Nightwind

by Brandy Dewinter

Copyright 2012 - All rights reserved



Platinum



Chapter 1 - "Too Terrible to Exist"

My world ended when I was fifteen. That's usually expected to be a figurative statement, but in my case there were very literal elements; some of which I didn't discover until much later. Yet it was also a figurative expression because - after all - I'm still around to write this story. And the really ironic thing is that, though I was there the whole time my world was coming to an end, in another way I wasn't there for any of it.

My parents and I had gone out to dinner; nothing special, just a friendly little family place that was popular enough on Friday nights that parking spilled over into a church lot next door. My mother, Jordan Sinclair, had laughed when my father, Jason Sinclair, had offered to get the car and come back for us.

"Don't be silly, dear," she had said. "I'm not wearing heels tonight for a reason. We can make it to the car with no trouble."

And that's all I remember of that night.

My next memory was of waking up in a hospital bed. I didn't feel like I needed to be in a hospital bed, except for being a bit confused on how I had gotten there. Some of the sensors that seemed to be sticking in and to every part of me must have sent a signal of awareness because about the time I was starting to look for the buzzer to call for someone, a small army appeared at my door.

None of whom I knew. At least, not any in the first wave. After a moment I saw my Aunt Katherine coming in with the second group of strangers.

That wasn't good news. Not because I didn't like Aunt Kate - I liked her a lot - but because none of the people coming in were my parents. That was more than a little ominous.

I was treated like a lab rat for a few minutes - I still didn't even know why I was in the hospital - but after they took the thermometer out of my mouth, I decided that I had had enough. One of the things my dad had taught me was how to whistle.

The loud kind.

I suppose this is where I need to explain who I am. My name is Jamie Sinclair. My parents were into the J thing, I guess, both being J's themselves. I've already mentioned that I was fifteen when the world ended. I was a bit scrawny for my age, 5'9" and about 120 pounds. Both of my parents were slender so that wasn't too unusual. I was a bit disappointed that I hadn't started shaving yet, but my dad was never one of those burly, shave-with-a-blowtorch types so I was trying to be patient on that. Oh, and my parents were rich: Bruce Wayne rich. Mom was a teacher so I was home-schooled. She had also been an Olympic gymnast so my lessons included more than listing the rivers that run through the American Midwest. Dad was an inventor, which was mostly where the money came from. He was into physics and math so I got plenty of that, too. Plus learning to whistle.

When the echoes died out and people stopped twitching, I said in a quieter though still carrying voice, "Will someone please tell me what is going on?"

That was stupid, of course. Everyone in the room started talking at once. I think half of them were talking to each other and I was about to whistle again when Aunt Kate - Katherine Webster - stepped to the side of the bed.

"All of you, out. Right now."

Now, my Aunt Kate is a pretty woman, 30-something, and she gets her share of attention just from the way she looks. But she also looks like she would only weigh a hundred pounds if she had a bucket of sand in each hand so for her to dominate that room full of self-important people - without even raising her voice - was pretty impressive. I took notes. I think it had something to do with the visible sparks that jumped from her eyes to burn holes in the middle of a few foreheads and at least one posterior.

They filed out. Well, except for three other than Aunt Kate. One I realized that I did recognize. It was our family doctor, Joe Allridge. I should have expected that. The next was a somewhat overweight, middle-aged man that had an aura of "cop" floating around him. The third was his counterpart on the female side, only her aura said, "officious bureaucrat."

"You, too," Aunt Kate demanded of the woman.

"But I'm Child Protective Services," the woman declared. Funny name, if you ask me. What were her parents thinking?

"And I'm Jamie's direct blood relative. His *only* direct blood relative. I will look out for his interests without you. Or the State. You're not getting custody of him or his money, so just butt out."

"Well, I . . ," the woman sputtered.

" . . . better be on the other side of that door in two seconds," Aunt Kate finished for her, moving toward the woman (who must have outweighed her by 50 pounds) with a definite sense of mission in her posture.

The woman, Ms. Services, didn't make it out in two seconds but I doubt it took four.

I witnessed that byplay but my mind was racing off into other directions. I may not be the genius my Dad was, but I was smart enough to recognize what I had just heard.

The guy - not Dr. Allridge - who had stayed looked uncomfortable for a moment, then stepped to the bed.

"Jamie," he began, then paused. "You don't mind if I call you Jamie, do you?"

"It's my name," I said quietly, looking into his eyes like Dad always said I should do, but knowing even as I did it that it wasn't working. My own eyes were filling up and all I was doing was showing it to the cop.

"I'm Detective Sloan," he continued. "I need to ask you a few questions about the circumstances of your parents' death."

I looked at Aunt Kate. Tears were already rolling down her cheeks and I just couldn't . . . do anything. I couldn't speak. I couldn't look away. I couldn't scream or shout or even breathe. I just looked at her crying and felt the tears roll down my own face.

"So they *are* dead," I said after some time that I had no way to judge.

"You didn't know?" the detective said sharply. He looked at the doctor and said, "I understood he was found with the bodies."

"He was," Aunt Kate supplied. "Jamie, you . . . saw them. You have to know that they were . . . gone."

"I was?" I said. "I'm sorry, but all I remember was leaving the restaurant. Mom said we'd walk with Dad to where the car was parked and . . . then I was here."

"Were you injured in the attack?" Sloan asked. "Was he?" he repeated, turning to the doctor before I even had a chance to respond.

"None of his injuries would have caused him to lose his memory. This must be dissociative amnesia."

"Putting a label on it doesn't explain it, Dr. Allridge," I said.

"It means your loss of memory is psychological, not due to physical trauma," he explained. "Your mind just found what happened too . . . terrible to bear, and refuses to remember it."

"So, how do I get it back?"

"I don't know," he replied. "We'll look into it of course, but it's not always recoverable."

"That's not good news," the detective said. Then he turned to me again. "So, you don't remember anything after you left the restaurant? Not a thing?"

"No," I said softly. I was concentrating but there wasn't even a hole in my memory. There was Mom and Dad talking at the door of the restaurant, and then there was waking up in the hospital. It wasn't even like I had slept in between. The scene just changed as fast as a movie cut.

"How long?" I asked finally.

"Most of a day, and the night before, of course," Aunt Kate replied.

"How were my parents . . . killed?" I asked now, turning to the detective. This time I couldn't even try to meet his eyes. I just stared at my hands, but I had moved enough to make it clear I was asking him.

"I don't think I should . . ," he said, hesitantly.

"*I* think you should," I said sharply, managing with the help of my anger to look up at him..

He looked at Dr. Alldridge, who shrugged, and at Aunt Kate, who frowned but nodded.

"As best we can tell," the detective began, "you and your parents were taken from the church parking lot to a nearby creek bed or ravine - it's dry at this time of year. It appears that they wanted some information from your father, because he was . . . assaulted in a way that didn't seem consistent with robbery or even what they would call a 'wilding' where a mob just becomes destructive. It was too . . . . methodical for an out-of-control mayhem."

He sighed, and looked again at Aunt Kate, who frowned more angrily, and nodded abruptly for him to continue.

"It appears that they . . . attacked your mother in an attempt to . . . make your father tell them whatever it was that they were after. She was . . . it was . . . bad."

"What about me?" I whispered.

"When some bystanders found you - apparently the attackers made enough racket when they sped away that some people got curious and walked over - you were bound and gagged, and lying next to your mother. It appears that you had been held - your upper arms are bruised - and then dropped. There is evidence that you crawled over to her."

"Our theory is that your father must have died not too long after your mother died, and that they didn't have time to try to use you to get him to talk."

"Talk about what?" I asked.

"We were hoping you could tell us," the detective said.

"I don't have any idea," I said. "My dad was an inventor. Maybe they wanted something he was working on. If it were just ransom, then they'd have grabbed me or Mom but not him."

"Logical," the detective said, smiling tightly. "I must say, young man, that you're taking this remarkably well."

I squared my shoulders and looked directly at him again. "I'll grieve after I find the people who did this. Is there anything else?"

"Listen, young man," - this time he wasn't being complimentary - "you can't go take matters into your own hands . . ," he said.

"What are you going to do to me if I do? What can you do that's worse than what has already happened?"

I started to pull some of the leads off my body. "If you want to throw a 15 year old orphan in jail because he wants to find his parents' killers, be my guest. If not, get out of my way."

I was about to pull the IV out of my arm when the doctor caught my hand. "I'll take care of that."

"You're going to let me go?" I asked.

"Other than a few bruises, now that you're . . . with us again there's really no reason for you to be in the hospital. I'll want you to see a therapist about your memory loss, and of course you'll be responsible to your Aunt Katherine. I'm sure she'll be appointed as your guardian. But there's no medical reason you can't go home."

"Good," I said, sagging back as he buzzed for the nurse. In a moment an efficient whirlwind in hospital scrubs was shooing the civilians - well, and the cop - out of the room. In a few more minutes, Aunt Kate was coming back in. She went to the closet in the room and pulled out some clothes for me that I didn't recognize - apparently the ones I had been wearing were either ruined or evidence, probably both. After I was dressed I stepped to the mirror to see what sort of shape my hair was in, then gasped.

"Oh my god!"

"Oh, sorry," Aunt Kate said, frowning again. "I forgot to tell you. It's been like that since the night of . . . well, since then."

The 'it' that she was talking about was my hair. It had been a kind of light brown-to-dark blond drabness notable only because, like a lot of guys my age, I had been letting it grow out some. It was either let it go longish, or shave it all off, or do dreadlocks, or something else strange. Nobody had short, 50's style hair.

At least it was the same length - not quite to my collar bones. However, it was now snow white. Not a speck of color, even at the ends. I had no idea how that could even happen. Eyebrows, ditto. I had pulled my shorts on while I was still wearing the hospital gown, so I'd have to check on that particular thatch later, but it was probably the same.

"It looks like some memories are not all I lost," I said.

"No," she agreed gently.

I turned to her and added, "You know I haven't forgotten that I lost my parents, too. I was just talking about, y'know, me. My own body, mind, whatever."

"I know," she said. She arched an eyebrow at me and looked at the door.

"Ready," I said.

We made it almost to the nurse's station before someone showed up with a wheelchair.



Chapter 2 - "Friends in Low Places"


Aunt Kate had been living with us in our big old house for several years before my parents were killed. No one - least of all me - even considered the idea that she would move out after that. So it would be fair to say that it was 'our' home that we found trashed when we arrived from the hospital.

"You better call Detective Sloan," I said.

"Yes," she agreed.

While she was off doing that I took a look around. I knew that was stupid. Even though there was a stillness about the place that made me sure no one was there, I could have been wrong. And the police forensics guys would hate us. But it was our house - my house, if it came to that - and I wasn't going to stand around doing nothing. My untrained guess was that they must have been looking for something for several hours, but less than the whole time since the attack. Things were thrown everywhere - pictures down off the walls, cushions off the couches, all the drawers pulled out in all the rooms - but there hadn't been the sort of thorough demolition that would have taken up the carpets and broken open the walls. I figured they had come to the house after they left . . . . us, and finished their ransacking about dawn the next day. If I had the timeline right, that meant the house was empty for thirty-some hours after they left. That would have been time for more destruction, so they had either found what they came for or gave up. At least for now.

"Ten minutes," Aunt Kate reported once she caught up.

I nodded. One of the things that Dad insisted on was cleanliness in his lab so he had boxes of surgical gloves in the garage. I handed a pair to Aunt Kate - I already had my own - and we looked through the carnage until the front doorbell rang.

"Tell me you didn't go through the house," Detective Sloan said as soon as he saw us.

"Why lie?" I said.

He snorted and scowled and generally made it clear that he thought I was a stupid punk kid, but he didn't say anything. So I decided that meant he thought I was a stupid punk *rich* kid and grinned behind his back.

He added foot covers to go with his own gloves and we walked through the house together. It would have been silly to think we could identify anything missing in that mess, at least anything smaller than a TV set (which, by the way, were still there). So was Mom's jewelry, though the box was spilled.

"Obviously not a simple burglary," he muttered. That didn't seem to require any response from me.

"You're sure you don't know what your father was working on?" he prodded.

"Only in general," I replied. "The last thing he told me about was some sort of new chemical sniffer that used a mass spectrometer element."

"Mass spectrometer?" Sloan repeated. "Do you know what that is?"

"Yes," I said. "Don't you?"

"Yes," he said. "I'm just surprised that . . . you're not even sixteen yet, are you?"

"In a few weeks," I confirmed, then added a bit smugly. "Home schooled."

"Oh, yeah," he nodded. "So, did you ever help your dad with his research?"

"Sure," I said. "'Help me bring in these boxes, Jamie.' 'Help me carry out this trash, Jamie.'"

I sighed and tried again. "Actually, that's not entirely fair. In the last year or so he's been showing me how to do a few things. How to calibrate gear using an oscilloscope or a multi-meter. He showed me how to solder and I've been putting together some brassboard rigs, but it's been, um, I guess I'd say it was technician work, not real science. I don't really understand any of the principles of his inventions."

Sloan nodded, not really paying attention.

About this time the whole forensic team showed up. Of course Aunt Kate and I had to provide fingerprints and DNA samples for elimination, but other than that they mostly seemed to take pictures and look important. There weren't any muddy boot tracks or spilled blood. If there were any hairs from the bad guys, they were lost in the general mess. Between my original dirty blond, Aunt Kate's dark auburn, Mom's ravenwing black and Dad's mostly gray there wasn't really any way to identify out-of-place hairs, and it wouldn't be practical to DNA-test everything.

A few hours later they were leaving, not much wiser than when they arrived. As soon as the police were out of the mess, Aunt Kate was calling someone she knew to arrange for some help cleaning up. A few hours after that - fairly late in the evening, but that same night - we had things surprisingly well organized. The intruders had been after information, not vandalism, and not much had been damaged.

Somewhere in there Aunt Kate had ordered pizza and we had plenty to eat as we worked. So we just sort of collapsed into some re-ordered easy chairs when the place was finally quiet again.

"So," she asked, "how much did you really know about what your dad was working on?"

"Enough," I replied, sighing and closing my eyes as I leaned back in the chair. "Dad used his actual research as a source for explanations and problems to solve as part of home-schooling me."

I opened my eyes and looked at her. "And I'm pretty bright. Smart enough to realize you knew all along that I wasn't telling the cop everything, but you went along with it. Thanks."

A strange look came into her eyes - something I had never seen there before. My Aunt Kate was a very nice lady. As I said, she was attractive, but not terribly stylish and her clothes were way into 'modest' rather than 'flashy.' Frankly, though I liked her, I had always considered her pretty bland. But the look in her eyes was . . . all I could think of was 'fierce.'

"Scary smart," she said, responding to my last comment. "At least, that's the way your father described you. And he truly is . . . or was, a genius. I think you're right up there, too."

I smiled thanks, though we both knew I wasn't in the same class as Dad. "Aunt Kate, why didn't you tell the cop that I had worked with Dad?"

That surprisingly fierce light showed in her eyes again, but she said something that didn't seem to follow. "What are you going to do now?"

I knew she wasn't asking about going to bed.

"You know what I'm going to do," I said softly.

Then she took another left turn into an unexpected topic. "Did your parents ever talk about me?"

"Not in the way I think you're asking," I replied.

She nodded. "So, what did you think when I showed up here - what was it? - three years ago?"

I thought back on that time. "Well, you looked . . . like you needed some help."

"Lots of help," she agreed. "I may tell you about it someday. But the short form is that I owe your parents my very life, and more than that - because when they saved me my life wasn't worth very much. I'll do whatever needs to be done to find their killers, and do whatever . . . whatever, when we do find them."

"Good," I said. "Because I have to tell you, it would not be a good thing to get in my way. I like you a lot, and I know you're going to be my guardian for the next few years, but there is one purpose in my life and I'm going to see it done. Whatever it takes."

"Good," she repeated. "The cops are more limited that you . . . than *we* . . . are. Jamie, love, you're rich. And rich can get a lot of things done, if you have the stomach for it."

I nodded, noting that fierce light was back in her eyes and wondering if my own showed the same. I expected that they did.

She shrugged her shoulders a little and smiled tiredly. "In the meantime, we're going to need to get your life back in order, at least as well as we can. I assume that since you've always been home schooled you want to continue that way?"

"Yes, though . . ," I paused.

She raised an eyebrow in expectation and I explained, "Assuming my parents were right in what they told me, then I'm already . . . well beyond my year group. We'll have to get the right tutors."

She nodded. "Any special subjects?"

I was about to go through the list when I thought of something that brought fresh tears to my eyes. I had to just hold it in for a moment before I could speak.

"Dad told me . . . promised me . . . I guess you'll just have to take my word for it . . .that for my 16th birthday he'd let me start martial arts."

"He did?" she said, but it wasn't really a challenge. She was more thoughtful, as though she were looking into her own memories for a moment.

"Yes," I said. "Mom's been teaching me gymnastics since I could walk. I haven't been able to build any real muscle yet, so I haven't been able to do things like the rings. For that matter, Mom was obviously more familiar with the female events so that's what we worked on most for basic skills. But I want to add some martial arts to the basic agility things."

"Any special style?" she asked.

"Not really. I haven't really looked into it."

She nodded, looking at something no one else could see for another few moments. Then she shook herself a little and looked back at me. "What would you want to get out of it? Black Belt? Tournaments?"

"No," I said quickly. "I'm not into performing for others. I'm not like, painfully shy or anything, but I'm not an extravert. I just want to be . . . competent."

I stood up and started moving around. "Look, I really am smart. I know that and it's not bragging to admit it. I'm probably college-level on physics and math already, maybe more subjects. And Mom wouldn't let me neglect the soft stuff either. I'd be bored to tears with regular school. I just want to know, in my own heart, that I'm as competent as I can be in whatever I try to do. Mom got me started on physical things, agility at least, and speed. I want to extend that just as I want to extend Dad's training in physics and chemistry into applied engineering. Martial arts seem like the logical next step."

In the center of the restored family room, I did a standing back flip, and then slid down into a full split. Lifting myself on my hands, I pulled the split through until I was standing on my hands with one leg straight up and the other straight down, then both up in a normal handstand, then on one hand, all without touching the ground except for my fingers. Then I arched over into a back bend until my feet were on the floor and stood up.

She stood up and stretched a bit herself, then smiled. "That story I'll tell you some day starts with me being a teenage runaway who got into just about every sort of trouble there is. It also means that I have some friends in low places. Friends who know what it really takes to be an effective hand-to-hand fighter. The first thing we do is *not* go to any place that advertises training in 'the secrets of the Ninja.' If they're willing to teach it on the open market, it's not a Ninja secret. What we want is not about art, martial or otherwise. What we want is deadly, efficient, and uncompromising. The training will hurt, both because it will be hard work and because in the sparring you'll get tagged. But if you're going after the beasts that killed your parents, you need to be hard, and uncompromising."

"When can we start?" I asked simply.

It wasn't that easy, of course. Nothing ever is. I had to assume that Aunt Kate had 'put the word out' for a - well, she said it wasn't martial arts, so I guess it was a 'fighting' instructor, but nothing seemed to come of that for a while. The first thing we did that involved me was meet with Dad's lawyer, William Wright. I had met him before on a few occasions. He was primarily a patent lawyer, though he took care of any other lawyer things we needed. In this case, he took care of getting Aunt Kate assigned as my official guardian, and things like probate and death taxes. Ms. Child Protective Services tried to horn back into things at a couple of points, once before a judge in a formal hearing.

"Your Honor," she said. "This woman (pointing at Aunt Kate) has a criminal record! She is a drug user . . ."

"Objection, Your Honor," Wright said. "Katherine Webster's past use of drugs is no longer relevant. We have continuing test results she voluntarily provided as a sign of good faith for the entire period since she came to live with the Sinclair family. We'd be glad to enter her record into evidence."

"Sustained," the judge said. "I think being clean for three years is sufficient to show that the drug use should be referred to in the past tense."

"Very well," Ms. Services said primly. "But she still cannot provide properly for the child, except through living off of *his* money. And she proposes to be given control over all of the child's assets. In the agreement she is asking you to sign, she doesn't even agree to put the child in school!"

"The child has a name," I said, just loudly enough for everyone to hear.

