Detective!" reporters called as Lamar walked away.

* * *

Despite his role as the lead investigator, Detective Lamar missed the streets, so, disguised by a baseball cap and driving an old Camaro, he went undercover on a Saturday night. Like a window-shopping debutante, he cruised 14th Street looking at prostitutes. Despite the murders, business was brisk. A bottle blond in torn nylons leaned into the SUV in front of him and got in after a brief negotiation. Lamar pulled to the curb in front of a six-foot transvestite in a fake fur jacket.

"Hey baby, I'm Crystal. You want to party?"

"Depends," Lamar said. "Can a big, strong girl like you be gentle?"

"Baby, I can be as rough or as gentle as you need." Crystal got in and touched Lamar's knee as the Camaro pulled away from the curb. "Baby, you got strong legs, a real man's legs."

"Is there somewhere more private we can go?" Lamar asked.

"Yeah, I know a place. Turn right at the next stop."

Following Crystal's directions, Lamar drove to a warehouse and parked behind a loading bay. "Isn't this romantic?"

"Fifty for oral. A hundred without a condom."

"Got your money right here." Lamar reached into his pocket and took out his badge.

"Oh, shit!" Crystal took off her wig and started to cry. "I can't go back to jail."

"Nobody's going to jail." Lamar put his badge away. "You're going to help me catch the Slasher."

* * *

Detective Jim Lamar was used to being the hunter, not the hunted. As such he failed to notice the beige Hyundai that had tailed him from 14th Street. The looks of the driver belied his true nature as if he were a cartoon chipmunk who carried a hidden machete. Melvin Newton stood five feet six inches tall, had male pattern baldness, and wore plastic framed glasses. He was fond of popsicles and often wore a sweatshirt that said, "Ask me about my grandkids."

Like all of Brexler's minions, Melvin came to the good doctor's attention through the court system. The judge had ordered a psychiatric evaluation after his arrest for online harassment. Brexler had expected a typical grudge against mother figures but what he found was much worse. From the age of eight, Melvin had tortured and murdered animals for his own amusement. He was a full-blown sociopath and as such was very useful.

* * *

Crystal managed to hold together until after Lamar dropped her on the street corner. As soon as the detective drove away, she sagged against a light pole. Too agitated to work the streets, she needed some chemical therapy and started toward home. Crystal had her faults but she was loyal. Maybe the new girl was the Slasher but she'd saved Crystal's life. Crystal flapped her blouse to help evaporate her sweat. She had to tell the cops something but what? The TV news said the Slasher was some guy. Yeah, she would tell the cops something like that.

Crystal kicked off her high heels, trudged up the stairs, and unlocked her front door. Wearing only panties and a T-shirt, the new girl lay on the bed. This further confused Crystal about her sexual identity but at least it made her forget the oxy in the medicine cabinet.

* * *

Melvin stayed put when the cop drove away with the tranny. There was no need to follow and risk giving himself away. He knew where he could find her again. Over the next several days, he followed policemen and visited 14th Street at night, parking blocks away and eating lukewarm General Tso's Chicken under fluorescent lights at Ha's Chinese.

It took a week until he spotted Crystal leaving and followed her to her little apartment on Beacon Avenue. Before the curtains closed, he spotted Brexler's girl in the window. She looked more well-groomed than in the police photo but it was definitely her.

Melvin turned a corner and walked past three kids trying to break into a newspaper box with baseball bats and tire irons. One looked up at him, judged him no threat, and turned back to breaking open the change box. Melvin continued walking toward his car. He'd tell the doc about the girl but not yet. It took little imagination to realize she was mixed up with the Slasher killings. This gave him a unique opportunity to indulge in his hobby while letting her take the blame. He stopped at a Baskin Robbins and ordered a double scoop of mint-chocolate-chip on a cone. Yes, he'd string Brexler along while collecting per diem and having some fun on the side.

* * *

The EZ Rate Motel on Winslow Road did a good business with prostitutes and their clients. Melvin watched them enter and exit from his parked car across the street. Sometimes the whores left first; sometimes the johns. Although he wouldn't mind cutting up some women, that would be inconsistent with the Slasher's M.O. He had to settle for the men.

Melvin bided his time. A little after 10:00 PM, a red-head in thigh-high boots led an Asian man up the stairs to room 213. Melvin had never killed Asian before but he heard you got the urge to do it again an hour later. He chuckled at his little joke and kept the binoculars trained on room 213. His pulse quickened and he realized how much he wanted the woman to leave first. Fifteen minutes later, he got his wish. Melvin dashed across the street, bounded up the stairs, and knocked.

"Police! Open up!" He held a fake badge to the peep hole.

By the timid bow the Asian man gave as he opened the door, Melvin could tell he was a foreigner. Melvin couldn't believe his luck. The Asian wore only boxer shorts and his submissiveness in the face of authority would make him an easy victim.

"You're under arrest for solicitation." Melvin turned him around and handcuffed his hands behind his back.

* * *

Rick Stirling produced his TV show on the cheap. The set was nothing but chairs, a few potted plants, and a desk he bought at Goodwill. His guests eagerly paid their own expenses for the chance to spread their homegrown conspiracy theories with the Dark Side's millions of viewers. Between the ad revenues and low expenses, the show had made Stirling a wealthy man. He started as always with a follow up on a previous guest.