No one officially noted what I said, but our lawyer did take the opportunity to speak into the interruption. "It has been stipulated that Jamie will be provided with home-schooling, including qualified tutors. He is a gifted child - we have records documenting that, as well - and his fullest development will require special tutors not available in the public school system.

"But, but . . ," Ms. Services sputtered. "This woman is a criminal! You can't give her control of that much money!"

The judge started to cloud up and I didn't think she had made a good move by trying to tell him what he could and couldn't do, but before he could speak Aunt Kate stood up.

"Your Honor, may I speak?" she asked politely, but with that undercurrent of steel that seemed so out of place in her slight frame.

The judge nodded and she spoke. "What the lady from Child Protective Services says is true. I have a criminal record. It's all for petty things, but I did them, and I'm sure there are more that never got charged to me. Lord knows that there are plenty of things from that time that I've forgotten. But I met a man who told me that nothing is too terrible for God to forgive. Since that dark time in my life I've been baptized and I promise you that I have tried my very best to be a new person. If God can put my past behind me, and he knows every bit of it, then isn't it possible for the State to . . . accept the trust that Jamie's parents had in me?"

"Religion! That's an excuse," Ms. Services snorted.

"Your Honor," Wright said, "as Miss Webster has reminded us, we do have the Sinclair's will granting guardianship to her until Jamie is of age. Jamie is agreeable. Miss Webster is agreeable. She is Jamie's only living blood relative except for her own parents, who have never been part of Jamie's life. I urge you to approve our request."

Ms. Services probably hadn't noticed that the car parked in the judge's slot had a Bible on the back seat, but I had noticed it when we walked in. I thought Aunt Kate had noticed too, though neither of us mentioned it at the time. I wondered if he left it there as a sort of transition point - leaving the Bible behind to avoid even the appearance of lack of objectivity. That's pretty silly, of course, since for most of our history the oath in court was sworn with a hand on the Bible. Leaving your faith in the car is not that easy anyway. We all bring our entire background into every situation. But I had a feeling that Ms. Services was not helping her case by putting down people of faith.

In any event, he knocked with his gavel and said, "So ordered."

"But, but, Your Honor . . ," Ms. Services sputtered again.

He didn't say a word to her, but his glance told her that she didn't want to push this one any further.

"Thank you," I said to Mr. Wright. Aunt Kate nodded her thanks as well. As we were leaving the courtroom, I asked the lawyer, "Didn't you handle Dad's patent applications?"

"Usually," he said cautiously.

"What were you working on when he was killed?"

He frowned. "Actually, I wasn't working on his latest idea. It had something to do with drug detection, and the biggest challenge in those sorts of patents is keeping the government from breaking them. I had referred him to an organization that specializes in that sort of thing."

"Which organization?"

"Why do you ask?" he said, still cautious.

"Well, the people who killed him were after something," I said, shrugging to keep it from seeming too important.

"Let the police handle that," he said.

I nodded, but I wasn't letting it go. Maybe it was a coincidence, but if someone new entered the circle of Dad's business about the same time he was attacked by someone looking for something . . .

"Could you at least tell me the name of the group you selected? I may find something relevant among Dad's papers and it would be less confusing."

"Of course," he said easily, though there was still a warning in his eyes. "Now, let me be clear. I'm not telling you so that you can go charging off like some sort of vigilante. The Antares group is a reputable non-profit corporation specializing in international controls on drug-trafficking. One of their lawyers, a Jeremy Hansen, was consulting with your father on how to protect any related patents he developed."

"Thanks," I said. "I'll remember."

We shook hands and left, returning to our home to discover that Aunt Kate's promise to find someone to teach me fighting skills had actually been fulfilled. My parents had cautioned me against reading too much into first impressions, but I couldn't help but be impressed by the man who waited patiently in a well-used pickup truck.

"Sorry we're late," Aunt Kate said as she walked up. "There was a busybody from Child Protective Services that just couldn't stand the idea of Jamie not being a ward of the court - meaning her - so that she could get her hands on all his money."

The man, who had gotten out of the truck while Aunt Kate was speaking, nodded silently. His eyes took in my not-too-impressive frame but they let nothing back out. The man apparently had no neck, no wrists, and no waist. His shaved bullet head flowed into thick shoulders that didn't seem to have any taper down to a pair of tree-stump legs. I suppose he was a bit over 6 feet tall based on how he looked next to the truck, but without that reference it would have been hard to tell from his shape alone. I wouldn't even begin to guess his weight, though it was pretty clear that not much of it was fat.

I also noticed an array of scars that made it clear he hadn't lived his life in a monastery. In fact, that was probably the reason he kept his head shaved. There were some scars on his scalp that would have made his hairline pretty strange.

"Mr. Dylan?" Aunt Kate asked when he didn't say anything.

"Yes," he replied. About like you'd expect, his voice showed the same sorts of scars as his head.

"This is my, um, nephew, Jamie," she said.

He stuck out a distressed-leather paw and I set myself for the crush game. Which didn't happen. He just shook my hand politely, saying, "Matthew Dylan. Matt, if you want."

"Matt Dillon?" I said incredulously. "Are you kidding?"

"I've heard it all, kid, so don't start," he said, but his scarred face twisted into what I interpreted as a grin. Hoped was a grin, anyway.

"Thank you for coming," I said, trying to regain a little politeness.

"I understand you want to learn to fight," he said.

"Umm, perhaps it would be better to say that I want to learn to . . . protect myself in the presence of those who want to fight," I replied.

"Good answer," he said. "I'm not going to train you to be a thug, but thugs are not going to like meeting you."

"Good," I said in turn.

He said something to Aunt Kate as he was getting some bags out of the back of his truck. I didn't pay a lot of attention because they were into the bit about sharing news of common acquaintances. It was clear that Aunt Kate hadn't met this Dylan guy before, but they did have a lot of friends in common. I was most interested in the things he was getting out of his truck.

"How strong are you, Jamie?" he asked abruptly.

"I don't know," I said honestly. "It's clear I haven't bulked up with muscle, though Mom's exercise routines have kept me in pretty good shape. Both of my parents were slender so I probably will be, too. Mom wanted me to work more on flexibility than muscle mass."

"Fair enough," the man said. "It's easier to work with agility and speed than simple muscle mass, unless you want to go toe-to-toe with someone."

"Not if I can help it," I said.

"Another good answer," he said, smiling a bit. It was kinda hard to tell the difference, but I had the impression his scowl had twitched a little or something.

By this time he had a rig set up beside his truck. It was primarily a target looking thing on a stand. The target didn't have concentric rings, but it was a round circle of wood about a foot in diameter. There were springs and wires leading from it, so my guess was that it could tell how hard someone had hit it or something like that.

After he had finished fiddling with whatever he was doing on it, he stepped back and said, "Have you ever hit anything hard enough to hurt your hand?"

"A few times," I said.

"Well, I want you to hurt your hand this time," he said. "I want you to hit that target so hard that your hand is either gonna go right through it, or break from trying."

"Mr. Dylan!" Aunt Kate said sharply.

"It's okay," I said. "I can see several reasons why he wants me to do that. Not the least of which is to find out if I'm afraid of a little pain."

Dylan didn't say anything. He just stepped back.

"If I do break my hand," I said. "I hope you have a less-destructive option for my next lesson."

I was about to take a swing at the target, but instead I paused for a moment. I set my feet better and made sure that I had the right distance to the target so I would be at a strong point in my swing. Then I stood for just a moment longer. I thought back to the report of how my parents had been tortured and killed, and I let that anger build within me until I could feel the hate radiating from me. I didn't have a real face to put on the target, but I saw an amalgam of thugs from cartoons and B movies until it was as real as I needed to be, and then I let my hate flow through my hand into that target.

I did break my hand.

In fact, I broke several bones, at least two of which stuck out through the skin afterwards. I also broke his target device, and the window on the truck that had been behind it.

It didn't really hurt that much - my broken bones. It was a dull, distant kind of pain.

"Well, that wasn't fun," I said grimly.

Dylan was already in another of the bags he took out of his truck, finding something to wrap my hand. Aunt Kate - bless her heart - already had the car started and I was gathered up and on my way back to the hospital before the adrenaline flushed through my system. Then my hand started to hurt. A lot.

Dylan was riding with me in the back seat as Aunt Kate drove. "You're stronger than you look, kid," he said.

"I guess so," I said, trying to keep my voice casual despite the building throb in my hand.

"Sorry about that," he said. "Have you always been that strong?"

"I don't know," I said. "I've never done anything like that before. How hard did I hit it?"

"Harder than I could," he said. "What were you thinking, when you paused before you hit it?"

"About my parents," I said. "I knew some adrenaline would help make me stronger and so I . . . thought about something that would make me angry."

"Well, it worked," he said. "We'll need to get you some gloves with stiffeners to protect your hands - probably some boots, too. But if you can do that regularly, then strength is not going to be your problem."

Once we got to the hospital there was the expected chaos of people rushing around. When the pain started to get pretty annoying I set my mind again and called on some more adrenaline. That didn't make it go away, but it did make it tolerable. In about an hour I had a cast from my fingertips to my elbow, and a lecture from the doctor on being more careful.

Somehow, I had the feeling this wouldn't be the last time I received a lecture like that.



Chapter 3 - "Hysteria, Ltd."


Apparently I had developed some sort of on-call hysterical strength. Most of the time people use only a small fraction of their actual muscle strength. The exceptions are the very infrequent, but still real cases of what is called hysterical strength where in the grip of an intolerable need people can call on the full power of their own muscles. I could now do this anytime I wanted - a few seconds to get my anger going and I was suddenly as strong as half a dozen big men. With the proper setup, I could bench press a horse!

The problem is that the skeleton that provides the structure for the muscles to pull against is not as strong as the muscles. People in the throes of epileptic fits can actually break their own bones just from the power of their muscles. I could apparently break my own bones the same way.

Dylan started me on a set of punishing exercises that were intended to add strength to my bones. Like any other part of the body, if they are regularly stressed just short of breaking, they get stronger. He also got me some gauntlets that looked like they belonged on a 15th century knight. They were so heavy that - strong or not - I knew they'd just slow me down when my hand healed and I could use them.

"We have to find something better than this," I complained.

"I'm open to suggestions," he said. He said that a lot. I'd complain or want to do something different, and he'd listen patiently.

Then we'd do it his way anyway. I never did find out his background. I knew it was ex-military, and I'd have bet it was SEALs, except everyone seems to be an ex-SEAL these days. They're so famous they've become a cliché. And there are other elite special forces types. I knew he could run forever, and do a zillion pushups. And that he could kill someone in more ways than I could ever count and I didn't figure it mattered just where he learned all that.

But on the gloves, I was going to do it my way. I had an option he didn't know about. One of the things that my dad had developed had been a shock-resistant fiber. Ever since Newton people had understood the relationship between forces and acceleration. But there is a deeper level. There is a different physics related to the rate at which acceleration itself changes.

So, while my hand was healing, I was working in Dad's laboratory. I wasn't too clear on the physics behind his approach. It had something to do with the cosmological constant (where dark energy comes from) but the practical application was that a glove, or a boot, or a helmet made of his dynafiber would not tolerate rates of change of acceleration above a certain level - about one 'g' per millisecond. In essence, I had perfect armor; flexible under normal use, but harder than battleship steel when a shock load was applied.

The downside was that it cost more than battleship steel. In fact, it cost more than spun diamonds. The materials were fairly expensive - several rare earths and a couple of not-easy-to-acquire biologicals - and the process to make them meant that a lot of the material was wasted, sort of like enriching uranium.

But what did I care? I had more money than I could spend and no one to spend it with. Actually, making some armor had been part of my plan since the day I woke up in the hospital. I was serious - deadly serious - when I told Aunt Kate that there was one purpose in my life, and that was to get those who had killed my parents. I figured at some point that would involve violence. In fact, it was sort of the point. Someone had done violence to my parents and they were going to get it back, with as much interest as I could manage. But if I were going to be dishing it out instead of taking it, I needed some protection.

Preparing for a fight wasn't the only path in my plan. However, one other path didn't lead anywhere useful. Aunt Kate arranged a meeting with Jeremy Hansen, the patent lawyer from the Antares group. I was still wearing a cast when we entered his office, and wearing a suit seemed silly with that, so I was wearing slacks and a knit shirt that would stretch over the fiberglass boat anchor. Aunt Kate was her normal conservative (bland) self and I don't think the lawyer was impressed.

"Come in," he offered politely, pointing at chairs facing his desk. "What can I do for you?"

"I understand you were working on a potential patent with my father," I said.

"Not really," he said cautiously. There was a slightly furtive air about him, but with his high-dollar suit and fancy office he was clearly into the lawyer universe. I couldn't tell if it was simple - and proper - caution about discussing another client's affairs or something less innocent.

"You do know that my parents were killed, right?" I prodded.

"I saw that in the paper. I'm very sorry for your loss."

"Thank you," I said, but moved on. "I'm his sole heir, so I'm trying to find out if there were any outstanding business actions that I need to resolve."

"None with me," he said quickly. Then he smiled a lawyer smile that made the hairs on the back of my neck sit up and take notice. Insincerity started to ooze from his pores.

"Your father and I did meet once," he said. "He had an idea for a patent on something that would be useful in drug interdiction - I didn't understand the science involved, and in fact that was the problem. It was only a theory and I told him that until he had a working model, or design plans, or something more specific we probably wouldn't be able to apply for a patent. He seemed to understand and left. Since it was an initial interview, I didn't even bill him for it."

"I see," I replied. The man was obviously lying about something, but about what? I just wasn't experienced enough in high-dollar games to tell. He might have been lying about something as simple as whether he billed Dad for the consultation. Dad liked to pay cash for things because he didn't like the government having a paper trail on every single act in his life. I didn't know if this guy was cheap enough to cheat on his income tax about a few hundred dollars, or even if he were that cheap, whether that was really the issue that made something seem off about him.

"Well, sorry to have troubled you," I said.

As he walked us to the door, he asked in a very casual tone, "I'm sorry if this is prying, but the reports in the press said that you had no memory of the . . . um, incident?"

"None," I said. "That's a hole in my life that may never come back."

"Oh, even after all this time," he said, almost to himself. "Sorry."

"It's just something I have to deal with," I said.

His claims were a clear enough line of defense that there wasn't much I could do about it. I had no paper trail, and if he were denying any real involvement, then where was my point of attack? Unless I found a way in, this was a dead end. And unfortunately, that faint hope of a trail was the only one I had.

Despite that roadblock, my determination never wavered. First my hand had to heal, and then I had to develop the skills to pursue any leads I did find - if ever. I also had to pick up my academic studies, and Aunt Kate arranged a very-fulfilling - but mind-burning - fire-hose treatment with some very capable tutors. I lost track of days, and those grew into months while I was too busy to let myself think about what I was going to do with my life.

I did know some of it, of course. My first order of business was to develop something to keep me from breaking my own hands in a fight. Even though I could order materials and set up some processes, I couldn't really make much progress on my armor until I could use both hands. And I wanted more than just gloves.

Dylan was teaching me how to use my agility and my new-found strength to best advantage. I knew the vulnerable spots to strike, and how to focus my force effectively. With my gloves I could literally punch a hole in a brick wall.

What I couldn't do, apparently, was put on any muscle bulk. Even after several months of very strenuous exercise, I looked like a 15-year-old kid.

This was made painfully clear when Dylan introduced me to a new sparring partner.

"Yo, kid," he said - I'm sure he knew my name but I was always 'kid', unless I was something worse - usually unprintable and insulting, though often quite creative. "I want you to spar with someone more your own size. Meet Cheyenne."

"Hello," I said, looking at the pretty girl who was regarding me as well. Cheyenne was strawberry-blonde, cheerleader-cute, but lean as a gymnast. She was probably an inch or two shorter than me, but about the same weight. I looked back at Dylan. "I don't want to hurt her."

"Good," she said, stepping in my line of sight. "And I don't want to hurt you either, but I will if you ignore me."

"Kid," he said, meaning me. "This is my daughter. And I've been training her for a while. I think she'll hold her own."

"Okay, if you say so," I said. She put on some pads and we squared off. It was clear in a heartbeat that she was well trained. I ended up leaving my impression on the mats in quite a few unusual postures. I also ended up with a split lip, though it appeared that Cheyenne was going to get a black eye out of the deal.

In a funny way, it made us closer. You'd think that beating up on each other would just make us enemies, but we ended up helping each other off the mats, or checking each other's injuries and it was strangely bonding.

"You're pretty strong for a girl who's only been training for - what - a year now?" she said during one break.

"I'm not a girl," I said in surprise.

"Oh, sorry," Cheyenne said, blushing brighter than I'm sure I was.

There was a mirror on one wall of the exercise room, and out of reflex we both looked into it. Maybe it was seeing both of us together. Part of it was probably that my sparring outfit was fairly form-fitting and looked more like a girl's dance outfit than a guy's sweat suit. And my snow-white hair was even longer now since I hadn't gotten around to getting it cut, except that Aunt Kate insisted on trimming the split ends every now and then. In the way that an out-of-focus image suddenly snaps into clarity, I could see why she made her mistake.

She tried to apologize in a way that didn't really help. "I thought Daddy said you were almost seventeen."

"I am."

"Oh, now I'm really sorry," she said, blushing again. "I know I should stop digging in this hole I've made, but you look kinda . . . slender for a guy. I figured you were a girl. Jamie is one of those either-way names."

"Yeah," I said.

It was about the end of our session anyway. After we got cleaned up, Aunt Kate came in and asked if Cheyenne would stay for dinner. She looked at me and I smiled an offer that showed I wasn't holding any sort of grudge. She still declined and took off.

While Aunt Kate and I were eating something simple that she put together, I looked at her. "I think I may need to see a doctor again," I said, sighing.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"While we were talking today, Cheyenne said that she thought I was a girl."

"I'm sorry, but I'm sure she didn't mean anything by it," Aunt Kate replied.

"Me, too," I said. "But I can understand why she said so. Aunt Kate, I'm nearly 17 and I don't have to shave yet. My voice sounds like it always did. I think something is wrong."

And so it turned out, once she arranged a visit to the doctor..

After the usual vampire treatment, followed by even more embarrassment with a request for a 'sample' that I couldn't produce, Dr. Allridge invited us into his office.

He was looking at some lab reports. And frowning, which certainly did not ease my mind. Finally he looked up and said cryptically, "Well, we seem to have identified the cause, though not the cause for the cause."

I was too worried to rise to the bait, so I just waited.

He tapped the paper as though that somehow proved what he was saying even if I couldn't read it. "It appears that you have stopped producing testosterone."

"Why?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "But then, I don't know why your hair turned white."

Dr. Allridge settled back in his chair and did the steepled-fingers bit. "It may be related to your memory loss; another defense mechanism." He paused for a long moment, then added softly, "What was done to your mother was . . . despicable. It could be that your subconscious is rejecting manhood as a way of distancing yourself from those attackers."

He looked down at his notes again and said, "Or perhaps rejecting sexuality altogether. It is normal for men and women to produce both male and female hormones. The quantities and proportions differ, of course. In your case, it appears that you have shut down testosterone production, but are still producing counterparts like estrogen in limited amounts."

"So can we just supplement my testosterone?"

The doctor frowned again. "I don't know if we should do that. If your subconscious is rejecting that hormone, then it might have . . . undesirable consequences."

Leaning forward he said, "Jamie, I think we should proceed cautiously. In essence, your body is just postponing the remaining elements of puberty. You won't become a man - at least not at a normal pace - but you won't become a woman, either. The small amounts of estrogen in your system may work to keep your skin softer, and you might experience a little, ah, sensitivity."

"Sensitivity?" I repeated suspiciously.

He sighed and then spoke bluntly. "You might see a little budding in your nipples. But not much."

"Oh, great," I said.

"I'm sorry, Jamie," he said sympathetically. I know it was sincere. He'd been our family doctor since before I was born and I knew he truly cared about us - about me, now. But it didn't make it any easier.

"So, what do I do? Just . . . live with it?"

"For now," he nodded. "I think we should set you up with a therapist. I know we did that before to work on your memory loss, and I know it didn't help. But this is a new symptom and it gives new leverage - at least potentially - into working things out."

"In the meantime, I'm stuck in the body of a 15 year old boy-girl, edging toward girl," I said bitterly.