"As I mentioned last week, the Rhode Island board is trying to revoke Dr. Melvin Roadblock's medical license because he has the guts to tell the truth about vaccination and autism. The board received so many e-mails from our viewers that its website went off line, which just goes to show you that you have to be more than politically active. You have to be radioactive." This slogan made no sense even to Stirling but his viewers ate it up. He adjusted some papers on his desk before introducing his first guest.

"Merle Ives comes to us all the way from Solstice City." Stirling turned to the bald man with a gray beard. "Merle, I understand you have some information about the serial killer out there."

"That's right, Rick. I been living in Solstice City for thirty years, almost as long as I been a member of the NRA. You see, owning a gun is the right of every American. It's guaranteed in the Constitution …"

"Of course, Merle," Stirling interrupted, "but maybe you could tell our viewers about the events on Saturday night."

"Well, I was coming out of the 7-Eleven when I heard some crying from over in the alley. Turns out it was a lady. I said, 'Miss, are you all right?" That's when she come at me with a knife."

"What did you do?"

"I did what every red-blooded American would have done. I shot her in the chest with my Colt 1911. That didn't stop her so I put a round right between her eyes."

"Then what?"

"I high-tailed it out of there and called the police. When they got there, that woman was gone. The cops arrested me for unlawful discharge of a firearm. Even confiscated my gun. Hell, I had that pistol since Vietnam."

"Merle, I'm sorry I have to ask this. There are allegations that the killer's victims bought sex from prostitutes. Is that what you were doing, Saturday night?"

"No sir. I have nothing to do with that. I been happily married to my wife Maureen for thirty-six years, but back to that night. Weird thing is the hollow points I shoot pack enough punch to stop a charging rhino, yet that woman must've walked away like they were gnats. Something fishy is going on if you ask me."

"Strange happenings in Solstice City," Stirling said. "Is it a cover up or just police incompetence? You be the judge. When we come back, we'll have Dereck Dexter with new information on Area 51."

* * *

After Stirling's broadcast, feminists waving placards saying "Jail the Johns," "Prostitution is Slavery," and "It's About Time" joined the Evangelical protesters in front of police headquarters. A reporter stopped Detective Lamar in front of the crowd.

"Detective! People are calling the killer the Female Avenger. What do you think of the possibility that the killer is a woman?" The reporter shoved a microphone in Lamar's face.

"The investigation is ongoing and we will look at all the evidence, but let me state this. A police investigation is based on facts, not the fantasies of a bunch of conspiracy theorists and whackos. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a killer to stop."

* * *

Diane Krall monitored the media circus from her office at the Clio Institute. Her first priority was discrediting any witnesses of Rose's immortality. Merle Ives' social media accounts were easy to break into. Once she had access, she set about liking every conspiracy page she could from Merle's Facebook account as well as posting paranoid tweets in his name at 3:00 AM.

* * *

"Welcome back to the Rick Stirling Show. Last week's interview with Merle Ives exposed a police cover up of the Solstice City Slasher case. We've located another witness to the event. Please welcome Martin O'Connell."

The audience applauded as a man with a chest-length white beard, held in place by a clip under his chin, took his seat.

"Now Martin, you were present when Merle was attacked?"

"Indeed, I was, Rick. It happened just like he said."

"Take us through the events of that night."

"Well, I had myself a wee bit of whiskey and stopped by that alley to drain the pickle, if you know what I mean. That's when I saw her. I could tell by her eyes she was one of the mole women who live in a vast city at the center of the earth. Periodically, they come to the surface to mate with humans but you've got to give them something shiny. Tin foil or a piece of broken glass will do. When I was a younger man, I took advantage of the mole women's charms. Let me tell you."

This story made even Stirling skeptical. He fidgeted with his papers while occasionally shooting angry looks at his producer.

"Anyway," Martin continued. "I tried to warn Mr. Ives, but I was too late. The damn fool shot the mole woman in the head but fortunately for her, mole women's brains are located in their backsides. After Merle ran away like a scared girl, the mole woman scampered down the storm drain. Wouldn't worry about her, though. They got great medicine. Hell, one of their underground mushrooms even cured my lung cancer."

"That's quite a story," Stirling said. "Mole women? Underground cities? You be the judge. After the break, we'll replay a report by Dereck Dexter."

* * *

"Last round, boys."

"Give me another Anchor." Joe Taylor watched the bartender's behind as she bent to retrieve the bottle.

If he were more cautious, he would have passed up that last drink but it was only beer. Besides he could drive the deserted stretch of road between the Hideaway and his shit-box apartment with his eyes closed. It would be different if he still lived at the house but his ex-wife got that. At least the bitch didn't get his Dodge Charger.

After downing the beer and settling his tab, Taylor walked out to the neon-lit parking lot where his Charger lurked like a mountain lion about to pounce. He ran a hand over the graceful curve of its hood. It sure was a beautiful machine. He was a little buzzed but didn't want to wait around for an hour and taking a cab was a waste of money.