"I'm afraid so," he confirmed.

I had been a bit of a recluse before. Knowing that I was stuck in some sort of ambiguous limbo between child and adult, and even between boy and girl didn't help anything.

So I threw myself into my work. Which is to say, deciphering Dad's notes and trying to find out what in his work was worth killing him, and my mother. And above all, to whom was it worth that much.

And learning to fight in an efficient, ruthless way that more than made up for my small size, especially considering that I had greater than normal strength. Cheyenne had been wearing pretty good pads for some time, and I had a full armor suit by then. I was still pulling my punches on her though, and Dylan noticed.

"Okay, time to get serious," he said, walking out onto the mats. "You've been slacking off on Shy for at least a week now. You won't get away with that against me."

"Against you?" I repeated.

He didn't repeat himself.

The funny thing is, it was fun. He sent me flying half a dozen times, but my armor worked well enough. Not by a large margin, and I still had aches from joints strained to their limits, but I was able to stay in the game. And I got to tag him a few times with shots that rocked him pretty well.

In fact, Cheyenne ended our sparring match with a bucket of cold water on the recumbent form of her dazed father.

"Not bad, kid," he growled, sitting up and wiping the drips off his face. "I think you're ready for the next stage."

"There's a next stage?" I repeated. "Uh, oh."

"Exactly," he said, showing a grin that meant he knew he was going to like it a lot more than I did.

He did. Blindfolds. Non-edged weapons. Edged weapons that meant I had to build a whole new suit that had a different matrix to handle that sort of penetration as well. Plus wait for some stitches to heal as a result of getting sloppy and depending too much on my armor. He gained a lot of points with me when the lessons started to include things that were definitely not in the course catalogs at Princeton or Stanford. Lock-picking and security systems. Surveillance systems. Operational planning for small units. We had a don't ask/don't tell thing where I never asked Aunt Kate just what skills she had asked Dylan to train me in, and I never said I wasn't interested in whatever Dylan put in front of me.

Oh, and I was also finishing degrees in physics, math, and mechanical engineering, with minors in history and German. It turns out my parents had been tutoring me at the college level for some time before . . . well, before. I discovered that colleges are willing to award degrees to people who can test out of all their relevant courses. Not even honorary degrees. Real, no kidding diploma degrees. Of course, it helped that I was willing to pay the whole tuition and fees cost of a four year degree - even though I never attended any classes. Well, that and a 'special processing fee' and a 'special testing fee' and a few other things. None of which were bribes, of course. Not a bit. But I ended up with three degrees from a very respectable Ivy League school. And I did know the material.

I wouldn't say that I was happy because every single day I felt the loss of my parents. And every single day I felt the loss - or at least delay - of my manhood. But it was so challenging that I didn't feel the passage of time until one day that Aunt Kate called me out of my Dad's lab.

"Dear, there are some people to see you."

"Who?" I asked.

She just smiled.

It turned out it was my 18th birthday. I had actually forgotten.

And it was the second saddest day of my life. My 16th birthday passed so soon after my parents died that I was still in a sort of semi-denial shock. And my 17th birthday had been a quiet dinner with Aunt Kate that had been a denial of another sort. It wasn't any kind of party, wasn't intended to be a particularly happy occasion. It was just a day to take a break and watch a DVD with her. I don't even remember what we watched. Very low key.

On my 18th birthday she decided I needed a party. Bless her heart, but it was a bad idea. In the first place, my parents weren't there. Intellectually I could imagine a time in the future when I might enjoy a party again, but it wouldn't be in any family context like birthdays or Christmas because that context had been ripped from my life. And it wasn't going to happen for a while even in other contexts.

And in the second place . . . I didn't have any friends. The only people who were there were Aunt Kate, Matthew and Cheyenne Dylan, and - of all people - my lawyer, William Wright. And he was there for a business purpose. Since I was now 18 I had full control over my own finances. Aunt Kate was no longer officially my guardian and he had the papers certifying all of that for me to sign.

Cheyenne picked up on my feeling. She was trying to show a happy face, but she was as shocked as I was at how small my world had become.

"You need to get out more," she said quietly after the cake-candle thing and the presents thing. She had gotten me a nice hair clasp that I could use when sparring, and her father had gotten me some liniment - which would be even more useful, if even less personal.

"You're probably right," I said. "So, you want to go to a movie or something?"

"Why Jamie, are you asking me out on a date?" she said, grinning.

I felt my cheeks heating up to molten tungsten levels, but I nodded. "I guess I am," I said.

"Deal," she said lightly.

With a shortage of people and a surplus of awkwardness, the 'party' broke up fairly quickly. Even with just the lawyer and Dylan leaving, it was down to Cheyenne, Aunt Kate, and me. I think Aunt Kate was as surprised - and as pleased - that Cheyenne and I were going out as I was.

The pleased feeling didn't last long. It started out okay. I let Cheyenne pick one of the cars from the garage and I drove to a local megaplex. I had a driver's license picked up more or less automatically since before my parents were killed I had completed a driver's training course that would have qualified me to race at Le Mans. At the theaters we compromised on some sort of detective mystery since I couldn't handle the too-obvious chick flicks and we wanted more story than the special effects films. That led us to the point that made the day just perfect.

I walked up to the teller and said, "Two for the 7:15 show in theater 6."

She looked at Cheyenne and didn't seem to have any trouble, but then she looked at me and said, "I'll need to see some ID for you. It's R-rated."

"Sure," I said. I pulled out my driver's license and gave it to her. Thinking I ought to attempt to be pleasant at least, I added, "I'm 18, just today in fact."

"Nice try, miss," she said, handing it back. "But you'll need something more convincing than your brother's license."

"That's me!" I said.

She snorted but dutifully picked up my license again and looked at me, then the photo on the laminated card. "I don't think so. I wouldn't even believe *he* was 18 if he didn't look older than that photo, and no way is that you."

I looked at the photo again, because it really was me. At the time I had that picture taken my hair was pulled back tightly behind my head so it looked almost as though it were shaved. And it had been so soon after the attack that my face was very drawn, almost gaunt. In the two years since then I had added a little weight, not much, but it had softened my features a bit. I still thought it looked like me.

"I promise you, this is me!" I tried again.

"Look, miss, you're just gonna get me in trouble. Get a girl's ID at least. I'm sorry, but could you move on? Please?"

I turned away in shock, looking at Cheyenne for support. She did support me with a hug and a whispered, "I'm sorry." But she didn't argue with the teller.

In fact, just the opposite. "She has a point," Cheyenne said. "I guess I'm just used to the way you look, but I remember that I thought you were a girl the first time I saw you, too. And you look, well, younger than you are."

"This just sucks, y'know?"

"Yeah," she agreed. "We can see something else."

"No," I replied sharply. "I’m sorry, but I just want to go home."

"That's fine," she said. "Do you want me to drive?"

"No, I'm okay," I claimed, and at one level it was true. I drove home very mechanically, but safely, wondering what else could go wrong in my still-shattered world.

Aunt Kate was surprised to see us home so soon.

"Nothing worth seeing?" she asked.

"That wasn't the problem," I said tightly.

I pushed past her with less manners than I had been taught, but I was angry at the world and it was about the best I could do.

I heard Cheyenne whispering with her behind me as I moved into a sitting room. Since the whole place was officially mine I was considering raiding the liquor cabinet for something suitably anesthetic when they walked in behind me.

"I'm sorry, Jamie," Aunt Kate said.

"Yeah, not as sorry as I am," I grumbled. Then it just started to flow out and I couldn’t seem to stop talking. 'This just sucks, y'know? I'm never going to develop as a guy, and I won't even grow tits so that I look like an adult female! I'm stuck as a kid for the rest of my damn life! Even if I get some sort of bulletproof ID that makes people take me at my real age, I'll get laughed at, or worse, pitied by everyone I meet. This just sucks! Happy birthday to me!"

"I'm sorry, Jamie," Aunt Kate repeated, and I knew it was true, but it didn't help. I just nodded curtly and headed to my room.

That night I had strange dreams . . . strange in several ways, not the least of which was that I remembered them - or some of them. It was a confusing montage of different points of view and different settings, yet somehow there was a thread running through the whole thing that I just couldn't grasp.

It started out with me taking a picture of myself with a remote release on a camera, but the camera wasn't sitting on a tripod. It was stuck up to a brick wall with something sticky and stringy. And then I was riding on two horses at once, standing on their back in what is called "Roman style", and wearing all black clothes and a flowing cape. And then I was dancing some sort of formal dance with Catherine Zeta-Jones, and then, somehow, I *was* her and dancing with Antonio Banderas.

I recognized the movie references of course, but it wasn't clear what my stupid, screwed-up, hiding-from-reality subconscious was trying to tell me. Assuming there was a message in there.



Chapter 4 - "Platinum"

It was a relief to be able to immerse myself in my lab.

After the disaster my birthday had been. After the strange dream that still whirled behind my eyes. After a level of stress that seemed higher than at any point since my parents were killed. After all that, it was a good thing I wasn't working on anything particularly complicated. Thanks to Matthew Dylan's training in surveillance systems, some work of my own on heuristic signal-to-noise filtering for sensors - and a large pot of money - I was trying to build a multi-spectral visor for my armor suit. I was at the stage of embedding the printed circuits in a dynafiber helmet and it was meticulous but not mentally challenging.

Then I almost ruined it when Aunt Kate once again interrupted me.

"Jamie, Cheyenne is here to see you."

"Oh, thanks," I said, looking up at the clock and stretching.

When I came out, Cheyenne was wary, but also eager about something. She looked at some seats in a request for an invitation but I shook my head. "I'm glad you're here, but why don't we go to the kitchen with Aunt Kate? I think there are some things we all need to discuss."

She didn't really want to do that, but she also didn't argue. I don't exactly know why I wanted Aunt Kate to be with us, but somehow it seemed important.

When we were settled with some sodas - coffee for Aunt Kate - I looked at Cheyenne but she looked at Aunt Kate. They matched eyes for a moment, then Aunt Kate shrugged.

"Have you two been conspiring about me?" I asked. I meant it lightly, but the guilty twitch that escaped from Cheyenne showed that my shot had hit home.

She sighed, then asked a question I didn't see coming. "When we were at the movie theater, why did the girl let me in but want ID from you?"

"Well, because you look older than I do," I said. Obvious.

"Yes, but why did she think I look older than you? I'm actually a little younger - old enough for R-rated movies, but not quite 18."

"I don't know," I said, now really thinking about it - with little success.

"Is it because I have wrinkles in my face?" she prompted.

"No, of course not," I said, laughing. "You're beautiful."

"Thanks," she said. "So . . ?"

"Okay, you got me. I don't know."

Cheyenne looked at Aunt Kate, who nodded again. The younger girl shrugged and took a deep breath. "Okay, this may not be what you want to hear . . ."

"Wow, that's a good opening," I interrupted her, but I smiled.

"When men mature," she pushed on, "their bones get heavier. In their faces, this is shown with heavier brow ridges and jawlines. They add whiskers and even after shaving, their faces are coarser. Men's faces also get more angular with, in particular, longer noses."

"Okay, so that does that have to do with you?"

"In many ways, a woman's face is more like an immature man's face," she said. "It's not quite a child's face, of course, but our noses don't get as long, and our brows remain much more subdued."

I nodded, still not getting her point. "So, if that's true, then why did she think you were older than me? I mean, I know my own face is sort of . . . arrested in development, but what you said is that should make us look more like we're the same age, not that you're older."

Aunt Kate sighed and spoke up. "There is probably some deep evolutionary imperative - and more than a little unfair in today's society - but there is a fairly narrow 'optimum' age for women. Robert Heinlein said it's about age 25, and I suspect he was right. We - all women - want to look a little older until we get to be in our twenties, then we do everything we can to stay there, at least in the way we look."

She smiled and added, "To do that, we cheat. We use cosmetics primarily, and other tricks like shaping our brows to make our eyes look larger, giving us facial proportions more like younger women. First young women add cosmetics to look a little more mature - that's what helped Cheyenne at the theater - and then . . . well, the rest of us try to hold on to that look as long as possible."

I was starting to see what they were getting at, and I didn't like it.

"No. No thanks. I'm only . . . delayed. I'm not giving up on being a man."

"And we don't want you to," Aunt Kate said. "But there are things you could do that would make you look like a 20-something woman a lot easier than making you look like an 18-year-old man. We were just thinking that if you did that, you could . . . enjoy life a little more until your, ah, subconscious finally lets go and lets you develop as you should."

Cheyenne looked anxiously at me. "Why don't you just try it? Please? I'm sure you would look fine, and it would just be an interim thing. Think of it as - I don't know - maybe like a secret identity."

All of the sudden lights were flashing behind my eyes and it was like a giant gong sounded so loud my whole body quivered in sympathy. That is what my dream was about! I could be a 'superhero' with a 'secret identity.' Of course, I didn't really have any superpowers beyond some unusual strength, but neither did Batman. Or Zorro. And in common with both of those characters, I had a *lot* of money.

I jumped to my feet and started pacing around the room. Like a row of dominos, everything seemed to fall into place. My driven need to train in combat skills, my close-fitting flexible armor suit, my intense interest in surveillance and security systems, even my virtual retreat from the world when I was in my real persona. All of it was pointing me toward becoming someone else - not as a psychotic break from reality, but as an . . . option to enable me to do things that a respectable law-abiding citizen could not.

"Would your father be willing to help?" I abruptly asked Cheyenne.

"To help you look like a 20-something woman?" she asked in surprise.

"What? No, that's only a small part of it," I said. "I'm going to use the skills he's been teaching me to find my parents' killers. At some level that has always been the plan, but now I'm starting to see . . ."

I moved back to sit down with them again. Speaking as much to myself as them, I said, "I guess it doesn't really matter to me how I look - other than looking at least reasonably neat and not like, smelling bad or anything. I just don't care. My priority is to get those who murdered my parents - both those who did it and those who told them to. If that meant I had to dress up in a tutu and learn to dance on my toes, I'd do it."

Looking more directly at them, I said, "And I guess you've convinced me that it would be more practical to make me look like a 20-something woman than a 20-something guy. So, with your help, that's what I'll do. I'm more interested in . . ."

Once again I couldn't help myself and popped back up to my feet- this time with a laugh. "This can work! I was trying to get some sensors into my suit and couldn't find the space for batteries without adding a bulge that might get caught on something. If my . . . attack persona is a woman, then I'd have at least a couple of places to put batteries - if they were the right shape."

"Oh, my," Cheyenne said, laughing. "So, you want to be a babe, do you? Big-boobed-Betty?"

"Not too big," I said, laughing in turn. "But that does solve at least one problem. Although . . ."

I started pacing in silence for a minute, then turned back to them. "Cheyenne, stand up. Aunt Kate, do you have a tape measure - one of those sewing things? If not, a piece of string will do."

Now that I had a plan of attack I just couldn’t get everything done fast enough. I measured Cheyenne's hips as well as her bust, then my own. I was already working out the design of yet another new suit - with a waist-torso-crotch reinforcement that I could use as a load-bearing support either for things I was carrying including the batteries or as a climbing harness. It could be shaped any way I wanted as long as it was bigger than my basic body and not out of line with a woman's proportions.

I froze in place once again. This time it caused Aunt Kate and Cheyenne to look at each other and laugh.

Cheyenne asked, "Has he always been this way?"

Aunt Kate chuckled . . . then stopped as a sad yet wondering look filled her eyes. "Not since his parents died. Not until today."

I paused too, and nodded. "I think I've just been going through the motions since then. I knew I needed to continue to exist, but other than an unformed need for justice - or revenge, I'm not too worried about the distinction - I was just hanging on. Now I have a path forward . . ."

I looked at Cheyenne and said, "And I know what I need from your father."

I wanted to get right to work on my new dynafiber suit but the ladies convinced me that there were more than technical issues to address.

Cheyenne actually raised her hand, as though in a class. She snickered at the way that got my attention, pointing a 'gotcha' shot at me for her success. "Let me try to catch up a little. You're going to create another of your suits, equipped with things I obviously won't understand. I got that. But what does that have to do with a secret identity? I mean, other than providing your secret agent type with a few places to store batteries, what does any of that have to do with the issue of making you look like a woman?"

"Oh, yeah, I guess I skipped that part," I said.

"I guess you did," Aunt Kate agreed. She took a deliberate sip of her coffee and just as deliberately settled back in her chair, waiting for an explanation.

It made me take a moment to think as well. "I think I'm going to need three, um, people that I can be. There's me, Jamie Sinclair. I'm a traumatized freak who can't grow up and be a man. I'm a recluse, and rich enough to get away with it . . ."

Aunt Kate tried to interrupt my self-analysis, but I pushed on, "Look, it doesn't matter how true that is - though we both know it's a lot closer to the truth than we want to admit. What matters is that's who people think I am, and I can use that."

"That gives me an anchor persona, someone who pays taxes, who can now vote, who has an existence in the world that will provide the other me's with an alibi when I need one."

"The second me is going to be some sort of night-stalker. I'm going to use the skills your dad has been teaching me, and more to come, plus some tricks I can work into my suit to give me an advantage when others are weakest - in the dark, primarily. I can be as hard to catch as the wind, until I smack someone with hurricane force."

Cheyenne giggled, "Wow, sounds cool. Can I have your autograph?"

"Sure, um . . . how about . . . 'Nightwind' at your service?"

"Works for me," she said. Aunt Kate was frowning.

"Dear, you know I think you're - as our dad said - scary smart. And I love you to death, but are you sure you're not letting yourself get caught up in a comic book story here? It sounds a little dramatic."

"It needs to be dramatic," I said. "I can't physically fight everyone who might get between me and whoever Mr. 'X' is that ordered my parents killed. I need to use fear - the drama - as part of my arsenal."

She frowned again, "It also sounds . . . dangerous. I know you think you'll be hard to catch, but if they do . . ."

"Aunt Kate," I said, quietly but firmly, "I need you behind me on this. Yes, it will be dangerous. But I'm counting on you, and Shy, and her dad to help me. And it only has to work once - well, one, um, 'campaign.' When we get Mr. 'X' then Nightwind will disappear."

She sighed, but nodded. "Okay. I'll want you to explain every step to me, and I expect you to listen to me, and to the others if you try to do something too crazy, but I'll help you where I can."

"Thanks," I said. I thought for another moment, and then continued. "I think I'll need a third persona. This is the 20-something person who can move about in society without being a freak, without getting ID-checked every time she tries to go to a movie. I'll need some ID, but it has to be something people will believe rather than challenge."

"I may be able to help you with that," Aunt Kate added. "Matthew Dylan is not the only friend I have in low places."

I nodded, but this time I didn't jump up and head for my lab. I looked at Cheyenne and said, "I think we need to work on those characters a little. I don't think, for example, that my Nightwind persona should have white hair."

"Might work well on your street persona, though," she mused. "Platinum hair would be a nicely contemporary touch. No one uses their real hair color anymore."

"Not even you?" I challenged.

"Well, of course *I* use my natural hair color," she said with a perfectly snobbish sniff. "It says so right on the bottle."

"You don't think white hair will provide a link back to me - the real me?" I said.

"By the time I get done with you, gorgeous, even old detective whats-his-name won't be thinking of boys when they see either Nightwind or . . . Platinum," she promised.

"Not 'Platinum'," Aunt Kate said. "That sounds like another superheroine or something, and this person is supposed to be someone who can move about in society." She paused, then continued, "Jamie. That's a good name, and it will help you react naturally to people who talk to you. But . . . at least to the outside world, would you consider being 'Jamie Webster?'"

"I'd be honored," I said sincerely.

"Good. I'll take care of it."

Now I was ready to head for my lab, but Cheyenne caught my arm and swung me smoothly toward my room. "Okay, Jamie-not-Platinum, get ready to be beautiful."

******************

News flash for approximately half of human civilization: Being a girl is hard work. Not to mention more than a little painful.

The good news was that Cheyenne was a cheerleader-level expert in contemporary fashion, and in particular what it took to look like a stylish, 20ish, sophisticated woman (all the more so since she wasn't quite 20 herself, so she was really focused on it). The bad news was that she would accept nothing less than awesome - her word - in every aspect of my makeover.

There was a moment of awkwardness when we reached my room. I didn't know what to do - or at least what my self-appointed makeover expert wanted to do. And Cheyenne just stood there for a moment.

"What's wrong?" I asked finally.

"Well, um, if this were one of my girlfriends," she said hesitantly, "and she needed to be waxed, I'd just have her take her clothes off . . ."

"Waxed?" I repeated.

"Yes, sure," she said.

"Oh," I said, finally catching on. "You're worried about me taking my clothes off in front of you."

"Aren't you? I mean, not worried, but . . . it's a little . . . forward, don't you think? I mean, boy, girl, bedroom, no clothes?"

"Cheyenne," I said quietly, "I think you are one of the very prettiest girls I've ever seen, and you move with grace and beauty. But . . . I'm a freak, remember? No hormones. You're safe with me."

"You're not a freak," she said.

"Actually, I pretty much am," I said. "It's something I have to deal with and denying it doesn't get me anywhere. Even if I wanted to - and those desires are asleep right now - I couldn't, um, take advantage of the situation. My 'equipment' doesn't work."

"Oh, Jamie, I'm so sorry," she said.

"Me, too," I said. I moved over to give her a hug and said, "Because if I *were* able to perform, you'd be the first girl I'd ask."

"Thank you," she said. "I'll hold you to that."

"Deal," I said, but it wasn't like that was a promise that meant anything. If I ever recovered, then . . . well, that would be a different situation. In any event. . .

"So, you said I should take my clothes off?"

"Yes," she said. "We need to wax you."

"Even a home-schooled nerd knows enough to be wary of that."

"Oh, Jamie, you have no idea," she said, grinning. It wasn't a totally natural grin, but it was clear she was trying to work with the situation. So I tried to match it.

I was working hard on maintaining a grin for quite a while after that. It certainly wasn't coming naturally. My hair was quite happy attached to my body. Yanking it out by the roots was accompanied by many complaints - some of which I forwarded along to the universe at large.

"Okay," Cheyenne said after my skin was nicely tortured. "You have a choice to make."

"Oh, boy," I muttered, not looking forward to any further challenges, even though I knew we were just getting started.

"Option 1," she began, "is that we cover your eyebrows with putty and draw on some feminine brows. That way when you're being the real Jamie, you just take off the makeup and you're all set."

"But. . ," I said, dangling it out there for her to complete.

"But, it won't really look right when you're Jamie Platinum. Anyone who gets close will be able to tell."
"How close?"

"Oh, you'd be okay just passing someone quickly on the street, but if you had to talk face-to-face with someone for very long they'd see."

"I presume there's an option 2?"

"Option 2 is that we shape your brows like a girl's, and when you need to be Jamie Sinclair we add something back."

"Is that easier?"

"Yes, actually," she said. "But . . . look, the rest of what we do can be hidden with like, long pants. Your brows will look feminine for, well, weeks at least."

"Okay."

"Okay?" she repeated. "Just. . . I mean, that easy?"

"Shy, you need to recognize something. I am going to get the people who killed my parents. I'll do whatever it takes. And that means being able to move about in society is the priority. Do what it takes. I'll probably spend more time as - what did you say? - Jamie Platinum than as Jamie Sinclair anyway. At least, more time when anyone else sees me. I may be Jamie Sinclair when I'm working in my lab, but it won't matter what my brows look like.

"Okay," she said, then paused. "Um, if you're okay with doing your brows . . . how about your ears?"

"My ears?" I repeated.

"Just about everyone has pierced ears these days. Lots of guys do, too, for that matter, but it's essentially obligatory for girls, so . . ."

I sighed, but I nodded at that, too.

She grinned that not-entirely-sympathetic grin and said, "Here goes."

Oh, there was another good thing. I don't know if the lack of men's hormones, or perhaps the slight amount of female hormones my body was producing had something to do with it, but my hair was thick and soft, like a billowing cloud on a bright summer day. In any event, when Cheyenne got to the point of doing my hair, she was quite pleased.

And so was I.

The face she created was amazing. It didn't matter that the body under it was androgynous at best. The face that I saw in the mirror was beautiful, sophisticated, glamorous without trying too hard, and so much unlike my own self image that my world did a shimmer/twist that made me clutch at Cheyenne for support.

"Oh my god," I whispered. "Is that me? You're a magician!"


"Is that me?"


"Thank you," she said smugly. "Do you think they'll let you into the movie now?"
"Looking like this? They'll probably ask me to *star* in one," I said. "I'll get hit on so many times I'll feel like a streetwalker."

"Likely so," she laughed. "We'll need to teach you some Woman 101 skills - check that, you're already past that. Call it Woman 201 on how to discourage unwanted suitors. Either that or hire Daddy to keep all the guys away from you."

"Well, I knew I needed his help. I just didn't know how many ways."

The same cheekbones and chin that looked too soft for a nearly grown man added elegant maturity to the face of the woman I saw. The snowy halo that highlighted that face made what I had considered to be fairly average blue eyes pop with bright clarity - a magnet that grabbed your attention and wouldn't let go. Even the slight thinness of my lips - disguised but not entirely eliminated by Cheyenne's magic - added an intriguing challenge. It balanced those wide eyes and mane of hair with a degree of refinement that prevented any sense of bimbo emptiness.

We went out to show Aunt Kate, and I guess she was impressed. She dropped her coffee cup on the floor. I took that as a sign.

Cheyenne wanted to go out immediately, shopping for clothes to complement the new person she had created. But this time I did insist on going into my lab. I wanted a body to go with the face. The instant I saw that person in the mirror I knew I'd be spending a lot of time as Jamie Platinum, and that meant I wanted the torso component of my armor to be something I could wear even when I wasn't going out as Nightwind.

Of course, eventually shopping moved to the top of the agenda.

It stayed there a while. It's nice to be rich.



Chapter 5 - "Point of Attack"

But shopping had to wait until I had a body to cover.

I don't think Cheyenne expected to be as spectacularly successful as she was in creating Jamie Platinum, but she had come prepared with a pair of leggings and a loose shirt that would disguise my lack of curves. An unopened package of panties was part of the pile, and she also had a stretchy bra and a couple of shapes that I had a feeling were . . . well used already. Cheyenne was feminine, but lean. I had a feeling that before she had come to accept that fact she had helped her figure a bit. Good for her that she was now comfortable with her very-attractive body. Good for me that she had what I needed.

I retired back to my bedroom for the next stage in my transformation and discovered to my chagrin that the panties that Cheyenne had so thoughtfully provided were tiny little thongs.

"Cheyenne," I called through the door. "What's up with these . . ? I mean, thongs?"

"No panty lines, gorgeous," she called back with a laugh. "Your leggings would show."

"Goody for me," I muttered, but a look at the tight material once I had the stretchy pants pulled up made it clear she was right.

I almost started cursing myself for a fool again when I tried the bra and breast forms. Not because I wanted the shape all that badly, but because the cool, slick forms covered my nipples, and the relief from the constant irritation of rubbing inside my shirt was almost overwhelming. My nipples had, true to the prediction, grown a bit. They were now surrounded by surprisingly large dark accents - surprisingly large considering that there wasn't much shape backing them up. In the absence of any real size, let alone anything that 'jiggled,' I had just tolerated the sensitivity as something I couldn't do anything about.

Until I was wearing a bra, with silicone shapes that actually *did* jiggle but more importantly provided a non-scratchy protection for the little attention whores.

"Oh, god, that feels good," I sighed.

"What?" Cheyenne asked. Apparently I had spoken loudly enough to be heard through the door. Or maybe she was just eavesdropping. I quickly pulled on the top and opened the door.

"My, um, nipples are sensitive, and this feels so much better," I admitted.

"You mean you've been going without a bra - no protection at all - for your nips?" she asked in surprise. "God, how could you stand it?"

"I didn't know there was anything that could be done about it," I said.

"What do you think bras are for?"

"For supporting someone with a lot, um, bigger problem than I had - have - whatever."

"That's only one of the reasons, Jamie," she said. "Oh, lordy, but you do have some things to learn."

What could I say? I just nodded, looking down at an outfit that was amazingly feminine for being nothing more than slim pants and a loose shirt. I had expected I'd need a dress to make up for my non-curved body to appear like a young woman, but I looked stylish and very comfortable, yet undeniably feminine.

Though Cheyenne had some clothes I could wear, she didn't have any shoes that fit my feet. On the other hand, a few minutes of exploration and we found that Aunt Kate did. I know I said Aunt Kate's sense of style was fairly bland, but she did have enough different shoes to provide me with a few choices - flats of course. Anything else would come later. If at all.

It was a bit overwhelming. Another mirror inspection showed I had truly gone over to the girl side. Though dressed very casually, I still looked stylish and - above all - female. No, above all, beautiful. I had the movie-star-out-grocery-shopping sort of understated glamour. The ostentatiously casual attire of leggings and a loose shirt, with flat shoes, looked like the carefully selected fashion statement an extremely attractive woman makes to show that even when she wasn't trying she just couldn't help looking great.

"I need a break," I said, a bit breathlessly. "This is . . . what you've done for me is just . . . awesome. Just as you promised. But I need to . . . get used to it a little. Can we go shopping later?"

I didn't give her a chance to reply. "Oh! I just remembered. I need to get my torso rig together. The material should be ready."

As I headed back for my lab, I offered over my shoulder, "Besides. I'll need to have my 'real' shape before we buy anything."

As I worked on the torso- what should I call it? - 'shaper' I suppose, though it had a lot more functions than faking curves; in any event, as I worked on it, I realized that the outfit that Cheyenne had selected for me was very comfortable. The leggings moved with me so naturally that it was easy to forget I had them on, except that they kept my legs warm. The loose shirt was longer than my normal sports shirts, but the only issue was that it bunched under me a couple of times when I sat. Almost unconsciously I developed the habit of pulling it smooth and that problem receded into insignificance. After a while I realized that I had developed another unconscious habit of pulling my hair behind my ears when it fell forward. Before, I had almost always caught it in clasp and didn't have to worry about it. Now, I still didn't have to think about it because the motion to keep it out of my face became as automatic as blinking.

I was calculating the volume I'd need for the battery capacity I wanted. It was a fairly mechanical thought process, and then it came to me what I was considering. Cheyenne had laughed about me becoming a Big-Boobed Betty, and there was no way I was going to do that. Not really. But . . .

I was vain. With a flash of insight as resonant as the thought of having a secret identity, I realized that I was vain! I wanted to look good. Really good. Better than Cheyenne. My face and hair were already wonderful. Vain or not, I thought I looked better than Cheyenne in that slightly-more-mature way that we had been shooting for. I looked like a very competent, self-confident, truly beautiful woman where Cheyenne still had a hint of woman-wannabe about her.

Now I realized I could do that same sort of improvement in my figure-to-be. I wasn't sure why that was suddenly important to me. I mean, realizing that I was vain was an insight, but why all of the sudden? It had never mattered to me before.

Maybe it was because, for the first time, I realized that I really *could* look attractive. As Jamie Sinclair I had always been the too-slender, too-bookish nerd. Thank God I didn't need glasses or I could have had my picture in the dictionary. Two genius parents providing home-schooling just about guaranteed the intellectual dimension. I guess the fact they never cared too much about their own appearance - beyond being neat - led me down that path, too.

But Cheyenne did want to look pretty, and that awareness had become part of my universe since we had become close friends. I remembered that I told her I didn't care what I looked like, and in the sense that neither my appearance nor anything else would get in the way of my justice/revenge that was true. But if, along the way to justice, I just happened to be attractive, even . . . beautiful. Well, why not?

Which brought me back to my torso shaper. I adjusted the pattern I was providing a bit here and there - mostly *there* and *there* - add a tighter waist and full but tapering hips that would be proportional to my 'battery space.' I was still lean, but it was an unambiguously female lean, not the androgynous shape that I had been working into the previous iterations of my suit. And since it was something for Jamie Platinum to wear, I worked it in neutral flesh tones that weren't intended to be perfect enough to display on the outside, but wouldn't show through my outer clothes.

That meant I really needed two dynafiber layers - the outer one in a smoky gray that would just about disappear at night. The bad news was that it would take almost two days to produce and weave all that fabric. The good news was that I had a automatic weaving machine that could knit it to my pattern without my direct attention.

Aunt Kate came to get me out of my lab with excellent timing. The machines were underway and I was just watching them - more tired than I realized - when she came to drag me from my lair. That's when I learned yet another less-convenient aspect of presenting the appearance of a woman. Cleansing off all the makeup, moisturizing my face, sanitizing the new holes in my ears, opening my pores (in very hot water) and then working lotions into all the skin that was still a bit tender from the waxing . . . It took most of an hour just to get ready for bed.

When I finished the regime that Aunt Kate had defined, I found two outfits lying on my bed. One was a regular t-shirt and boxer shorts. The other was a long burgundy nightgown and matching panty.

"I wonder what this material is," I thought to myself as I slithered between the covers and turned out the light.

In the morning, reality smacked my vanity - and my pride - right in the head. I'm a quick study. I had valid college degrees in physics and math even though I was barely 18. And I had paid close attention when Cheyenne had showed me how to use makeup. And it was just the afternoon before - less than 24 hours.

And when I tried to do my own makeup I looked like a clown - drawn by a drunk.

Using his toes to hold the brush.

At least Aunt Kate had showed me how to cleanse it all away. She had told me that washing my face several times a day - as long as I moisturized properly - would not hurt my complexion. I certainly put it to the test.

The only redeeming element of the morning was that Cheyenne showed up just when I had finished cleaning everything off - again - and she thought I was just starting out.

"Oh, good," she said. "I caught you before you did anything. We need to try the other look this morning."

"The other look?"

"Right," she confirmed. "Jamie Sinclair, bushy eyebrows and all."

"I didn't have bushy eyebrows," I protested.

"Relative to Jamie Platinum, you do," she said.

She actually did a few more things than just use spirit gum to glue on some wisps of white hair. Even my Jamie Sinclair brows weren't all that big. But she used a little bit of smudge to make my cheeks look gaunt, and added just a hint of bluish shadow to my jawline - like I should be so lucky that I had an actual beard. It wasn't much. In fact, even after she'd done it I couldn't really tell what she'd done. But it was almost as effective - in its way - as the Jamie Platinum look had been. This was a pale, not-too-healthy, underdeveloped boy-man who needed a good day at the beach and more than a day at the gym. With my hair pulled back severely into a low ponytail you couldn't tell that it had nice body and sway. Clothes just shy of sloppy and empty holes in my ears completed the image of a dissipating - though not from overindulgence - recluse. In other words, someone so overcome with grief that he was letting himself go in a pretty good case of depression.

"God, I look awful," I said.

"Yes, you do," Cheyenne said softly.

"How did you know how to do all that? Are you into theater or something?"

"No," she said, hesitating for a long moment. "Actually, this is how you looked before you . . . woke up again."

"Really?" I asked, but I wasn't really challenging her and she knew it.

"Oh, Jamie," she said, sighing. "I was so worried about you. It's been two years since your parents died, and . . . well, you don't get out, and you don't have many friends, and . . ."

"I do now," I said gently. I stood and held my arms out to her. She accepted my invitation and we hugged for a long, tender moment. Then I squeezed and smiled into her lifting face.

"But I think that Jamie Platinum will get out quite a bit."

She smiled, and then she proved she was a better observer than I thought. "So, shall we show you how to do Jamie Platinum right?"

"How did you . . . oh, you," I said. grinning sheepishly.

We didn't get the chance. Aunt Kate came in and said I had a visitor.

"Dear, Mr. Hansen is here to see you."

"Mr. Hansen?"

"Yes, the patent lawyer. Do you remember?"

"I do now. What does he want?"

"I don't know. Shall we ask him?'

And so we did.

"Good morning, Mr. Sinclair," he said, smiling and offering his hand. I shook it and he turned to his companion. "This is Mr. Nelson Adams. I don't know if you've met?"

"Not that I can remember," I said, but the hairs on the back of my neck were crackling so sharply I was sure they'd hear it. Something had my nerves on end, but I had no clue what it was.

Adams was not particularly notable in size or proportions, but there was a . . . hardness about him that reminded me of Matt Dylan. I wondered what would happen if they met. It would probably be memorable.

"Mr. Adams is, oh, a troubleshooter of sorts for Antares. He sometimes accompanies me on my errands."

The 'shooter' part of that fit. There was a whiff of gunsmoke about him - not literally - but he was obviously ex-military or something similar.

I motioned to seats and we arranged ourselves. "What can I do for you today/" I asked.

"Do you remember when we met? You asked me if I had worked with your father." Hansen asked in turn.

I nodded.

"I was actually in the neighborhood and I wondered if you have ever found any notes on his ideas."

"Why? I thought you said they weren't patentable."

"Well, they weren't, but I saw a notice that you had been granted degrees from some very prestigious schools - quite early, I might add. Congratulations."

"Thank you," I said.

He smiled in way he probably thought was friendly but just came across as condescending. "It came to me that perhaps you were now able to understand something of your father's work."

"Some of it," I allowed.

"And?" he prompted. "Anything about this . . . drug detector?"

"No, I'm afraid not," I said. "I'm not sure I'd recognize it even yet. My father's ideas were quite advanced and I'm sure I'm not in his class."

"Oh, that's too bad." he sighed. "So, they're lost, then?"

"It would appear so," I said.

"Oh, well," he said, rising. "Sorry to have troubled you."

Once again as we were walking to the exit - this time from my seating area instead of his office - he asked very casually, "Have your memories of that night ever come back?"

"No," I said. But the hairs on the back of my neck were trying to tell me a different story. Not the least of which was the relief I felt when they left. It wasn't a general feeling of unease; it was specific to those men and it passed as soon as they were out of my sitting room.

I froze for a moment, and then almost collapsed into a chair. "Oh my god. I've been so stupid . . ."

"What's wrong, Jamie?" asked Aunt Kate.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," I muttered, then I looked at them. "How many patents does my father have?"

"I don't know," Aunt Kate said in confusion.

"It's over 40," I said. "So what are the odds he would approach a patent lawyer without enough basis to apply for a patent? Hell, William Wright is primarily a patent lawyer, and he and Dad were so involved that Wright ended up doing all our other legal work as well."

"I . . . oh, I never thought of that," Aunt Kate replied. Cheyenne still looked confused so I filled in the gap.

"When we visited Hansen, he said that Dad had approached him about a patent on a drug-detection device. But that Dad only had a theory without enough models or data or design information to qualify for a patent application. Now, what are the odds that Dad would be that far off base on what it took to get a patent?"

"Oh, yeah," she said catching on.

"Look," I continued. "When they were here - Hansen and that Adams guy - I got a really bad vibe off of them . . ."

I jumped up and started to pace again. "Oh my god . . . I'll bet . . . oh, that son of a bitch . . ."

Before either of the others could ask about my new insight, I explained. "Did you notice that when he left, Hansen asked if any of my memories had come back?"

Aunt Kate nodded so I continued. "Look at it this way. What if Adams had been one of the attackers? I don't think Hansen was - he's too dainty to get his hands dirty anyway - but suppose he told Adams about Dad's invention. Adams tried to get the information from Dad, killing my parents in the process. Hansen saw that I had been awarded my degrees - as he said - and stopped by with Adams to see if I recognized him. He was testing me!"

"Oh my god," I continued. "If I had shown any signs of recognition, they might have killed us right then!"

"But you didn't recognize him?" Aunt Kate asked.

"Not really, but like I said, I got this really bad vibe from him. It may be that at some level I did, but the direct memories are still repressed."

"So, do you want my dad to help protect you or something?" Cheyenne asked.

"It'll probably involve some of that," I admitted. "But I think it's time for your dad to help me make Nightwind a real character. One that can get to Hansen, and through him to Adams, and . . . I don't think Adams is the boss behind all of this, and I'm sure Hansen is not. So we need to find out who is really behind this. I've got some research to do . . ."

I started toward my lab when Cheyenne called me back. "Wait, Jamie, what about . . . y'know, your looks?"

"You ain't seen nothin' yet, girl," I called back. Then added, "Call your dad. We need to talk."



Chapter 6 - "Veil of Night . . . Wind"

One of the properties of Dad's dynafiber was that it could be made to extend or shrink when an electrical current was applied to it. I had used this in sizing both the torso shape and the outer armor suit. In the case of the torso shaper, I may have overdone it a bit.