He got behind the wheel and turned the key. The big engine rumbled like artillery taking out Taliban. Taylor cleared the parking lot and set out on the deserted stretch of County Road 22. It was a lovely night. The moon peeked through a gap in the cloud cover and trees twice a man's height grew near both shoulders making the road seem enclosed and sheltered. Taylor rolled down the window. Steering with one hand, he reached for a pack of cigarettes while he took a corner. A ghostly woman in some kind of nightgown appeared in his headlights. Taylor slammed on the brakes but was too late. The Charger hit the woman with a sickening crunch.

Taylor smacked his head on the steering wheel, came to moments later, and got out from behind the wheel. The front end of his car was mangled and steam hissed from his radiator.

"Jesus! Jesus!" Taylor approached the woman lying in the road, touched her neck, and felt no pulse. "No! No!" he screamed at the moon. "What the fuck am I supposed to do now?"

If they convicted him of drunk driving, he'd lose his license and his job. Taylor thought fast. The coming rain would wash away the evidence and his cousin ran a garage that would fix his car, no questions asked. All he had to do was hide the body.

"I'm never going to drink again." Taylor grabbed the woman's wrists and began dragging her into the bushes.

Her violet eyes popped open.

"Fuck!" Taylor dropped her arms and backed away.

So much for his plan. Joe Taylor was careless but he was not an evil man. When confronted with an injured woman, he did the right thing.

"Come on, honey. Let's get you to the hospital." Taylor moved close with the intention of carrying her to his car.

The woman with violet eyes disemboweled him with a hunting knife.

* * *

"All right! Listen up!" Detective Lamar yelled at the gathered investigators. "This is Dr. Stephen Brexler, who's chief psychiatrist at Saint E's. I've asked him to offer his insights about the Solstice City Slasher's motivations."

Whatever their race or gender, each of the dozen detectives gave Brexler a skeptical cop stare. Brexler took in the tired eyes, pistols on hips, and garbage can overflowing with coffee cups as he walked to the podium. Tacks held grisly photos of victims to a cork board and the names of witnesses scrawled across giant sheets taped to the walls.

"Thank you, Detective Lamar." Brexler turned to the others and began laying out the smokescreen that would let him catch the Jane Doe before the police did. "Criminal investigative analysis, or profiling, has proved helpful in solving high-profile cases. James Brussels' analysis helped catch the Mad Bomber, Henry Schlossberg advised police on the Son of Sam case, and the FBI has a Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia. As to my qualifications, I've consulted as a forensic psychiatrist on several trials and taken the month-long training at BSU. Only you can solve the case, but I might provide some insight.

"When I look at the crime-scene photos, I can tell that we're dealing with a disorganized killer. The murders are unplanned and there is no attempt to hide the bodies. Since most victims are the customers of prostitutes, I'd say the killer is confused about his sexuality. Most likely, he grew up in a strict, religious household. He may have worked as a male prostitute or had a relationship with a female prostitute. Clearly, he's acting on some kind of grudge. Possible his prostitute girlfriend or daughter got hurt in the trade, or perhaps the killings are payback for contracting a venereal disease."

"Could the killer be a woman?" a detective asked.

"Very unlikely," said Brexler, who knew better. "It's possible, but male serial killers outnumber females by something like a hundred to one. In any case, these are my initial observations. Unfortunately, there's only one way to sharpen the profile. As the killer commits more murders, his pattern becomes clearer. So, if you find my analysis helpful, please keep me in the loop. Thank you."

* * *

Brexler went straight from the police station to an appointment with his oncologist. As a professional courtesy, Dr. Alvin White met him in his office instead of a sterile exam room.

"Stephen," Dr. White took a seat behind his mahogany desk and looked at Brexler's chart. "I got the results of your latest scan and I'm afraid it's not good news. The chemo and radiation haven't worked."

"Let me see." Brexler took the chart.

"I could tell you that there are experimental treatments, but we both know they'd only cause needless pain." Dr. White ran his hands through his curly hair. "My advice is to make the most of the months you have left." He wrote on a prescription pad. "This will help with the pain. I'm also referring you to Dr. Grey. He's the best palliative medicine specialist in the city."

Brexler took the prescription. For once he was at a loss for words.

"Stephen, I'm sorry."

* * *

Brexler stayed on the ward at Saint Elizabeth's long after his shift ended. Around midnight he walked the neon-lit hall to the drug locker and used his key to enter. The administration limited access to the room and did a strict inventory of all narcotics, but that wouldn't matter after Brexler injected enough morphine to stop his heart. Brexler still had a little time left, but it was reassuring to know he had an easy way to end it.

He turned off the light and went back to his office. By now the ward was deserted except for sleeping patients and the night staff. He couldn't bear to return to his empty house. Like it or not, this hospital was where he belonged. With nothing to do at this hour, he began to clean out his old e-mails and found the report on the Jane Doe's blood test in his spam directory. No drugs in her blood, and she was AB negative just like him.

On a whim, he went to the refrigerator that held samples and found the vial of her blood in back. He had nothing to lose and no time to waste. Brexler took it and a hypodermic needle back to his office where he stuck the needle though the vial's rubber cap and withdrew the plunger to transfer the contents. He rolled up his sleeve and tied an elastic band around his upper arm until the veins in his forearm stood to attention. Gently he inserted the needle into one and plunged the syringe's contents into his bloodstream.