I attached a battery to the appropriate contacts on the torso shaper (near the shoulders - and don't be crude) so that it would relax enough that I could eel my way into the material. There was an . . . accommodation that kept any discordant contours - small though they might be - hidden in the crotch area. It would even let me urinate if I were careful to wipe things dry afterward. The rest went on fairly easily, but was disappointing when I looked at the resulting shape.

"Well, here goes nothing," I muttered to myself as I disconnected the shoulder contacts.

"Be careful what you wish for," I grunted a moment later as the dynafiber insisted on returning to the designed dimensions.

"Yep," I gasped, "definitely overdid it in the waist."

It only pulled me in a couple of inches from my normal waist contour - maybe three - but I didn't have much body fat so that was compressing some pretty tight muscle. It was distracting enough that I didn't even notice the rest of the contours for a moment.

Then I did.

"Well, maybe not," I said, and I couldn't deny the smug tone in my voice. I was definitely going to look more female than Cheyenne. My batteries were gelcels that were somewhat flexible within their fixed volume, and the shapes that hung from my chest - other than being a bit heavier than I expected - took a natural curve that looked even better than I had hoped. The well-defined accent of a very trim waist set off a long, sleek curve of hip and I decided I was going to like being Jamie Platinum. I already admitted to myself that I was vain. The woman whose body I so admired had a reason to be.

The torso shaper extended from my knees to my shoulders, with a fairly large neck opening that lay just below my collar bones. In contrast, my Nightwind suit covered me from toes to turtleneck. I fashioned it to be pretty close to my 'natural' shape, or at least what the combination of torso shaper and bare limbs provided. There was just enough tension once I was in it and released the power contacts to provide a smooth, shimmering contour. It threatened to go transparent in all the tight places - and there were a lot of tight places - but all the 'naughty bits' were covered by the torso shaper so nothing was really revealed.

I decided I wanted an unveiling so I found a thick terrycloth robe to hide everything except my lower legs (with a pair of Jamie Sinclair's black athletic shoes that looked intolerably thick and heavy), gloves, and the high collar. Cheyenne seemed to be oblivious to the ploy and didn't say anything while she helped me with my makeup, putting little starter studs back in my ears so the holes didn't close. I didn't tell her but I really only needed my eyes done - at least, Nightwind would only show her eyes. And then only sometimes.

Despite my earlier clumsiness, another lesson had helped me get to the point where I could do most of it myself. It wasn't a lack of dexterity on my part that had led to my clown face, but a lack of vision on what needed to be done. Cheyenne was a huge help just by being there to tell me when I went wrong, and how. Once it started to click into place I felt more confidence, and as if often the case, with confidence came success.

Then she made me do it over anyway, since this was the first time I'd be Nightwind. She decided that required a more dramatic look and as soon as she showed me what to do, I had to agree.

Finally, she pronounced me ready and stood back. I think she expected me to drop my robe. Instead, I asked, "Is your dad here?"

"He should be," she said. "I asked him to stop by . . . well, right about now."

"Good, let's go show him what he has to work with," I suggested.

Cheyenne shrugged and moved toward the training room at my gestured invitation.

Matt Dylan was there, moving through a warmup routine with almost-creepy silence. I still didn't move as quietly as he did - neither did Cheyenne - even though I was always working on it. Nonetheless, my shoes creaked on the mat and he turned around with a smile.

"Noisy," he teased.

"Yeah, well, it's early," I excused myself. Since I had his attention, I dropped the robe and Nightwind was revealed. While they were still gasping in quite-gratifying shock, I pulled up a lower face mask - a sort of veil, really, but snug - and then intoned, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man? Nightwind knows."

That actually worked out even better than I hoped as well. I had embedded a voice distorter in my mask - it had a gas/particle filter as well - and my voice came out just a bit husky, with a soft burr that sounded wickedly exotic and sensual.

"Oh, man," Cheyenne whined. "I ssoo hate you."

"Shy, baby," Matt said, "if you ever even *think* of wearing an outfit like that, you'll be grounded until you're 50."

"It wouldn't matter," she sighed. "I wouldn't look that good even if I *did* have a suit like that."

"Thank you," I said, still purring through my mask.

Matt smiled, at last - I was afraid he thought I looked stupid as well as, um, risqué - and said, "You realize that after pictures of you get out - and if need be I'll take them myself - that you're going to be the desktop image on every PC in America."

"Oh, do you think so?" I asked, twirling with flowing arm gestures before dipping into a curtsy.

"Tramp," Cheyenne said, but she giggled. "Oh, god, I don't care what Daddy said, you have got to make me one of those."

"Deal," I said. "But only after I get Mister 'X'. I don't want you in danger because you think the suit turns you into some sort of magical superhero. I'm only doing this because it will let me get to whoever killed my parents."

"Yeah, right," she snorted. "That's why you gave yourself such big boobs and a tiny waist.'

"Those are batteries," I claimed. Unfortunately - but accurately - the voice distorter and mask kept the innocence out of my tone. She didn't seem to be convinced.

Matt was still smiling as his daughter and I talked. As he did so he walked around to get another full-circle view of the suit. Well, and of me in it.

"It looks good, kid," he said. "I actually understand that part of the purpose is to intimidate the bad guys with a better-than-real image. You look like you stepped out of the pages of a comic book. The only problem is the shoes. And, well, it doesn't look like you have any place to, ah, carry tools."

"I figured I'd work out a backpack," I said about the second. "And what's wrong with my shoes?"

"Other than the fact they creak?" he teased. Then his expression frowned but it was one of concentration, not disapproval. "Hmmm, I wonder . . ."

I let him think for a minute and was rewarded by a return of his attention. "The shoes are practical, and we could get some that didn't make noise, but they're not proportional. It looks like you have big feet."

"Well, I guess I do," I said.

"Not that bad," he said. "But you've got an ineffective compromise. On one hand, we could get you some combat boots with steel toes - or maybe your armor stuff - and soles. With those you could literally kick a cement block to pieces."

He pointed at his own boots for emphasis. "I like them, and when they're well broken in they're very comfortable. They're a bit heavy, but overcoming that is just a matter of training. You've obviously got enough strength."

"I have the feeling there's another choice," I prompted.

"Yes," he said. "I was just thinking about that comic book image. What would you say about some boots with a bit of heel?"

"High-heeled boots? Are you kidding?"

"Not real high heels," he said. "What I had in mind was a heel that tapered a bit, down to about a square inch of contact surface."

He stepped over to me and lifted up one leg into a side-kick position. "Imagine what you could do with your strength and that sort of concentration of force. I'll bet you could punch the lock right out of most doors. We'll still do the reinforced toe and sole - plus the shaft of the heel - but it won't look like heavy combat boots. It will reinforce the grace of the rest of your form, and provide a real surprise if it comes to a fight."

"You think I'm graceful?" I said.

"Quit fishin' for compliments, kid," Matt said, smiling. "You've been dancing the mats with me enough to move well, and you know it. If you've forgotten, maybe we need to spar a little."

"Um, no, I remember that part," I said.

"Is that your Nightwind costume, then?" asked Cheyenne.

"Not quite," I said. "I have a helmet, too. I'm working on some visor displays, and comm. links."

"Who were you going to talk to?" Matt asked.

"Well," I said, ducking my head a little. "I was sorta hoping . . ."

"Good," he said. "If you didn't ask for a support team, I'd have tied you down until you grew some brains."

"Thanks," I said.

"We do have to do something about your hair, though," Cheyenne said. "It looks just awesome with that dark outfit. You really are ready for your own comic book. But I think it would be just a bit too distinctive. A girl-on-the-street with platinum hair is one thing. An avenging angel going after the people who murdered the parents of a kid whose hair turned white as a result . . ."

"I know," I said, sighing. There was a mirror in the training room and I posed in front of it, fluffing my hair. "But it does look awesome."

Aunt Kate, with her usual sense of timing, walked in just as I was indulging my ego. "It sounds like someone needs a helping of humble pie."

"Oh, Aunt Kate, I know better," I said, turning toward her.

"Oh, I like the voice," she said. "And the veil is nicely exotic. I presume they go together."

"Yes," I said, pulling the mask down. In my own voice - which, like the rest of me, had never matured and belonged to a young boy or an adult woman - I asked, "Do you like the rest of it?"

"It's . . . dramatic," she said. "How do you get it off?"

"Actually, it takes an electrical current, " I explained, pointing at the hidden contacts on the shoulders. "The current causes the fibers to loosen, and then I can slip out of it."

"Good," she said. "Because if you could get that thing off easily, I wouldn't let you out of the house. You're going to have young wolves sniffing after you the moment you step out the door."

I blushed - it showed now that the mask was down - and said, "Oh, Aunt Kate, you know that's not a problem for me."

"I know you wouldn't be the one doing the chasing," she said. "But in that outfit you'll definitely be chased."

"Speaking of which," Matt said. "Are you up for a run?"

"Good idea," I agreed. "I need to get used to the weight and stiffness distribution of this new suit."

"Yes, you do have some new weights to deal with," Cheyenne snarked, giggling and rolling her eyes.

"Jealous," I sniffed disdainfully, then couldn't contain a giggle of my own.

"Get your own gear, Shy," Matt ordered.

In a few minutes we were headed out on our run. Matt was teaching us Parkour, which is crazy until you learn how to do it. Then it's just insane. Needless to say, we had a good time.

When we got back, the first thing I did was start another batch of dynafiber growing in the vat. It was clear I was going to need two of the torso shapers, at least. Undeveloped or not, my body was quite adept at sweating.

After we got cleaned up and had a light lunch, Aunt Kate came in with a stack of papers.

"It's the end of the month, Jamie," she said. "And you're 18 now. It's time you started taking over your own paperwork."

"Oh, joy," I said. I wanted to work in my lab on the helmet, but . . . she was right, as usual.

And then I found out just how right she was.

"What's this?" I asked, pointing at a bill.

"I don't really know," she said. "It was a regular bill. Some sort of data storage thing, I think."

"Yes, it's a data storage account," I confirmed. "But what data? I didn't see any reference to this in Dad's notes."

She just shrugged, looking at me for why I thought that was significant.

"Oh, shit," I said sharply. "Oh, god damn, I've been stupid again."

"Dear, I wish you wouldn't . . ."

"Sorry, Aunt Kate, but this was so obvious. Once I get those new boots made to Mr. Dylan's design, I think I'm going to kick myself right in the . . . , doggone it, nothing else will do . . . right in the ass."

Before she could ask anything further, I explained. "Dad had a smart phone! We all do - did. It wasn't in his things and I figured they had stolen it. I wasn't too worried because Dad has this kickass encryption routine that I don't think even NSA could break in less than a month of supercomputer time. But I should have known that Dad would back everything up on a skydrive of some sort or another. Da . . . darn it, it's been two years! I could have had this data the whole time."

The account information was in the bill and it was fairly straightforward - a few frustrating days for things to process, but not difficult to arrange - for me to get access to his skydrive files. They were encrypted, too, but Dad had shown me the trick - something involving the date of the file, plus some other stuff that I'm not going to reveal - and eventually I had a clear copy.

It was indeed a drug-detection device. I was just barely able to hang on through the math - and I couldn't have invented it - but apparently he had figured out how to use that same cosmological constant energy to measure molecular weight of materials. He used neutrinos that passed through the sample - they're everywhere, but most of the local ones come from the sun so he could get a fairly clean stream - and his detector was about 80% reliable on moderate-to-heavy molecules like cocaine or heroin. That was better than just walking drug dogs along a line of closed containers, and it would be more than enough to justify opening specific containers in a shipping port.

There in front of me were a detailed theory backed by math, plans for a practical mobile detector, and evidence of effectiveness from a breadboard rig I had actually helped him build, though I didn't know what I was building. There was also evidence that the things I'd found in Dad's notes so far were only the tip of a very large iceberg of potential for his discovery. He'd have had a Nobel Prize one day, if the . . . slime who killed him had let him be.

"This is way more than enough to file for a patent," I told Aunt Kate. "I'm sure Dad showed Hansen this data. In fact, I have a draft patent application that they filled out. Hansen is dirty, there's no doubt about it."

"What are you going to do about it?" Aunt Kate asked cautiously.

"Talk with Dylan," I said, grim resolution in my own tone.

Like nearly anything in life, once you think you're ready to start something a thousand details show up to get in your way. In my case, I had to get comfortable in my new boots. The heel that Dylan recommended worked out to be a bit less than 3 inches high. That seemed really high to me, but Cheyenne convinced me it was only moderate. It actually ended up more like the heel on a pair of western-style boots than a fashion heel. It also didn't seem to make that much difference to me. I adapted fairly quickly - and even liked being just a bit taller. I also needed to finish my helmet. And we needed to set up a support van for Dylan.

In the meantime . . . I was kidnapped.

"No more excuses," Cheyenne declared. "We're going shopping, and today."

She grabbed an arm and all of the sudden I had my own drug problem. She drug me right out of the house. I was wearing my torso unit under leggings and a loose shirt, with some of Aunt Kate's flats. It was good enough for shopping, but apparently not good enough for much of anything else. According to Cheyenne, I didn't have anything to wear, and that was a crime against humanity.

The first place she took me was to get some more casual clothes. Like, what was wrong with what I was wearing? And the first thing she gave me to try on was a pair of jeans.

"Did you see how much these cost?" I gasped.

"What do you care? You've got more money than the IRS."

"Yeah, but . . . for a pair of jeans?"

"Try them on."

"Why? I can't imagine spending this much money on a pair of jeans!"

"Try them on," she repeated.

So I did.

God they looked good. They loved every curve, and every curve loved them back. I got two pairs.

The only problem was that both were too long, but Cheyenne insisted. And then - despite the fact we were explicitly looking for clothes to wear *while* we did more shopping, she wouldn't let me wear either pair.

"They're too long," she said. Yeah, but why did she insist I get them too long, then? I was never gonna understand shopping.

We stopped at a lingerie store - you know the one - and bought some things that I couldn't imagine wearing even in a bedroom, let alone under street clothes. Cheyenne decided my ears were healed enough for real earrings so I ended up with some hoops that were heavy enough that they reminded me of their presence every time I turned my head.

"Quit ogling yourself in every shiny surface you see," Cheyenne said, laughing.

"I'm not," I protested. "It's just . . . these earrings are heavy."

"Yeah, and they swing real nice, too, little lady," she drawled. Then she giggled and added (without the drawl), "But you don't need to make such a big deal of admiring yourself - let the boys do that."

"I'm not . . ."

Her laugh interrupted me, and it was clear that I was not going to convince her . . . partly because I had to admit she might have had a point. Well, except for the boys, of course. I wasn't interested in attracting guys. It was just . . . strange. Everything felt strange and the impact was too much to be absorbed into the background.

Then she also made me get a black denim skirt. A short skirt. Emphasis on s-h-o-r-t short. And tight.

"I can't wear this," I whisper-yelled at her from the dressing room. "I won't even be able to sit down."

"Sure you can. Wear it out. I've already got the tag."

I kept telling myself that even if I fell down and showed everything, I still had my panties - well, a thong panty - and my pantyhose, and my torso unit. No one could really 'see' anything.

But I couldn’t help thinking about how close 'things' were to showing, and tugging that little skirt down didn't seem to help a bit.

"Quit fidgeting," she said. "You're not ready to troll for boys, yet. We need shoes!"

"Troll for boys? What are you saying?"

"Pulling at your skirt just calls attention to it. And girl, you've got legs to sell. Pulling their eyes to your thighs is a good tactic if you've got the figure for it - and you do - but save it for later."

"Later? Oh my god, you're crazy!"

"We'll see," she said. Then she pulled me into a shoe store.

Now I had some no-kidding, high heels to try on. She wouldn't let me measure the heels. All I know is that they were a lot higher than my Nightwind boots. And not just one pair, either. I had a pair of off-white sandals and a pair of glossy black pumps. But there was a problem with the pair of peep-toe slings that Cheyenne insisted I try next. Or actually, not a problem with the shoes, but . . .

"Count your fingers, quick," I told the salesman who was fitting the shoe to my foot.

"What, why?" he asked.

"Because if you feel my leg up one more time, you're going to be short a few," I growled.

Cheyenne heard, and she started laughing so hard I thought she'd fall off her chair. I didn't see any humor in the situation at all.

"Okay, okay," she said, gathering up packages. "Enough for now."

The salesman had vanished. Honestly, I didn't even see him go. I told him to be nice, and then I was listening to Cheyenne laugh, and then, when I looked back, he was just gone. But my shoes made it to the counter and a different clerk - a woman, in fact - took care of business. I was past the point of surprise so I just accepted that the shoes were even more insanely priced than the jeans.

"Okay," Cheyenne sighed as though she were tired. Why should she be tired? I'd been doing all the work, and paying all the bills. "Let's go see that movie."

"A movie? Now?"

"Sure. I don't think you'll have any trouble getting in now."

I sighed and gave in again. This girl could get me to do the strangest things. We even had a bunch of packages to shepherd through the show. But we did it.

We were early enough that we had to wait in line a little while after we got our tickets. While we were standing there, I heard a richly resonant voice say, "It takes a brave woman to try that look, and one of surpassing beauty to make it work."

"Excuse me?" I said. The voice belonged to a stranger. A tallish, dark-haired, slender stranger with a stylish, three-day beard stubble. So, okay, I was jealous. Or maybe envious.

"Your hair," he said, still using that voice that sounded like it had been trained for a stage or something.

"Oh, yeah," I said. "It's, um, just something to try."

"Well, it worked. At least for you," he said. "I'm Derek Blaine."

"Jamie," I said reflexively, biting my tongue to keep from giving him my real last name, which kept me from giving him my cover name either.

"This is Brian Hendricks," Derek explained, pointing to a stockier, blondish man standing nearby.

I seemed to be letting my reflexes control me, blurting out, "This is Cheyenne."

She used her name as an excuse to enter the conversation, but I knew she had been aware of all of it. "Hello," she said brightly. "What movie are you guys here for?"

Of course, it turned out to be the same one we were going to see.



Chapter 7 - "One Down . . ."

Aunt Kate's face showed the most amazing array of expressions as Cheyenne recounted our afternoon's expedition. She was trying to be stern, but she was too close to laughing, too often, to make that work. She did show some real surprise at times, and other things that were too confused to label easily.

Cheyenne was lying, of course. I was not flirting with the guys, she was. And I didn't want them to pay for the drinks and popcorn. And I didn't have anything to do with the fact they only got two tubs of popcorn so we had to share. And all I did was sit next to Cheyenne. It wasn't my fault that Derek sat down on the other side of me (with Brian on the other side of Cheyenne).

And most of all, she was the one that allowed the guys to get . . . personal. Derek didn't put his arm around me until after Brian's was already around Cheyenne.

At least I didn't let her give them our phone numbers. We took theirs, and I knew they'd know our number a soon as we called, but I didn't intend to call them.

What I hadn't really figured out was why I let him kiss me as we reached our car. All of the sudden his arms were around me and . . . it just happened.

"So, Jamie, I take it you had a good time," Aunt Kate said finally.

"I don't know," I said, surprising even me with the honesty of that reply.

"Well, girl, if you didn't have a good time, you sure faked it well," Cheyenne said.

"It was . . . interesting," I said. "But I'm confused."

"Yes?" Aunt Kate prompted.

I sighed, and tried to figure out what had happened. "I don't have the hormones that would cause me to be, um, aroused. I don't really know if I'm straight or gay, or if that even has meaning in my case. But . . ."

"You did like being kissed by a handsome guy," Cheyenne said.

I blushed, but nodded.

"It made you feel precious, and protected, and you liked it," she provided.

I nodded again. "Yes. Precious is a good word. I felt like he wanted me, and not just in a physical way. As though I were something to be cherished."

"Oh, Jamie," Aunt Kate said, "I wish . . . well, that's not helpful. Missing out on the sort of closeness that young women - or men - learn in their teens is such a shame. I'm so sorry, even though there's not really anything that any of us could have done about it."

"Me, too," Cheyenne said. She moved over to where I was sitting and gave me a hug.

"That feels nice, too," I said softly.

"Good," she said. There was a strange undercurrent in her voice, but she didn't add anything, so I didn't say anything either.