* * *

Next morning, Brexler woke up in his chair, his face against his desk. He sat up and rubbed the drool out of the corner of his mouth and felt the indent the writing pad had made on his cheek. He was hungry. He started toward the hospital cafeteria, but gluey oatmeal was not what he wanted. Now that his stomach was back online he wanted buttery toast, hash browns, a Denver omelet, and sausages, the juicy kind dripping with artery-clogging fat. And steak! Yeah! When was the last time he'd had steak for breakfast? Pancakes drenched with real maple syrup or maybe topped with strawberries and whipped cream! Cancer had starved him for years. Now his body needed fuel.

Brexler returned to his office after a mountainous meal. The gray fog of pain and nausea had lifted. Brexler drew a vial of his own blood, labeled it with a patient's name, and called the lab.

"Jerry, it's Steve. I have a hunch about a difficult case. Could you expedite a blood test for me? Thanks. I owe you."

Brexler dropped off the sample, went home, and showered. When he returned to that afternoon, the results were in.

"Steve," Jerry said over the phone. "I ran your sample. The AFP level is normal."

His hopes confirmed, Brexler broke into a smile.

"Thanks, Jerry. I guess my diagnosis was wrong."

Brexler leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling panels. Illness had been part of his life for so long that he didn't quite know what to do, now that he was cured. He was free. He'd always wanted to learn to surf, and what better place to do so than at Australia's Bondi Beach? He had the resources for an extended vacation, but he wouldn't do it. Even though Brexler was a corrupt doctor, he was first and foremost a doctor. It he had a chance to cure disease, he would do it. Cancer was humanity's scourge and Brexler would be the lying, cheating bastard to defeat it.

7

A large map of Solstice City dominated Diane's office. After she inserted tacks, where Rose's victims had been found, she sat trying to intuit a pattern. No doubt the police were doing the same thing, but Diane had centuries more experience than they did.

The pattern didn't make sense. At first, suspecting a tie in with prostitution, she'd had Nancy keep 14th Street under discreet surveillance, but she never spotted Rose. Now the murders had spread all over the city. How was Rose getting around? Mute and nearly catatonic from her trauma, she couldn't negotiate a taxi, and taking a bus was probably beyond her, too. Transport by the victims' cars might explain some of the geographic spread, but not all. Did she have a helper? God Almighty, that would be a disaster of epic proportion.

Diane realized she'd overlooked one crucial question in her rush to contain Rose's murder spree. How did the attempted kidnappers know about Rose's presence? She leaned back in her chair and laced her fingers behind her head. There were four possibilities. Someone bugged the Clio Institute, hacked their computers, intercepted their communications, or someone on the inside betrayed them. Dealing with the technical issues would be simple compared to searching for a possible mole, but Diane had ample experience in the latter. Most disturbing of all was the possibility that someone knew enough about the Sisterhood to target them.

Diane leaned forward and removed a satellite phone from her hemp purse. Since her privacy might be compromised, she took a walk in the garden to the hum of fat bees servicing the lavender and made an encrypted phone call to New York.

"Naomi, it's Diane. I need you in Solstice City to sweep the Clio Institute for communication intercepts."

"There's a flight out of JFK at 8:30." Naomi raised her voice at the end of her sentences, making each statement sound like a question. "I can be there tomorrow."

"Great." Diane had lectured Naomi about up-talk but it did no good. "There's one more thing. Can you obtain police records of the Solstice City murders for me, and also any medical records from Saint Elizabeth's on June 25? Thanks." Diane hung up confident that she'd have the files the next day. Naomi was the best computer hacker in North America, if not the world.

* * *

Despite being centuries old, Naomi Feather dressed like a school girl, in pigtails, bobby socks, and a pleated skirt. She arrived the next day with a snap of bubblegum and a huge smile.

"These are for you." She removed a stack of documents from her Hello Kitty backpack and gave them to Diane.

"Thanks." Diane began thumbing through the pages. "Need anything?"

"Nope." Naomi began scanning rooms with a device attached to an antenna.

Diane got a cup of coffee and returned to her office. It was going to be long day. Rather than diving right into the police reports, she began with the hospital records. There was nothing out of the ordinary about Rose, just an attending physician's report, rape kit, and mention of a psychiatrist. She paged through the police reports while jotting notes on a legal pad. It was slow going. After working through the crime scene photos and autopsies, she got another cup of coffee.

Even after centuries, peoples' capacity for violence still saddened her. At best, she met it with resignation. At worst with tears. Reluctant to get back to the stack of police reports, she sat on a rickety bench under a tree heavy with loquats in the garden. A delicate breeze carried the scent of pine and burnt dust. Diane closed her eyes to a field of red that was the sun shining through her lids. She was tired of all this. Maybe she could take a few decades off after it was all over and relax in some villa on the Mediterranean, just sunshine and shopping for fresh vegetables in the markets. A shadow stopped in front of her. Diane opened her eyes. It was Naomi.

"You'd better see this."