The next day I found out why my jeans were too long. They were perfect with my Nightwind boots. With a jacket or long-sleeved shirt, I could go out with my armor suit and the only thing that might seem unusual would be tight black gloves. My white hair turned out to be a non-problem as well. Cheyenne just pinned it up into a snug twist and it fit under my helmet. All that would show of Nightwind were my eyes, and them only when I had my visor up.

So I was ready. *We* were ready. The communication links were all checked out. The van was prepped, including some weapons that Matt Dylan didn't say much about and I didn't ask. Of course, my support 'team' was not just the older Dylan. It included Cheyenne in the back of the van, and Aunt Kate driving the van. They both had demonstrated that the female of the species was not short on stubborn. Even Dylan gave up after an argument that was weak enough to show he knew he was beaten before it even started.

I thought about delaying for long enough to make armor suits for everyone, but in the end I decided not to do that. I didn't want them even to have the option of coming with me into someplace that was dangerous enough to need the suits. At some level I knew I couldn't prevent Dylan from doing whatever he wanted - hence the weapons that he stocked in the van - but I didn't want to encourage them by making the possibility of direct intervention real enough to justify armor for them.

There was one last item I needed to be ready. Actually, I couldn't really justify it. It would have been much smarter to ride in the van until I was close, and then proceed on foot. I didn't care. I wanted one, and now that I was 18, I decided I was entitled to make some stupid choices to go with all that new responsibility. So I bought a way-too-powerful superbike - all black and shiny chrome and . . . just gorgeous.

"Real subtle," Dylan said dryly as I rolled it out of the garage on the night of our first mission.

I just grinned.

"Is that new?" asked Aunt Kate. When I nodded she said, "But there are motorcycles out in the garage already."

"Yes," I said, a bit sheepishly, "but none of them were . . . . black."

"Yeah, right," Dylan said. But there was a highlight of respect in his eyes. Or maybe envy.

Not surprisingly, we weren't able to find an address for Nelson Adams. Well, actually we found several. But a few hours on the internet and we had ruled out all the ones that were listed. So our first stop was going to be a visit to Jeremy Hansen. We'd done some research on him and found that he was between wives - or at least, that his third had moved on. He lived in a gated community but one of the things I had discovered with my new strength was that I could jump really well. In fact, I could jump onto the top of a ten foot wall, or clear an eight foot wall entirely. So, the fence around his community wasn't much trouble, and his door lock yielded to my picks with equal ease. The first he knew I was in his apartment was the bite of the trank gun dart - in his ass, if it matters.

Any tranquilizer strong enough to be instantly effective will keep someone out or groggy for hours, and I didn't want to spend that time. So after duct taping him spread-eagled to his bed I administered an antidote and waited for him to wake up. I had staged the scene fairly carefully - a light shining on his face and rest of the room dark. He'd be able to see my shape moving around, but not any details.

When he blinked a few times and started to tug at his bonds, I let my voice caress him - aided by the voice distorter - and said, "My, my, Jeremy, you've been a naughty boy."

Naughty he was, but in more ways than I knew - or even cared about. When he realized he was tied down and heard my throaty voice, a very prominent bulge showed in his pajamas. Well, I certainly didn't want this to be *fun* for him. I slapped my hand on his inner thigh, about 6 inches from that bulge. I didn't call on hysterical strength, but my hand was moving fast enough to trigger the dynafiber reaction and it was about the same as hitting his leg with a 2x4.

"Oww!" he howled. "Who are you? Why are you doing this to me?"

I rubbed the spot on his leg where I hit him. In a little while he'd have a pretty good bruise and I could see the muscle tension up which wasn't going to help anything. Then I grabbed the sore spot and squeezed. "No, no, no, no, no," I purred, as though I were correcting to a small child. "I ask the questions, not you."

Of course, grabbing his leg hurt - from his renewed howl, a lot - so it wasn't an appropriate way to correct a child. But then, he wasn't a child.

I let go of his leg and started to flow nonchalantly around his bed. My movement was about 50% the smooth efficiency of movement that I had learned from Dylan's training, and about 50% the sensual strut that I had learned from wearing high heels under the younger Dylan's instruction. I had practiced the walk in front of a mirror because I didn't want any doubt in the target's mind that I was a woman. I was pretty sure that wasn't going to be a problem, but just to reinforce it I raised my visor and let him see my dramatically made-up eyes.

He opened his mouth to say something, but then he closed it and just watched me as I moved from one side of the bed to the other. I let one hand move out and touch his other leg in the same place I had hit, and then let the purr roll again. "Some information has recently come into my possession. It seems you lied to someone."

"Lied? Who?"

That earned him another club-like slap. After his howl died out, I waved a finger at him in another childish "no-no" gesture, then continued, not yet asking any questions. "It seems that nothing is ever lost in cyberspace. I found an interesting file from a Mr. Jason Sinclair, who had come to you with a device for detecting illegal drugs. He wanted some patent help."

"But . . ," he started, interrupting himself after that single syllable when he saw my hand draw back.

"It seems you told his son and heir, a young man named, ah, Jamie, that his father's idea was not mature enough for a patent."

"Yes, it was just a theory," he claimed. Since it wasn't a question I let it go.

"That's interesting, because one of the things I found was a patent application," I said, pulling a piece of paper out of my backpack. "This is a printout, of course, but it has some interesting data."

I put the paper in front of his face, but the lights were wrong for him to read it. From the way he squinted, I think he probably need reading glasses anyway. I pulled it back and slid my visor down again, stepping up the light amplification. "It says here that the basis for the patent is, 'a theory on the principle supported by mathematical analysis,' and, 'a working prototype with test data confirming effectiveness.'"

It was time for a question, so I asked, "Wouldn't that be enough for a patent application?"

"Well, yes, but that's not what he had," he claimed, but he looked away when he said it. I knew he was lying. In fact, starting out with such an obvious lie was part of my plan. This was my opportunity to show him the price for lying. This time it cost him a kneecap.

I heard it crack. Part of me was sickened by the sound, and by the fact I had done it. And that it had been so easy. I was a lot stronger than a 'normal' person, which was admission that I wasn't really normal any more. It would be easy, too easy, to become some sort of monster, using my strength and my . . . thirst for vengeance to become as evil as those I sought. And part of me was remembering that I couldn't even yet - two years after the event - remember what had been done that night. I knew he had been a part of it even if he wasn't there, and taking out his knee - or even more - was less than my parents suffered.

"Lie again, if you want," I said, this time the purr tightened into a snarl. "The application is on the Antares letterhead, and while it's an electronic copy, it indicates you signed the original."

He was moaning, struggling against his bonds in an attempt to cradle his wrecked knee. I pulled out a knife and let the blade gleam in the reflected light for a moment. It caught his eyes and I let my visor up again. Somehow the contrast of beautiful eyes, clean blade, and ugly purpose made each seem more intense.

I let the edge of the blade slip under the cuff of his pajamas, then let it slit the silk with smooth silence. In a moment, I opened the other leg as well and he was naked from the waist down.

"I wonder why women are not recognized as the great interrogators of history," I mused, the purr back in my voice. "I would think that any man would be . . . hesitant, out of sympathy if nothing else, to use the most effective . . . incentives."

With that, I let the razor-sharp blade pull lightly at the hairs around his exposed package, shaving his leg near his scrotum. Even as I talked about women interrogators, I wondered how much I was talking about myself. My manhood had never really developed. I did have a little hair down there, and I remembered a couple of wet dreams from an earlier, innocent time. But since my body had quit making testosterone I hadn't had an erection or even a lusty thought. Though the doctors were continuing to say they just didn't know, I had to wonder if I had passed some sort of point-of-no-return, leaving me impotent and sterile forever.

This man had contributed to that. I actually felt my fingers tightening on the haft of the knife in readiness to geld the son of a bitch, when I forced myself to relax. I took a deep breath and then another, pulling the knife back and resuming my predatory walk around his bed.

"Now you get to talk," I said. "Tell me what really happened with Jason Sinclair. Tell me who you told about his invention. Tell me every single thing that might have contributed to their attack, and I might just let you live. I might even let you live as a man and not a eunuch . . . if you don't make me pry it out of you."

"You wouldn't. . . " he began, but he flinched when I flicked the knife so the light flashed from it to his eyes.

"Why do you care?" he asked, earning him another bruise - and maybe a broken rib - and another finger shaken in his face.

"It was Adams, Nelson Adams," he gasped - choked off when it hurt to breathe. "He made me do it."

"He was in the meeting with m . . . Mr. Sinclair?" I asked.

"Well, no, but he had come to me earlier and, well, he said that I should tell him if anyone came in with any really effective anti-drug patents."

"Who sent him?" I demanded, a snarl that I didn't try to contain underlying the purr of distortion.

"I don't know," he said. Just as a general inducement I slapped him in the stomach - not as hard as some of the others, but enough to make him flinch. Which, with his broken rib, was probably pretty unpleasant.

"Try harder," I growled.

"I don't know," I gasped. "He just showed up. Antares is very important in fighting illegal drugs. Maybe he was just . . . taking precautions."

"How many people have you talked about to Adams?" I asked.

He hesitated. Instead of threatening another blow, I just put my hand on his broken rib and pushed a little. He'd have howled if he had the breath for it.

"I don't know," he gasped when I let up. Before I could move again he said, "I could check. It will be in my records at the office. I just don't remember."

"Guess," I commanded.

"Maybe . . . ten. Most of the inventions that came in were useless; less effective than drug dogs. But the ones that looked like they had real promise . . ."

"Why? Why would you tell him? You must have known what he would do."

"Not at first. I didn't make the connection until later," he claimed. "And then I tried to stop, but . . he said that he had records, that he would . . . I'd be ruined!"

"And so instead, you just kept taking his money - he did pay you, right? - and kept feeding him the names of people to be killed."

"It wasn't like that," he whispered. "I thought he was going to . . . sponsor them or something. Like a venture capitalist. And then I was in too deep."

I had run through a host of emotions during this session. I started out hating him. At one point I actually felt sorry for him, when I let my strength get away from me. Now he just disgusted me.

"One last question," I said. "How do I find Adams?"

"I don't know," he said following up quickly with more. "He always contacted me. He calls me once a week or so. The last time was when he wanted to go visit that Sinclair kid."

I had to make a choice. Either Hansen was a weak tool for the real attackers, or he was an incredibly effective actor who could maintain that weak character even in the face of real pain. I didn't figure him for the latter, so what was my path to the real leaders?

That's when I had another revelation moment. This one wasn't quite as spectacular as some of the others, but the very obviousness of it made it surprising. I had spent a lot of effort making a multi-layer defense of totally fictitious characters. Between Jamie Sinclair - the underdeveloped, reclusive, traumatized boy - and Nightwind were cutouts of gender and age, plus a potential intermediate stage of Jamie Platinum. There was a risk in going defensive instead of offensive, but that might make it more likely to work.

"Jeremy, you've been a naughty boy," I said, letting the purr back into my voice. "You've been a naughty boy for a long time, and you're going to have to work very hard to become a nice boy again. So here's what you're going to do. First, no matter who comes into your office, you're going to tell Adams that nothing useful has come up . . ."

"He'll kill me," he said tightly, trying to take small breaths.

I tapped his broken knee again - not too lightly, but I don't think I did any more damage. When his strangled scream died out, I said, "Don't interrupt. It's not polite. And death will be the least of your worries if you cross me. Now, second, you're going to tell Adams everything about tonight, except that part about not reporting on any more useful patents."

"Tell him?" he repeated. It was a question, but I let him get away with it. After all, when the idea first came to me it was a surprise, too.

"Exactly," I confirmed. "Tell him that I showed up and that I have information on Sinclair's invention. Tell him the truth - that I found a record in cyberspace and decided to look into it. Tell him that the Sinclair kid doesn't know anything about it, but just on general principles I will not take it kindly if anything happens to him. Tell him that I want to meet."

"If I tell him that I talked to anyone, he'll kill me," he repeated.

"If you don't do what *I* tell you, I'll do worse than that," I promised, letting the snarl back into my tone. I flipped my knife out and twirled it so that it caught the light near his exposed - but no longer erect - manhood. "He'll probably kill you quickly. I won't. Like I said, women make the best torturers, and if you cross me I won't be after information. I'll be after pain."

With that, I used the knife to slit the tape holding one of his wrists and then threw a pillow at the lamp, plunging the room into darkness.

"Wait," he called out. "Who should I say wants to meet him?"

"The night wind," I said as I slipped away.

When I got back to the van, Cheyenne and Aunt Kate were looking at me with a shocked, and somewhat horrified, expression, but Dylan was grudgingly congratulatory. "Nice job, kid. I think you made your point. And the bugs are working fine."

While Hansen was out from the tranquilizer, I had planted several listening devices in his home, both in general areas and on the phone and computer systems.

"What did you do?" Cheyenne demanded. "All we could hear over the bugs were your questions . . . and his screams."

"You don't want to know," I said grimly.

"Well, whatever it was, it seems to have worked," Dylan said. "He was lying about not being able to contact Adams. No surprise there. But it's apparently a cutout answering service. He left him a message, and then called the cops."

"Adams first, cops second?" I confirmed.

"Yep," Dylan said.

I nodded. "Good."

"I have a question," Aunt Kate said. "How is Adams going to contact you for a meet? All he knows is a name."

"He has at least two paths," I said. "One is to give Hansen some sort of contact method for me to use, and expect that I'll be back to get it from him. We'll actually do something like that through the bugs if that's what happens. The second is to try to get at me through Jamie Sinclair. I certainly dangled that bait out there. Telling a thug he can't do something is almost as effective as telling a teenager he can't do something - and yes, I know that I'm still actually a teenager. He may or may not believe that Jamie Sinclair found his father's invention, but since I told him that I'm watching over that Jamie, he'll see that as a way to contact me, or threaten me, or probably both."

"Oh, what are we going to do, then?"

"Nothing, on the outside," I said. "The house already has some fairly effective defenses and it will look like we relied on those. But I think we'll need to start a watch system. Matt, can you help with that?"

"You got it," he said. "I'll get some help; people I trust but who won't know about Nightwind. They'll make sure that no one gets close to the house without at least giving us plenty of warning. How do you want to play it?"

"Well, assuming that he decides to attack through Jamie Sinclair rather than passively through Hansen, I guess we let him get into the house and then trap him somehow."

"Not a good idea," Dylan said. "If things get rough, we don't want to have to explain . . . residue at your house. And I'd just as soon not try to cover it up entirely. That would get too many people in on your secret. Protecting a rich guy's home is one thing. Moving dead bodies is another."
Aunt Kate gasped. "Oh, I hope it doesn't come to that."

"Aunt Kate," I said. "There have already been dead bodies. My parents, for two. And apparently at least nine others."

I started pacing around the small clear area in the van. It was only a step or two each way, but I was thinking hard and it wasn't the distance as much as the motion that I needed. After a moment, I looked at Dylan.

"I'm more convinced than ever that Adams was involved in my parents' death. I still don't remember anything, but that vibe was just too strong. And he's got the kind of hardness that means even if he wasn't there, he was in charge of those who did. I'm betting we find out that he was there. More than that, I'm betting he uses the same thugs to go after Jamie Sinclair that he used to go after my parents. Not just the same type of thugs, but the same people. Covering up murder isn't so easy that you can just scare up some more killers every time you have a job - particularly not ones you can trust to keep their mouths shut afterwards."

"That's all conjecture," I admitted, "but I'm prepared to act on that basis. Do you agree?"

I only looked at Dylan. If he agreed, then the others would go along. When he nodded, I said. "Okay, then here's the plan. We'll set up the guards for the house like you said, but we'll only be there during the daytime. Get used to sleeping during the day and being up all night. As soon as it gets dark, we'll move outside the gate. When he attacks, we'll take out one of his vehicles if he has more than one, or maybe one of his thugs. That may mean . . . permanently. But once we have his attention, I'll decoy him away from the house on my motorcycle. You'll keep up in the van until we get him somewhere private. Then we'll see."

"See what?" asked Aunt Kate.

"See how good Mr. Dylan is at setting up an ambush," I said.

"Pretty good," he growled, "even if I do say so myself. How hard do you want to go?"

"I want Adams alive. Alive enough to tell us who he works for. Thugs like him are never the boss. But all I need of him is enough to talk."

I looked at the three of them, holding each in turn with my eyes. "Matt, Cheyenne, Aunt Kate, you need to know. If I find out that Adams was directly involved in parents' death - either there or he gave the orders - he won't be alive after I get the information I need from him. I need you to know that now if you're going to be involved. In essence, this is murder. You're either going to be accomplices, or you need to tell me right now to call it off, and leave."

"You'll let us call it off?" Aunt Kate asked. "You'll just . . . get some evidence or something and call the police in?"

I looked at Dylan again, making eye contact and passing a message to find an agreement coming back.

"I didn't say that," I told Aunt Kate. "You can tell me not to do it, and leave the van. That keeps you out of it, because what happens after you leave does not affect you."

"But you'll do it anyway," she prodded.

"I didn't say that, either," I said flatly.

"Well, I'm in," Cheyenne said. "What they did to your parents was wrong. What they did to *you* was wrong. I guess I don't trust the legal system well enough to rely on it. If it worked that well, the people who killed your parents would have been found before this. So I'm in, all the way."

Aunt Kate looked at her, and then at Dylan. The man's coarse features were set with solid determination and she knew what he intended to do. Earlier, she had promised that she would do whatever it took to find - and punish - my parents' killers. But we were moving from theory to cold, hard, action. Action that the law would consider vengeance, not justice.

Action that the law would consider murder.

Finally she sighed and put her face in her hands.

"God forgive me, but I agree, too. I know I'm not supposed to judge others; that I'm supposed to turn the other cheek. But I want those animals to pay."

She looked up and her eyes cleared with resolution. "I'm in. All the way."



Chapter 8 - "Who *Are* You?"

The transition to sleeping during the day in preparation for being up all night was hardly a choice. By the time we got back from Hansen's house and made sure the new guards were in place, it was a lot closer to morning than any normal bedtime. It just made sense for the Dylans to sleep over in spare rooms so that took care of rendezvous times. I don't know who got up first the next afternoon. I just know it wasn't me.

Thanks to Cheyenne's decision on my jeans, I could wear my armor suit continuously without being too noticeable. In the event of an intrusion all I would need to do was strip off my jeans and blouse and grab my helmet. Matt Dylan dressed in black by long habit, and I wouldn't let Cheyenne or Aunt Kate dress any differently. They were definitely not going into harm's way if I could help it. They both wore comfortable clothes that they could live in for a few hours of tight quarters in the van if needed.

I still underestimated Nelson Adams, but not by enough to matter. I really thought he'd try something through Hansen first and that we'd have at least a few days before he attacked Jamie Sinclair. Instead, it was right about 24 hours after I tranked Hansen - which means, way too late at night for innocent pursuits - before two cars pulled up half a block from my outer gate.

We watched him from a little service road a quarter mile away. The only people on the grounds of my home were security guards and they had been told not to take any risks. Since they were friends of Dylan I expected that would be interpreted in a way that would discourage Adams from entering, especially once the rest of our defense was revealed.

There's a rule that for gated homes you need to have enough of a driveway outside the gate for someone to pull fully off the road while they wait for the gate to open. That provided a nicely confined area where the first car would have to stop.

"I guess it's time," I said to Dylan, pulling on my helmet.

"I guess so," he said, using the response to test his microphone. I nodded that I had good reception and threw a leg over my crotch rocket. It rumbled into life with a shiver like a racehorse getting ready for a run. I was checking out the simple instrumentation, making sure my oil was warm before adding real power, when the cars started moving again. The first one pulled into the entryway. That was Dylan's cue to start the night's festivities.

That car heaved with an explosion from the mine we had placed under the entrance. The charge was supposed to be large enough to disable the vehicle but not enough to kill the occupants. It seemed to work as intended - the front was twisted but the passenger compartment seemed to be intact. Now it was my turn. I headed out onto the road and stopped about fifty yards ahead of the remaining car, shining my headlight into their eyes.

"Nelson Adams," I said into my microphone. Speakers on my bike amplified that by enough to bring leaves down from some of the trees. "I told you to leave Jamie Sinclair alone. Don't make me tell you again!"

Underestimation number two: A bullet snapped from the second car and hit me right in the chest. There was no warning, and not enough hesitation to notice. It was immediate, accurate, and intended to kill. Fortunately for me, my chest - curves and all - was protected by Dad's dynafiber armor. One of the really amazing things about Dad's discovery was that dynafiber did not work like conventional armor. It didn't spread the impact out to prevent local penetration, leaving my entire body to absorb the momentum. That could still have rocked me back on my bike - maybe even knocked me off of it. Instead, high rates of change of acceleration were resisted by the fabric of the universe itself through the matrix that created dark energy. The bullet would have had better penetration against a foot of battleship steel. All I felt was a slight tap as the acceleration started to build before it reached the cutoff level. The bullet itself went whining off into nowhere.

Which was pretty cool. I didn't have to put a false swagger into my voice when I said, "You can't put a bullet in the night wind, you fool!" Okay, so it was corny. In my defense I could say that I was trying to be corny, to make this a bigger-than-life comic book encounter so that Adams wouldn't associate it with the nerdy Jamie Sinclair. But the fact was I wasn't creative enough for anything subtle.

It did have the intended effect, though. The thugs went through a confused scramble as they abandoned the damaged car. I found it interesting that, though I heard Adams' voice yelling orders, he hadn't been in the first car. Apparently he wasn't one to take risks if he had minions to do it for him.

"I count two from the first car," I said to Dylan over the comm.

"Roger, I concur," Dylan said. "They both got out of the front seat so I don't think anyone was injured in the explosion."

Triggering my visor to heat vision, I looked inside the second car. I hadn't set up a video link to the van. I probably should have. But my visor provided a clear enough image to count heads.

"I make it three more in the second car," I said. "Driver, shotgun, and one in the back. The guys from the first car are jumping in the back. I'm thinking Adams is probably the shotgun."

"Maybe," Dylan replied. "But don't be too sure."

"Roger that," I said, but I said it as I was turning my cycle. The second car was accelerating after me, obviously intending to chase. Which was the plan, after all, so I smiled and turned to lead them away. I hadn't bought my new motorcycle just because it was black. It was a BMW S1000 RR and God knows what the top speed was. In any event, I had plenty of performance margin.

"Okay, Matt, there are four of them, besides Adams. How do we work it from here?"

"I couldn't tell," he replied. "Did any of them have body armor?"

"Not that I could see," I reported.

He paused, then I could hear a note of concern in his voice. "Ja . . . um, Nightwind, are you serious about . . . doing whatever it takes? One last chance. You can lose them and all we're out is a hole in the driveway."

"I'm serious," I confirmed. "Matt, turn off the speakers and go on a headset."

"Done," he reported a second later.

I had to negotiate a turn onto a road leading out of town, then check to make sure they managed the turn as well. When I could spare a bit of concentration, I replied, "Matt, as long as we find out who the boss is, I don't care if any of them survive the night."

"Roger that," he said flatly. "I concur. Okay, then we'll take out the car and . . . I'll be waiting with the AR for any that exit."

"Deal. Hit them low if you can so we can cross-check answers. Oh, and leave Adams for me."

I was feeling pretty smug, which was underestimation number three. But knowing how effective my suit was against bullets made me feel invulnerable. It changed my plans a bit. I was going to destroy Adams, not just interrogate him. I was going to beat him to a pulp, and laugh at the puddle. I couldn't wait to see his face when a slender woman beat him as thoroughly as he had beaten my father. As ruthlessly.

The route we had worked out took us to an old factory district. It looked pretty open, but we had found a good cul-de-sac between a couple of buildings. I would be 'trapped' in the closed end, but that trap would close on them as soon as they entered. I had actually led them around three sides of a large square, letting Aunt Kate and the van cut across the short side. When I pulled into the cul-de-sac I saw that the old school bus we had pre-positioned was idling, with Cheyenne behind the wheel. As soon as I scooted through the gate, followed by Adams' car, she closed that exit behind them. I don't know if they noticed right away because they were too happy watching me slide to a stop by a chain-link barrier at the far end.

"Don't shoot, yet," I ordered Dylan. "Let's see what Adams does. He might just brag a little if he's overconfident.

So much for that idea. As soon as the thugs poured out of the car they opened fire. It didn't bother me, though one round starred the windshield on my bike and I heard a couple of other pings that didn't sound good. Some ricochets went back at the shooters, but I didn't find much concern in my heart for the chance they would be hurt. Eventually the fusillade died down - maybe they were running out of ammo. When I just stood there, doing nothing, the passenger door opened on the car and Adams stepped out.

"Who the hell *are* you?" he demanded.

"I am the night wind," I purred, twirling one hand airily above my head in a little dance to imply an aimless breeze.

"Yeah, right," Adams said. "Okay, so you wanted to meet. Talk."

Well, he wanted direct. I could do that. "Who's your boss?"

"My boss?" he repeated. Then laughed. "I work for myself."

"You don't have the brains," I laughed in return, letting the purr in my voice become a mocking taunt.

"Brains?" he repeated again. "Hell, girly, you're the one who came here alone. Stupid bitch."

"Take out the car," I said - only I wasn't speaking to Adams.

A brief trail from an RPG glowed in the dark, then the car exploded. Two of the thugs started screaming from burns, then moaning a moment later when the unharmed two helped them get the flames out.

I figured that was enough of a response to his assumption that I came there alone.

"You stupid bitch," he repeated. "I'll kill you for that."

"Leg wounds, if you can," I murmured to Dylan. His AR barked four times and there were four screams.

"You and what army?" I purred, stepping forward to make the challenge personal.

In this case, my opinion of his abilities was pretty much right on the money. He was obviously well trained, and in the practical mayhem that was more effective than tournament rules. If I'd have been a 'normal' woman, I'd have been disabled and at his mercy in moments.

But he wasn't as good as Matt Dylan, and I wasn't a normal person anymore. The protection of my armor suit was unique, but a short-hand way to think of it was that it reacted to the energy of the attack. High-kinetic-energy attacks like bullets were stopped so completely that I hardly noticed. But a shove could move me almost as if I weren't wearing armor at all.

On the other hand, a shove wasn't going to hurt me all that much, either. Adams was smart enough not to use his fist to hit anything hard - like my helmet - and he had seen the non-effect of bullets. So he went for wrestling moves rather than strikes. If I hadn't had the benefit of Dylan's training he might have literally torn my arms off. But I never let him get that good a hold on me.

And I was crazy strong when I was worked up. I could hit him without damaging my own hands, too. In about four seconds he had a wrecked knee and two knots on his head - one from where I had popped him with my armored glove, and one where the back of his head hit the pavement. He was tough, and it didn't knock him out entirely, but he was groggy as he struggled back to his feet.

"Goddamn bitch," he muttered. "Who the hell *are* you?"

"My turn to ask questions," I said. "Who's your boss?"

"Go to hell," he snarled.

"Probably," I agreed. "If you don't tell me what I want to know, this won't be pretty."

He didn't. At least, not for a while. There is a point where 'tough' becomes just stupid. So one of the times when he was down I just kicked him in the jewels. That was enough to let me get some duct tape on his wrists and around his legs.

"Look, stupid," I said. "This is only going to end one way. I'm better than you are. It's all over except for the pain. Now, tell me who you work for."

"Go to hell," he snarled again - gasping through at least two broken ribs and - I think - a few broken fingers from a time he had actually tried to hit me.

"You first," I said. I sighed and pulled my visor up so that he could see my dramatic eyes. It confirmed that I was a woman - a young and beautiful one. I don't know exactly why I did that - instinct maybe - but it had a surprising effect on him. His expression didn't change, but his body sagged just a little. I let the purr back into my voice and said, "So, you think a woman couldn't possibly beat you? You were hoping that under the visor I was a guy - a well-trained and strong guy? Because then you'd still have a little pride left? Poor baby, beaten by a girl half your size."

I stood over him and snarled, "Wimp. You disgust me. You're as weak as Hansen."

At a few points I had hit him with a heel on my boot, which worked both in punch mode and in a slashing attack. I'm not sure it made a lot of difference up to then how the heels were shaped. I hadn't had to punch a lock out of a door or anything. But the ends were only a bit larger than a quarter and even without calling on any sort of hysterical strength, a hundred pounds concentrated into that size will do some damage.

I pushed a heel into one of his elbows. I was surprisingly . . . dispassionate while I was doing it. It was like a science experiment. How much damage could he sustain? How could I hurt him enough to make him talk without actually killing him? Or rendering him unconscious? One thing in my favor was that I didn't care if I crippled him. If need be, I'd put one of my heels into his eye socket. . . slowly. That same lack of passion carried with it a total lack of remorse. I think that showed in my beautifully made up eyes. I was implacable, and he knew it.

"Stop," he whispered. "Oh, god, you gotta stop."

I leaned down so that I was close to him. Since I hadn't been talking during this last round of attacks no one in the van would know just what I'd done. They'd have heard his groans, but not known how . . . harsh I was being. I whispered in his ear, letting the soft, sensual purr contrast with the utterly ruthless attack, and said, "You know what it takes to make it stop."

"She'll kill me," he gasped.

*She*? That was a surprise.

"She won't get a chance, if you don't tell me what I want to know," I promised in that buzzy purr.

"Alexander," he whispered so softly that I had to lean close to hear him.

"Alexander who?" I prompted.

"Andrea Alexander," he said. "Chairman of Antares."

"Antares is an anti-drug organization. Why did they want to suppress an anti-drug invention?"

"It's a front," he murmured. "It gives them inside information on all the major drug strategies. They use it to take down rivals."

I had the feeling that he was losing consciousness. His voice had taken on an almost wistful quality as though he were musing on something he found interesting but others might not.

"Last questions," I promised. "Did you kill Jason Sinclair?"

"He wouldn't talk," Adams said. "Not even when we started on his wife."

"So you killed him, and his wife?" I said, needing to be sure.

"Yes," he said. "The job was to kill him and to get the information on his device. We never got the data, even after we all fucked his wife right in front of him, and then cut her up."

I felt my gorge rise and I had to take deep breaths to keep from vomiting all over him. I guess it was a blessing that even his confession didn't bring back any memories. But it was a confession.

I stood up and pulled my veil down. "Nelson Adams," I said slowly, in my real voice, "you have confessed to murder, rape, and torture of innocents. The sentence is death."

With that, I became a murderer myself. It wasn't quite cold blood, though I was far from out-of-control with emotion. Instead, I was consumed with an adamantine sense of justice. But it was a personal assessment of what was just, not sanctioned by society. I was a vigilante, not an officer of the law. I knew it. I accepted it.

I used my boot heel to punch a hole right through his sternum and into his black heart. There were a few pulses of bright blood . . . but only a few.



Chapter 9 - "Aftershock"

Once Adams was dead, I cut the tape away from his wrists and ankles. I knew the cops could tell he had been taped if they really looked into it, but it would add a little confusion . . . and make it look less like murder. I checked out my motorcycle and found that it was still rideable. There was a tear in the seat and the tail light was hanging with half the support cut through. None of that really mattered.

I realized that I had been ignoring the rest of the attackers, but they seemed quite happy to hunker down behind the remains of their car. No one was shooting, in any event, and they were all probably wounded in the leg since I would take a pretty large bet that Matt hit whatever he intended.

"Aunt Kate, Cheyenne, Matt, go home," I said over the link. "I'm okay. My bike is okay. I'll meet you there."

"But, what about the, y'know, the guys?" Cheyenne asked.

"I'll call the cops to come get them as soon as I'm ready to leave," I said. "I want to get their cell phones to make sure no one got a picture of me. Just go home and wait for me there."

"Roger," Dylan said, and his flat, clipped, military tone made it clear he was taking what I said as an order, not a suggestion.

"Thank you," I said softly into the darkness.

When I got to the thugs, it looked like they would all live if they got help. But none seemed to be much of a threat. Maybe it was because they had watched my fight with Adams. None of them were likely to be rocket scientists and I decided they wouldn't be able to add anything useful to what I learned from Adams, so I didn't need to interrogate them. Or maybe I just didn't want to . . . do what I had done to Adams again. They surrendered their cell phones without argument - well, the three that were conscious did. The other one didn't argue either, actually. I made sure their weapons were unusable. Once again my greater-than-normal strength was a help, along with the relatively small cap on my heels. I could just about punch a hole in the middle of a steel gun, so Dylan's idea on my heels turned out to be useful after all.

I knew I was leaving evidence. My footprints were left in blood. My tire tracks ran through more than one puddle. But I wasn't worried about that. Nothing seemed to matter that much and I did what needed to be done in a sort of daze.

I had at least remembered to pull up my veil again. The only person who got a real look at my face was Adams. In a few minutes I was on my bike and headed out the cleared exit. In the end, we didn't need the blocking school bus and in a moment of panic I wondered what I would do if they hadn't moved it. But it was gone - really gone, so I presume they ditched it somewhere.

The first ten minutes of my ride was spent going about 45 degrees away from my house instead of to it. When I had a good false trail, I pulled the batteries from all the phones but Adams's and called 911.

"Hello, 911. What is the nature of your emergency?"

"There's been a gang fight of some sort. I heard shots, and I think some people are hurt. You need to send the cops, and an ambulance."

"What is your name and address?" the voice asked; female, slightly ethnic, no longer bored.

"Look, the fight was at the old Davis-Bacon furniture factory at 26th and Commerce. Just get someone there," I said, my voice still buzzing with distortion but no longer sounding sensual. Then I hung up and pulled the battery from that phone, too. I didn't throw the phones away. I knew it was more evidence, and very damning evidence at that. But I wanted to check the call logs and directories once I got them into a shielded cage. In any event, the cops would either show or not.

I made a more-or-less 90 degree turn to the right, putting me back on a course at least somewhat toward home. By the time I got there the sky was just starting to get light enough to tell over the city lights. The bike went into an underground portion of the garage and I went into the house.

"Are you okay?" Aunt Kate asked first.

"Just kinda tired," I said. That was certainly true.

"Do we need to keep watch tonight, ah, today?" Dylan asked.

"I don't think so," I said. "Maybe the guards should stay on, but we can get some rest. I think we need a planning session once we're all rested."

He nodded, then nodded to the ladies before leaving the room. Aunt Kate frowned but nodded as well. When I left to go to my room, Cheyenne followed me.

"I'm okay, Shy," I said.

"No you're not," she declared. "And I'm not going to let you sleep alone tonight."

"Shy, thanks, but . . . you know I couldn't do anything."

"Yes you can," she said, and I know my eyes widened a little. She saw it and grinned. "No, you naughty-minded girl. Not that. What I meant is that you can cuddle me, and I can cuddle you. It's been a . . . bad night. I don't want to sleep alone. But we'll just sleep."

"Okay," I said, smiling gratefully. Really grateful. It sounded wonderful to be held for a while. I was so tired.

She helped me shed my armor suit and then the torso unit. For the first time in several days, it seemed, I was just me - Jamie Sinclair. Well, I still had thin little brows and no body hair, but that was pretty minor.

It was just as good that I was out of my armor later that morning. Aunt Kate came in and told me that there were some police to see me. With Cheyenne's help I got my little post earrings out, my white eyebrows on, and checked to make sure I had all my makeup cleaned off. At Cheyenne's suggestion - I wasn't thinking too clearly - we wore sweats and she didn't put on her own makeup. She did a great job of looking like we had been in bed together - which we had - but not for the reason her relatively dissipated look implied. Nonetheless, if it came up, we could truthfully say we had slept together and righteously decline to say any more.

"Mr. Sinclair, I'm sorry to trouble you," the detective said. It was our old friend Sloan, plus a younger detective I didn't recognize. Sloan introduced the other as Edwards.

"What can I do for you, Detective Sloan?" I asked politely.

"There was some sort of fight last night, maybe a gang fight, but there are some anomalous reports from some of the participants."

"Yes?" I prompted. I clearly had no idea what he was talking about, of course.

"Well, some of the participants said they were on a job to, um, kidnap you."

"Kidnap me?" I repeated. "Where?"

"Here, in your house," he answered.

"Well, I guess that was the right place to come, because we were certainly here last night. But that's about all I know about any attack. Let me ask Mr. Dylan."

I made a show of picking up the house phone and calling down to the security station. "Would you ask Mr. Dylan to come to the sitting room, please? Thank you."

I offered the detectives a seat, and Aunt Kate came in with coffee. Plus a diet coke for me. I'd never picked up a taste for coffee. The clock said it was about 9:00 so we'd had about three hours of sleep. Better than none.

Dylan arrived in a few minutes. I was sipping on my coke at the moment, so I just waved at Sloan to go ahead. He repeated what he had told me.

"Was there anything unusual last night?" I asked Dylan.

"Well, a car broke down in the gateway entrance," he reported. "I think they blew their engine. The driveway was a mess - oil everywhere, and some coolant. I had the car towed away and if the drive hasn't been cleaned by now I'll get someone else to do it."

"Did you see anyone?" asked Sloan.

"No, except there were some images on the gate camera. They weren't very clear. You can see the car pull up, then a bunch of smoke, then a pair of guys bailing out of it and running down the road. I can get you a copy of the video."

"Thank you. I'd appreciate that," he said.

"I'm more interested in this report that someone wanted to kidnap me," I said. "What's up with that?"

Sloan hesitated for a long moment, then sighed. "I wasn't called in immediately. Detective Edwards handled the initial incident and conducted the interviews of the, um, participants."

"'Participants,'" I repeated. "Now I'm really curious. It sounds like, um, 'perpetrators' or at least 'suspects' would be more applicable if they were trying to kidnap me. I'm getting the impression you consider them victims more than, ah, troublemakers."

"That may be," the younger detective said. Instead of reporting, he asked a question. "Have you ever heard of 'the Night Wind?'"

"Detective, I can almost hear the capitals in your voice," I said. "I presume that's not just a generic term?"

"No," he said. "It's a specific name."

"Then no," I said. "I can't say that I know what you're talking about. Or is it 'who?'"

"It's who," he confirmed. "Someone made a 911 call and sent us to the site of what was reported as a gang fight. When we got there, we found four wounded men, all shot, some also burned to varying degrees. And one dead body."

"Oh, dear," Aunt Kate said. I had never told her that I killed Adams so this truly was the first that she had heard of it.

"I'm sorry," I said slowly, "but I'm not making the connection to me."

"The, um, survivors said that the dead man, a Nelson Adams, had hired them to kidnap you," Edwards reported.

"Oh, I've heard that name," I interrupted. "Where have I heard that? Do you remember Aunt Kate?"

"Wasn't that the man who visited you with Mr. Hansen?" she offered.

"Oh, yeah, I think that was it." I turned to Detective Edwards. "Mr. Hansen, Richard Hansen . . ."

Aunt Kate interrupted me. "Jeremy Hansen, dear."

"Are you sure?" I asked her, then ducked my head. "Sorry, of course you are. Jeremy Hansen, then, was one of my dad's attorneys, a patent lawyer. After I finished my college degrees, he stopped by to ask if I had learned anything useful from my dad's notes. He brought a man he introduced as Nelson Adams with him. So, they killed him?"

"Who?" asked Edwards.

"The guys in the fight. You said some were shot, and some were burned, and one guy was, um, dead, right? I assumed either the, um, 'survivors' were the killers, or it was some rival gang. I didn't figure a dead body in that sort of scene got that way because of a heart attack."

I interrupted his response to look at Aunt Kate again. "You know, I didn't like the look of that Nelson Adams. He was sort of . . . pugnacious. Didn't you think? I can believe he was in a gang."

"We don't have any evidence that Mr. Adams was in a gang, per se," Edwards reported. "He may have been a sort of . . . hired gun for various interests."

"I knew I didn't like him," I said smugly. "So, they obviously didn't kidnap me. What happened?"

"Well, the survivors say that their car was blown up by a bomb under your driveway. And then, when they were deciding what to do, a character that called herself 'the Night Wind' taunted them and said that you were under her protection."

"*Her* protection? A woman? A guardian angel? Cool," I said. "Was she hot?"

Edwards looked surprised at my question. He blushed and pretended to study his notes for a while. "Well, none of the survivors got a good look at her face. Apparently she was wearing a helmet and had a mask. All they saw were her, um, eyes. But they described her as, um, quite attractive. Dressed in a skin-tight black suit and riding a black motorcycle."