Diane followed Naomi to a room full of rack-mounted computers and white noise. Naomi typed a few commands at a keyboard and pointed at some undecipherable text.

"It's a keyboard logger," she said. "Whoever planted it can read everything we type."

"Can you find out who did it?"

"In time, maybe," Naomi said. "What should I do now?"

"Can you remove it from all but a few computers?" Diane asked. "It might be useful to be able to send false messages."

* * *

Diane returned to the stack of police reports and worked her way through witness statements. After fifty pages, she began to feel drowsy. Unfortunately, immortality did not convey immunity to acid reflux, so more coffee was out of the question. She stared at the victims' faces but the only thing she found in common was their gender. Whatever happened to Rose's husband, Alexi, or Anton? She'd have to check. The doctor who signed Rocco Entebbe out of the forensic psychiatry ward, a Dr. Stephen Brexler, sounded familiar. Who was it that saw Rose?

Diane searched the papers until she found the hospital records. The psychiatrist was the same man. That was too much of a coincidence. She leaned back and laced her fingers behind her head. She would have to learn more about this Dr. Brexler.

* * *

Brexler paced between his desk and office door. He hadn't heard from Melvin in days. He sat and began clicking his pen. There had to be a way to speed things up. Of course! He picked up the phone and dialed the nursing station.

"Ruth, could you set up an appointment with Anton Richter this afternoon? Great! I've been going over his chart and think he's made significant progress."

* * *

The woman with the eating disorder droned on and on about "media" images and how the pretty girls got all the hot guys in high school. Like so many others these days, she had a pierced nostril and tattoos on her chest and arms. Brexler managed a discreet glimpse at his watch. Ten minutes to go. He sat through three before he could stand it no longer.

"I'm afraid we're out of time." Brexler scribbled a note and closed the folder. "Keep up with your group therapy, stick to your diet, and I'll see you next week." He escorted her to the door and smiled when he saw the man with the hideous face in the waiting room. "Anton, good to see you. Please come in."

Brexler held the door while the man with the hideous face shuffled into his office. The keloid scars had healed somewhat. No longer red and inflamed, the man's face merely looked like melted wax. Brexler waited until the man with the hideous face took a seat before sitting down.

"The purpose of psychiatric hospitalization is to give the patient a respite from the storms of emotional drama in daily life, and to allow space for intensive therapy." Brexler opened the patient's chart. "It's not meant as a permanent escape from life. In fact, staying too long would be counterproductive. You've made excellent progress and I think it's time for you to go home."

The man with the hideous face stared at his hands.

"Of course, I'll schedule you twice a week for outpatient therapy. I'll have Ruth fill out the paperwork. Any questions?"

Once the man with the hideous face left, Brexler dialed a number he'd committed to memory on a burner cell phone. Melvin picked up on the fourth ring.

"Melvin, it's your doctor. Mr. Anton Richter will be returning to his home at 16 Meadowlark Lane this Thursday. I'm sure his wife will want to be there. You remember her, the woman with the violet eyes. Anyway, I thought you might like to be there, too as part of the welcoming party." After hanging up, Brexler removed the SIM card and broke it in half.

* * *

Diane finished listening to the recording of Brexler's phone call and Naomi closed the media player on her laptop.

"I set up fake cell-phone towers near Brexler's home and office," Naomi said. "I catch everything that goes out, but there hasn't been anything else significant."

"Do you know who this Melvin is?" Diane asked.

"Not yet, but I'll track him down."

"Good." Diane laced her hands behind her head and leaned back in her chair. "If Brexler's arranging a party for Rose's husband, we should crash it."

* * *

Rick Stirling turned his head to look into the camera after the commercial break.

"In a series of events that mirror the movie Gaslight, a shadowy organization is plotting to steal the fortune of local humanitarian, Anton Richter. For more on this story, please welcome Trent Little."

The audience applauded the gangly man with tortoise-shell glasses who walked on stage.

"Welcome, Trent. Please fill us in on this sad story."

"Solstice City residents will no doubt remember Anton Richter as the tech billionaire who funded the Helping Hand scholarships for low-income college students." A portrait of pre-injury Anton showed up on the monitor as Trent spoke. "In the last few years, he's spent considerable funds on community projects in Africa such as clean water, renewable energy, and loans to local businesses. It seems some people don't like these activities. Earlier this year, he nearly died in a bombing and just last month he was committed to a psych ward."

"Do we know who's after him?" Stirling asked.

"Who would benefit by judging him incompetent, appointing a conservator, and stealing Richter's money? The usual suspects: Council of Foreign Relations, Trilateral Commission, Bavarian Illuminati, World Bank …"

"How has it turned out?"

"Here I can report some good news. Anton Richter beat them. He got out of the hospital and is back at his home on Meadowlark Lane."

"Well, we wish him all the best," Stirling said. "Thanks Trent."

* * *

The man with the hideous face's mansion was large as a motel. It sat behind a stone fence on a tree-shaded, three-acre estate well back from the road. Watching the grainy, black-and-white video from infrared cameras planted on the grounds, Fern wondered what anyone would do with a home that had twenty bedrooms. Heating would cost a fortune, and how would you ever clean the place? Nevertheless, she dreamed of owning a property like that someday.

"Anything?" Nancy asked.

"Nothing yet."

The two monitored Anton Richter's property from the back of a Verizon van parked blocks away. The next shift wasn't due to relieve them for hours.

"Who's that?" Nancy pointed at the hooded figure on the monitor.

"Could it be the elusive Melvin?" Fern zoomed in but the camera's resolution wasn't good enough to make out the man's features.

The intruder looked both ways and then boosted himself over the fence. Fran started for the door.

"Wait." Nancy grabbed her arm. "Rose hasn't showed up yet. Don't tip our hand."

* * *

Melvin dropped into the yard from atop the fence and squatted in the shadows. He removed a suppressed pistol from his knapsack, donned night-vision goggles, and scanned the area. Once satisfied, he tiptoed to the house and flattened himself against an exterior wall. He anticipated checking numerous doors and windows for vulnerabilities and came prepared to deal with burglar alarms, but that turned out to be unnecessary. The first window he came to was open. Instead of electronic devices and alligator clips, he only needed a box cutter to slice the screen so he could climb inside.

The master bedroom was a mess. The rumpled sheets stank of sweat. Tailored suits and a Rolex watch lay on the carpet with discarded tissues. A spider web arced from monitor to keyboard on a neglected laptop.

Melvin entered the hallway and passed bedrooms, jacuzzi, and a dining room. He heard the fake enthusiasm from an infomercial, and followed the sound to a den where the man with the hideous face sat drinking from a half-empty bottle of eighteen-year-old Macallan Scotch.

Melvin always relished others' fear but when he pointed his pistol at the man with the hideous face, his victim merely said, "I've been expecting you. You'll find all you need in the workshop."

The man with the hideous face stood and led Melvin to a room with table saws, drill presses, and a variety of power tools. Peg boards with spray-painted outlines of wrenches and saws indicated that the owner once had pride in the place. The air smelled faintly of bleach as if someone had tried to coverup a monstrous crime. Melvin searched tool cabinets until he found plastic tie wraps.

"Hands." He motioned to the man with the hideous face, tied his wrists together, secured his victim to the table saw, and gagged him with duct tape.

The night was not working out as well as Melvin had hoped. True, he could pin the man with the hideous face's murder on the Slasher but the man's lack of fear or even concern robbed Melvin of any thrill.

"Maybe I should start with your eyes." Melvin plugged a hand-held drill into an extension cord and pressed the trigger to make it whir.

Nothing. It was almost as if the man with the hideous face wanted to die. Melvin sighed. This was going to be a chore but at least he was getting paid. He might as well get on with it. He'd start with the hands, because they had the most pain receptors. He heard the front door open, picked up his pistol, and was ready when Rose entered.

"Do what I say and you won't get hurt." Melvin motioned with the pistol. "Turn around and put your hands on the wall."

No one can explain the human heart. Rose looked at Melvin, the drill, and the man she had every right to want to see dead. Then she attacked.

Melvin fired two rounds into Rose's chest. The hollow points should have stopped her but he adjusted his aim and the headshot did.

"Now, where were we? Ah, yes." Melvin set down the pistol and picked up the drill. "Your end won't be nearly as quick as hers."

No mortal survives a bullet to the intraocular cavity, but Rose did. After a minute, her heart resumed beating, and the neurons in her brain knitted themselves back together. Melvin heard a scream and turned in time for the charging Rose to drive a chisel into his throat.

* * *

Nancy and Rose arrived just as Rose was cutting the man with the hideous face free.

"It's okay, Rose." Fern held out her hands to show she was unarmed. "You need to come with us."

Rose's eyes darted wildly. There was no escape. Nancy and Fern blocked the door. Then Rose spotted Melvin's pistol. She snatched it from atop the tool cabinet, emptied the magazine into her Sisters' chests, and ran from the room. Minutes later, the two women sat up.

"Deal with him. I'll follow Rose." Nancy ran off.

"Anton, it is Anton, right?" Fern cut the remaining tie wraps, freeing the man with the hideous face from the table saw. "You've done some terrible things to Rose, unforgivable things but there is a way to make amends."

* * *

It wasn't as if Molly Starshine's parents didn't love her. They gave her whatever she wanted and even built a playhouse in the yard of their fourteen-thousand-square-foot home. It was just that mom and dad were very busy with their very important jobs, and that after coming home from the far-away, private school, Molly had nobody to play with. Sure, there was Mrs. Washington, the housekeeper, but she smelled like sauerkraut farts and always complained about her sore feet.

Bored with TV and Mrs. Washington, Molly spent more and more time in her playhouse. Craftsmen, all the way in Denmark, made it look like the real thing, with lace curtains, pink siding, and real shingles. Since it was half-scale, the couch and chair fit Molly as if she were all grown up with a very important job of her own. She sure wanted someone to play with, though.

As if a fairy godmother granted her wish, Molly found a lady picking guavas by the hedge that separated their house from Old Man Rogers' house. Mr. Rogers came from "old money." Molly didn't like Mr. Rogers. For that matter, she didn't like guavas either. They had a yucky, vinegar smell, kind of like Mrs. Washington. You'd have to be desperate, like a princess on the run from an evil sorcerer, to eat those yucky things. That was it! The lady had to be a runaway princess with her uncombed hair, stained gown that was all wrinkled, and violet eyes. Molly's teacher always said you had to share with the less fortunate, so Molly tugged the lady's sleeve.

"You want some cookies? My mom gets the kind without any of that fruitose syrup. Wait inside and I'll be right back." Molly ushered the lady into her playhouse and ran for the kitchen.

Mrs. Washington had already put out dinner by the time Molly got inside.

"Can I eat in the playhouse?" Without waiting for an answer, Molly filled a plate with cauliflower, free-range chicken nuggets, and macaroni. She only took one set of cutlery because she was still full from the muffin she ate after school. She hurried back to the playhouse and found another lady there but something was wrong. The other lady held a gun.

"No!" Molly positioned herself between the two women just as the tranquilizer dart left Nancy's pistol.

The amount of sedative needed to stop an adult can be fatal to a child with a third the adult's body weight. When she saw the little girl go down, Nancy dropped to her knees and began CPR.

"Don't just stand there! Help me!" she told Rose. "One, two, three, four, five." Nancy pumped the girl's chest. "Breathe."

Rose pinched Molly's nose and blew into her mouth.

"One, two, three, four, five, breathe."

They struggled for minutes but it was no good. The little girl's heart stopped. Nancy ran a hand through her sweaty hair. How on earth would the Sisterhood cover this up? The little girl gasped, not a death rattle, but a real breath. Nancy felt her pulse. Miracle of miracles, the girl was an immortal, too. Nancy weighed their options and decided leaving the girl with a fanciful tale her family would never believe was best. She took Rose's hand and led her away.

* * *

Reporters gathered at police headquarters. Rumors of a break in the Slasher case had been circulating for hours and their editors wanted something solid. The news conference was supposed to start at 3:00 PM and it was already a half-hour late. Finally, the police commissioner came to the podium.

"I'm pleased to announce the Solstice City Slasher's reign of terror is over. Let me turn it over to the task force lead, Detective Jim Lamar, for further details."

"Good afternoon." Lamar adjusted the microphone. "Last night, Melvin Alan Newton attacked a citizen in his home with the intent of murdering him. That citizen fatally wounded Newton while defending himself. Police searched Newton's home and found trophies taken from several of the Slasher's victims as well as evidence tying Newton to murders in three other states. I'll take questions."

"Who is the hero who stopped this monster?" an AP reporter asked.

"The citizen wishes to remain anonymous."

"Since an armed citizen stopped this murderer, has the police commissioner changed his stance on gun control?"

* * *

Dr. Stephen Brexler reached for the remote and switched off the news conference. So that fool Melvin went and got himself killed. No great loss, but without him Brexler doubted he could get to Rose. No matter. He still had another play.

8

The Mother of Civilizations looked up from the journal article and looked at the New York skyline while pondering how to fund production of the new antibiotic. The phone rang.

"I thought I said I didn't want to be disturbed." She picked up the phone. "Hello. Diane, it's been a long time. What's on your mind?" The news was not good. One of the Sisterhood had gone on a killing spree, and Diane Krall could no longer contain the situation. "All right. I'll catch a plane and be there tomorrow."

The Mother of Civilizations was already thousands of years old when the Egyptians built the pyramids. Before the invention of agriculture, before the invention of sexism, she was the Neolithic priestess who inspired the construction of the temple complex at Gobekli Tepe, the prehistoric site that proved archaeologists and businessmen wrong. Economic surplus did not free artisans to create. Artisans inspired society to produce that surplus.

Like Stonehenge after it, Gobekli Tepe consists of stone columns arranged in circles. Around 9000 BCE, the Mother of Civilizations instructed her followers to make their myths concrete. Tribes came from throughout what is now southeastern Turkey to erect T-shaped columns and carve bulls, headless men, and fantastical creatures with stone tools.

Thousands of years later, the Mother of Civilizations lived in Çatalhöyük, the city connected by roofs where images of bulls decorated homes' interiors, and the graves of headless ancestors lay under the floors. With her slight build, girlish voice, and auburn hair, the Mother of Civilizations could be easily overlooked. That's the way she liked it. Whispering and inspiring from the background, she spread culture to the Near East, Egypt, and Greece.

Throughout her life, she'd used many names. She currently called herself Janet Sinclair, head of the Kiplinger Institute, a private entity that used its considerable wealth to counter threats to civilization. Epidemics, nuclear war, climate change, and catastrophic meteor strikes - the institute fought them all.

* * *

The Mother of Civilizations arrived at the Clio Institute, not in a limousine with a retinue of bodyguards, but driving the gray minivan she'd rented at the airport.

"I'm here to see Diane," She strode past Nancy at the reception desk.

"Ma'am!" Nancy ran after her. "You can't go in there."

With her mixed martial arts training and superior strength, Nancy thought she'd have little struggle restraining the petite woman with auburn hair, but the moment she grabbed the visitor's shoulder, Nance found herself in a disabling wristlock, being marched up the stairs into Diane's office.

"Ah, Janet." Diane looked up from the papers on her desk when the Mother of Civilizations shoved Nancy into her office. "I see you've met Nancy."

Fern rushed to the entryway carrying a Glock pistol.

"That will be all, ladies," Diane said. "Janet and I have a lot to discuss."

* * *

Jenny Manczarek slipped into the lecture hall a few minutes late and took the first available seat. Her psych professor had already begun his introduction.

"I'm pleased to welcome Dr. Stephen Brexler back. Those of you who were here for his PTSD talk know that he's an inciteful lecturer who brings decades of first-hand experience to his talks. Today, he'll discuss depression."

"Thank you, Bill." Brexler clipped the microphone to his lapel. "Depression is a debilitating illness that affects tens of millions of Americans. And it is an illness, not just a bad mood. The sufferer cannot buck up and snap out of it. If you examine the biology, you find the sufferer's immune system is responding much as it would to a major infection."

Jenny slipped a notebook out of her backpack and tried to capture what the doctor was saying. A lot of details got by her but she was fascinated.

"There is a genetic component," Brexler continued, "but it's not that simple. The onset of depression is also tied to major life events, setbacks as it were, such as job loss, divorce, death of a loved one. The research on this is quite fascinating. Those with a genetic predisposition can recover from life trauma, but often develop depression after two or three such events. Those without the genetic predisposition can weather more …"

Jenny sat rapt throughout the hour and was eager to hear more.

"Thanks again, Stephen," the professor said once Brexler finished.

"Anytime, Bill." Brexler took off the lapel mic. "Oh, last time, one of your students mentioned something about an aunt with PTSD. A new study is starting at Saint E's and it looks promising. If that student is here, I can give more details."

* * *

At a nearby coffeeshop, Brexler brought two cups to the table and slid one toward Jenny.

"We've had promising results combining a new drug with talk therapy," Brexler said.

"How does it work?" Jenny shook a packet of sugar so all the grains settled at the bottom, tore it open, and added it to her coffee. Still not satisfied after taking a sip, she repeated the process.

"As you may know, memories become more vulnerable when you bring them up. The new drug resembles a neurotransmitter associated with forgetting. It's related to THC, actually …"

As Brexler went on, Jenny found him hard to follow. She tried focusing on his words but couldn't. She closed her eyes, her head slumped forward, and she jerked herself awake. She need to sleep. If only she could sleep. Sleep.

* * *

Now that he had a specimen in his secure lab, Brexler pondered where to begin. While Jenny slept off the drug, he tried to come up with a plan, scribbling notes in a spidery hand on the pages of his lab book. Comparing the girl's DNA to the Jane Doe's was a start, but how could he study her body's healing process? Perhaps he could amputate a little toe or induce a tumor. He'd have to think about it. No rush. He had time. Brexler heard the door and a tiny woman with auburn hair intruded.

"Dr. Stephen Brexler," the Mother of Civilizations said. "You've caused us a lot of annoyance."

"How did you find me?" Brexler kept his eyes leveled at the intruder as he reached for the pistol in his drawer, a pistol he'd bought as a defense against animal-rights terrorists.

"Transponder in Jenny's backpack. Even if that failed, we would have found you. We've had you under surveillance for weeks."

"Before you kill me, let me ask how long it's been. How long have you watched the rest of us suffering and dying of heart attacks, cancer, and disease while refusing to help us find a cure? My methods may be crude, but compared to you, I'm Gandhi." Brexler raised the pistol and fired two rounds.

The .45 caliber bullets might as well have been bee stings. The Mother of Civilizations kept approaching. In a panic, Brexler kept firing while watching in fascination and horror as the damage done to the Mother of Civilizations healed before his eyes. She swept the pistol from Brexler's grip, backhanded him, and subdued him with an arm bar.

"I've thought about what you said." The Mother of Civilizations shifted her weight, putting pressure on Brexler's elbow so that he stiffened in agony. "I'll offer you a deal. You may continue your research at our laboratory, provided you turn the results over to us, and we will determine what, if anything, to publish. Of course, you will never leave."

"And the alternative?" Brexler asked.

"Let's just say that either way, Dr. Stephen Brexler disappears from public view."

* * *

Jenny Manczarek looked at the clock in her bedroom at the Clio Institute. Three minutes left. Even though she'd had unprotected sex with Chad, there was probably nothing to worry about. After all, members of the Sisterhood couldn't get pregnant. Just to be sure, she decided to check, after her periods stopped. Time's up. She returned to the bathroom and looked at the pregnancy test. The tiny window on the plastic stick displayed a blue plus.

THE END

Bio: I have written novels, the story collections Arugula and The Alchemist's Grandson Changes His Name, and the poetry collection Words of Power, Dances of Freedom. I am an editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. I've published almost a hundred short stories in journals such as The Berkeley Fiction Review, Space and Time, Zahir, and Tales of the Talisman. The editors of Knot Literary Magazine nominated one for a Pushcart Prize. I've also published over three hundred poems in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Pearl, and Slipstream. One poem received the Editor's Choice award in the 2016 Spirit First contest and another won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists contest. I have a Ph.D. in physics and am a longtime student of Buddhism and the martial arts.

E-mail: Jon Wesick

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