"Cool," I repeated. "When do I get to meet her?"

"That's more or less the problem," Edwards reported. "We need to talk to her in conjunction with the, um, fight. Apparently, she beat Adams near to death, then killed him in a most . . . gruesome manner."

"Oh, god, don't go any further," I said. "I've had enough of that sort of thing for several lifetimes. When you find her, tell her that Mr. Dylan can protect me well enough."

Dylan used that as a cue to interject himself into the conversation. "Detective . . . Edwards is it? Have you considered the possibility that these would-be kidnappers are lying? I mean, a beautiful woman on a motorcycle lures them to their doom, taunting them? One woman against a gang of hardened criminals. I think one of them reads too many comic books and they cooked up this story to explain why they lost a fight with some rival organization."

"We would, too," Detective Sloan said, re-entering the conversation himself. "But the night before, Jeremy Hansen was assaulted in his own home by a woman who also called herself the Night Wind. She is reported as quite beautiful, but inhumanly strong. Dressed in a skin-tight black suit."

"Oh," Dylan said. "So either there really is a woman like this, or Hansen cooked up this story with the thugs. Any chance of that?"

"Perhaps, though not directly," Sloan reported. "Hansen said he called Adams with the information - including that the woman considered you under her protection. I think Adams wanted some information from her and thought to get at her through you."

"Oh, that's not good news," I said, sitting back in my chair. "What sort of information?"

"Something about a drug detection device," Sloan replied.

"Really?" I said slowly. "That's what Hansen was asking me about, too. But he said that Dad's idea wasn't patentable. I wonder if this, um, 'Nightwind?' woman knows something about my Dad's idea."

"It's possible," Sloan said. "But you're saying that you don't?"

"Only what Hansen told me - it was just an idea without the depth to be patentable."

Sloan nodded. He turned to Dylan and asked, "Mr. Dylan, what's your theory?"

Dylan shrugged. "I don't think I really have one. I didn't interview the, ah, the survivors, so I don't know whether they believe what they were saying. It still sounds much too comic book to me. Obviously we didn't put a bomb under our driveway so that much is surely a lie, though . . ."

He paused for moment and then asked, "If their car was blown up, then how did this woman lead them on a chase?"

"They had another car," Edward said.

"Oh, well, then the best I can say is that they were either lying or mistaken. I guess my theory is that they blew the engine on their car - the one we hauled away was pretty much junk anyway - and then to cover it up with their boss they said we had a bomb in the driveway. After that . . . I just don't know. Either this superwoman really does exist, or they got hit by a rival gang and made up a story. You pick."

Sloan nodded and stood up. "Thank you for your time." He was moving toward the door when he tried to pull a Columbo on us. "Oh, one more thing, Mr. Sinclair. You didn't hear the bomb - or whatever? Didn't know anything about it?"

I blushed and looked at Cheyenne. "I, um, went to bed early."

Cheyenne out-lied me without a single word. Instead of blushing, she just looked smug.

Sloan noted both expressions, then looked at Dylan. "I'll need copies of your gate video, and I'll need the information on the car that you hauled away. And with your permission, we'll take a look at your driveway."

"Of course," he said, then twitched a little and looked at me. "I mean, if that's okay with you, Mr. Sinclair."

"Whatever you think is best," I said easily.

After we had seen them to the door, the gang of four gathered back in the sitting room.

"Oh, dear, I'm going to go to hell for lying for sure," Aunt Kate said glumly. Then she looked at me and said, "Jamie, I never knew you were such a good liar. I don't know whether to be disappointed or impressed."

"I'm impressed," Dylan said. "And you, girl," he continued, looking at Cheyenne, "you set a new standard. I don't think you said a word the whole time, but you made Jamie's alibi so watertight that even I wouldn't doubt it. And I know the truth."

She blushed this time, but didn't say anything. Aunt Kate stepped into the silence with a suggestion of a delayed breakfast.

Through this I had sat silently, sagging into my chair. I felt so tired again. At the mention of breakfast, my stomach twirled and I winced. "Nothing for me, Aunt Kate."

"You need to eat, dear," she said. "You had a rough night."

"Not right now," I repeated, feeling the lassitude grip me. "I'm just too tired. I'm going to bed."

"No, you're not," Dylan said.

I looked at him in surprise, to see a look of concern.

"Kid," he said. "You're having a reaction to the violence last night. It's delayed stress. You've been running on adrenaline for too long, with even more adrenaline to enable you to carry off the scene with the cops so convincingly. You need to relax, but you do need to eat. And you don't want to sleep right now. I know it's hard."

He walked over and patted me on the shoulder. "I'd be more concerned if you didn't feel down today. It was a . . . hard thing you had to do. It should bother you. But you can't let it own you."

I shook my head. "It *does* own me. It's part of who I am. An evil part . . ."

For some reason my eyes went to Cheyenne - not Aunt Kate, and not Matt even though I was speaking to him. In a grinding, bitter voice like a continuing groan, I said, "I killed him. When he was helpless. And . . . I'd do it again. I'm a murderer."

My stomach twisted and I flew to a little towel thing that was draped over the headrest of one of the plush chairs. I just made it in time to catch the contents of my stomach. Not that there was much to catch. But the dry heaves didn't stop just because it was a waste of time. By the time my abdomen quit jumping I had sagged to the floor. "I'm so tired," I whispered.

"You still need to keep moving, kid," Matt said. He pulled me easily to my feet, ignoring the fact my legs weren't much help in keeping me upright, and he forced me to look at him. "Yes, you killed him. And when he was helpless. That makes you a murderer. Or - and this is the key - it makes you an executioner. If you were only after revenge, you're a murderer. If you were after justice it's different. Which one applies?"

"What?" I said numbly. He actually shook me a little, not a head-snapping crack, just enough to jostle me out of my stupor.

"At the moment you did it, were you after revenge, or justice?"

"I don't know," I moaned, not sure of anything.

"I do," Matt said distinctly. "What was the last thing you said to Adams?"

"What?" I said again, this time in confusion. "I don't know. What difference does it make? I still killed him."

"Yes you did," he agreed. "But the last thing you said was to declare his guilt for his crimes, and pronounce a sentence. It was not an act of mindless violence. It was not a declaration that only your own point of view mattered - that vengeance was enough justification to kill someone. It was a declaration that you were acting as the instrument of justice."

He let me stand on my own feet, and reached out to hold my shoulder in a way that was surprisingly respectful - as though I were a man whom he was proud to know. "Society won't agree. To Edwards, you are a murderer - or you would be if he knew the whole story. But you know - and *I* know - that you were trying to serve the needs of justice. That's what makes you different from them."

He'd given me a lot to think about, too much to absorb right away. I still felt like a murderer - and I still knew I'd do it again. But I didn't see myself running around with an axe after anybody slow enough for me to catch. There was a difference. At least, I hoped so.

I nodded, not really meeting his eyes because my nod was not necessarily agreement, just . . . acceptance that his opinion was not automatically wrong. An agreement to think about it.

Anything further we might have said was interrupted by his daughter. "I know what you need," she declared confidently. "You need a date. Just dinner and a movie. I'll call Brian, and he'll get your Derek."

"Don't be silly," I said. "I’m not going out on a date tonight. And I'm for sure not going out with a boy, and besides, he's not *my* Derek."

"I'm thinking Italian," she said breezily.

Never try to out-stubborn a woman. It wastes your time and doesn't even have the satisfaction of annoying the woman. I swear, I'd have had to call on hysterical strength to withstand the tornado of determination that swept me from too weak to stand into a different world where I was glamorously dressed; now barely able to stand on heels so high my feet seemed to be bending over backwards.

Well, at least it would get my mind off Nightwind for a while.



Chapter 10 - "Friends . . . With Benefits?"

"Do I look okay?" I asked frantically. When the doorbell rang I just couldn't avoid the cliché, knowing even I was captured by it that it was a cliché and stupid but still just . . . imperative.

Cheyenne laughed. "You look so good I hate you all over again."

We were at her place - an apartment she shared with her dad. There was a going-out mirror near the front door and I was patting at my hair and checking to see if my eyeshadow had smudged. What I saw in the mirror was certainly striking. Cheyenne had fluffed my white hair into a shining halo, accented by bronzes and golds around my eyes, chandeliers of sparkle swaying from my ears, and lipstick that was an incredibly glossy rose.

When she and Aunt Kate had created Jamie Platinum, I had done the obvious browse through the internet. Being the compulsive researcher that I am I had looked into dressier clothes as well as the casual styles that were all I really expected to need. One of the "must have" standards was called a little black dress. For the big date night, I figured that's what we would both be wearing.

Cheyenne nixed that idea right off. "You're too pale to wear black."

"But Nightwind wears black, and the guys all said she was attractive," I protested.

"Nightwind didn't show any skin at all," Cheyenne said, "so it doesn't matter what her natural colors were. You need to add some color. Trust me."

So I did. Trust her, that is. And found myself in an iridescent teal shimmer of something soft and flowing - and tight enough to take away any doubt that there was a woman on the inside. Heels were ridiculously high and strapped on with a buckled band around the ankle that seemed almost like a fetish thing, but at least it meant I wouldn't step right out of one accidentally. The only aspect that wasn't as dangerous as I expected was the length. My dress was actually longer than hers by a few inches. That was because she insisted that I wear dark stockings and a garter belt, and said that a lady never lets her garters show. Which turned out to be a false modesty because the skirt to my dress - unlike hers - had a slit that would show more than a garter clasp if I weren't careful.

On the other hand, no one might be looking at me at all, with her around. She wore a plunging burgundy wisp of lace and shine and looked like she belonged in a Hollywood blockbuster just before the explosions start. She also had a confidence and poise that I found wildly attractive and tried to emulate with what seemed like little success.

One of the many amazing things about Dad's dynafiber was that it was pretty good at transferring heat. That meant Nightwind was as vulnerable to fire as anyone else - a fact I needed to remember. It also meant that the skin under my torso unit could radiate heat as well as if it were uncovered. That, in turn, meant that I could feel the cooling breeze that tickled under my skirt around the tiny little thong panty that, this time, was unguarded by pantyhose. I could not image feeling more exposed even if I were truly naked under that filmy dress.

But all in all, despite my frantic query, I knew that I looked 'okay.' In fact, I looked a lot better than just 'okay.' I looked like I belonged in a fashion catalog, or in another sort of picture with staples through my navel.

God help me, but I liked it.

We weren't going to tell the boys who I really was of course, so we couldn't meet them at the Sinclair mansion. That's why we were at Cheyenne's apartment. Her place had a peephole in the door that she was using as I made my frantic last-second self-inspection.

She poked me with an elbow to get me to face forward, and then pulled the door open.

The guys were there, dressed in nice slacks and sport coats - shoes shined, hair tidy, and each holding a bouquet of flowers. I wished I had done the research on what different types of flowers were supposed to mean. Cheyenne got gardenias, but I got red roses. We made a quick break to the kitchen to get some vases and water.

"Oh, god, I ssoo hate you," Cheyenne said, and she punched me in the arm. But it was a light punch and she was grinning. "I'll bet that Brian can't even tell you what color my dress is, but he could probably tell you how many stitches per inch they used to sew yours."

"Don't kid yourself, girly," I countered with my own laughing charge. "Not even Derek could take his eyes off your cleavage, you tramp."

"Well, I need to make the most of what little I've got," she protested. "I didn't go with the Expando-matic inflatable size like you did."

"Batteries, girl, just batteries."

"Yeah, right. Well, they're certainly giving those guys a real charge."

It was only a couple of minutes before we were back out, picking up our purses and tailored, glove-leather jackets that Cheyenne insisted looked good with our up-scale dresses. Thanks to her magic, I knew we looked at least to be college co-eds - young 20's. We never had asked the guys how old they were, but I was sure they were both less than 30.

Which meant that Derek either had a rich family or a source of income beyond his contemporaries. I was guessing family because he drove a BMW 5-er that was about 3 years old - just old enough for daddy to have given it to him while the older Blaine moved up. I had to bite my tongue to keep from blurting out that I had a BMW, too - a superbike. But then, I didn't have one. Nightwind did. Besides, a 5-er was just a bit too sedate for a less-than-30 guy with Derek's flair.

To his credit he drove with smooth competence but without being overly aggressive. He didn't hesitate to use all the power of his 5-er, but he did it when it served a purpose and not just to show off. It didn't take long to get to the restaurant where the guys negotiated with a hostess for a table and we were soon contemplating the menu.

"So, Jamie," Derek said, "I know you like murder mysteries and being mysterious yourself. How about the standard, 'what's your major?' line?"

"I actually already have my degree. . ," I said, choking off the plural at the last instant.

"Let me guess . . ," he said, ". . . Mechanical Engineering."

"How'd you . . ? I mean, sure. Doesn't everyone?"

"Not me," Brian said. "Mine's in Chemistry."

"Good for you," I said, looking at Derek. He was History as it turned out, and we started a nice little argument into the importance of the Thirty-Years War on western civilization - something I had written a couple of papers on as part of my minor in History - when Cheyenne kicked me under the table.

She frowned and rolled her eyes. Oh, yeah, let the boys do the talking. So I listened to Derek run off on his own interpretation, wide-eyed and hugely interested. After a minute he ran down and realized he'd been the only one talking.

"Hey, I thought you were an engineer," he said. "How come you know so much about European History?"

"Talented amateur, I guess," I said easily.

Brian laughed, and looked at Derek. "Hey, doofus, what makes you think she has a degree in engineering? You guessed, and she just went along with it. Maybe her degree is in History."

"Maybe," I said easily, demurely keeping my eyes down so that Derek couldn't get a read on whether I was telling the truth.

Cheyenne decided it was time to be part of the conversation herself and declared that all of us should be included so we would pick an appropriate topic. For the guys, that meant sports and movies. We found an overlap in movies, and a tighter overlap in Pixar films.

The next thing I knew the guys were paying the bill and we were heading back to the Bimmer. I caught Cheyenne's eye and mouthed a silent 'thank you' because she had truly found a way for me to de-stress from the - as the cop described it - 'gruesome' horror of being Nightwind. I didn't regret what I had done, but with the perspective that came from a few hours in the real world, I could also accept it.

When we got to Cheyenne's apartment, I turned to Derek and said, "Thank you for a wonderful evening, Derek. You don't know how much I needed an opportunity to get out for a while."

"No, dear lady, the thanks are from me to you. Could I ask you a favor?"

"Um, you can ask," I said cautiously. This whole boy-girl thing had so many minefields in it that I couldn't be as gracious as I wanted to be.

"Would you let Brian take our picture?" Derek said. "You see, we room together and . . . some of the guys on our rugby team make a big deal about that. They're just yanking our chains, but if I showed them a picture of you - with me - well, there isn't *anyone* who could question a guy who could go out with you."

"Oh, my, well, we wouldn’t want anyone picking on you," I said with a laugh.

A moment later Brian was trying to get us closer together so he could get a good image in his cell phone camera. My very good friend Cheyenne sabotaged me.

"Geez, girl, give them something to talk about," she urged, then she turned to Brian and laid a torrid kiss on him.

"Oh, um, I, uh . . ," I stammered. Derek didn't say anything. He just gently, slowly, with plenty of time for me to resist, turned me to face him . . .

Then his arms were around my waist, and my arms found their way around his neck . . .

Cherish is so . . . beautiful to experience.

Three times, if there's any reason to count. And yes, I let my mouth accept his intruding tongue. That's not quite what I would call 'cherish,' but it had its . . . intriguing elements.

"Woowee," Brian said. "Is it hot in here, or is it just them?"

"What? Huh?" I said, blinking in confusion.

"Oh, god, don't stop now," Derek insisted, but I was already pulling back.

"Did you get your picture?" I asked. Derek started a frantic set of gestures behind my head, but it was obvious what he was doing. I laughed and moved the rest of the way out of his arms.

"Well, Shy, since you started this . . ," I said, reaching for Brian's cell phone.

"I don't know," she said. "I haven't been asked. Perhaps I'm just too forward for some people."

"Oh, hell no," Brian said. He grabbed her in his arms and bent her over in a Times Square victory party kiss. It made a nice photo. Several angles, in fact, when he pulled her up then immediately leaned her over the other way.

The second time was spoiled a bit by her giggle. Well, more than a bit as far as the passion of the moment was concerned, but it did make it very memorable - particularly when he almost dropped her.

By the time the laughter trailed off into something allowing rational thought, I had moved to the doorway and Shy was leaning against the wall fanning herself. A mild humor aftershock led to giggling air kisses and a quick slip through the door into her hallway.

"Oh my god," I whispered as soon as the door was safely shut.

"Liked that, did you?" Cheyenne replied, grinning.

"More than I wanted to admit," I admitted wryly. "Damn, but he's a good kisser. And it doesn't take a lot of hormones to realize it. He made me feel like the center of all the worlds in all the universes that ever were."

"Wow, and here I was just thinking about how Brian made me want to jump his bones," she replied with a laugh. And a quick punch at my arm. "Not really," she contradicted herself. "He's fun, but . . . there's something missing."

"Yeah, what?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said, but something in her eyes told me that she was holding something back. I gave her a minute to decide if she wanted to say any more, but when she didn't take advantage of it, I just shrugged.

"Well, it was enjoyable in a way that I never would have expected, but . . . there's something missing for me, too."

"Yeah, I know," she said softly, reaching out to offer me an embrace. I took it, and we just held each other for a long moment.

A moment that was spoiled when her stomach growled.

It resurrected the giggle explosion and we were instantly laughing so hard we had to sit down, which offered us a chance to get out of those insane heels. Cheyenne's stomach growled again, which she said was a message that could only be silenced with chocolate, so we quickly slipped into something more comfortable and she provided ice cream with drizzles of chocolate that were entirely too good to be possible.

As long as the date went reasonably well - meaning we didn't come back to the apartment early - we were going to spend the night at Cheyenne's place. After our snack we cheerfully fought with each other for space at the mirror, but it wasn't long before we were snuggling into a compatible position in Shy's bed - a double, and quite a bit smaller than Jamie Sinclair's king.

"So, what was it like, really?" Shy asked. I didn't have to ask what she was talking about.

"Cherish is nice," I admitted with a soft sigh.

"'Nice,'" Shy repeated. "Wow, you raised the temperature in that hallway by 20 degrees, and all you got is nice?"

My response was a shrug. "I enjoyed it. It was 'passionate' in the sense that I really let myself go into the comfort and warmth of his embrace. And it was . . . interesting to feel his own arousal grow. It gave me a sense of power." I shrugged again, "So maybe it was more than nice, but if you're asking if my own body started heating up like his did . . . I'm afraid not."

"Oh, Jamie, I'm so sorry for you," Cheyenne said, twisting my shoulders so that they were facing each other.

In the smallish bed, we were pretty close - nose to nose.

Then closer than that. It wasn't clear who moved that last inch or so - maybe we both moved together. A sisterly embrace became a lot more in the space between one heartbeat and the next.

Cherish can be mutual, I realized. That seemed wonderfully important. It was not protector and protectee - cherisher and cherished. It was the two of us uniting against the world, putting each other before all others, before even ourselves.

In a moment I realized part of what that could mean. My own body, still confined within my torso shaper, wasn't really a factor but Shy's could be. Without breaking our kiss, I let one hand slowly slide down to cup a softly firm shape - a shape with a very distinct, not-quite-sharp accent.

Cheyenne gasped, but she didn't pull back. I felt her own hand slide down to cup one of my shapes. In a sort of duet, I copied her reactions of gasps and soft moans, allowing her the pleasure of sharing pleasure - though even as I did it a part of my mind was wincing at the false response.

Then I let my hand slide lower, and after a few moments she was no longer concerned with playing her own harmony to my motions. I was not concerned either.

It turned out that Cheyenne was actually very quiet, very subtle in her responses. There were no screams of ecstasy, no bouncing off the bed with great flailing motions. She just started shuddering, and stopped breathing. She stopped breathing for such a long time that I was trying to decide whether to stop what I was doing and let her get some air when she finally gasped again, then started panting.

"Oh, god, Jamie, that was so wonderful, so intense," she said between pants. "Oh, god, you are so good at that."

"Thank you, ma'am," I said with a grin. "Glad to be of service."

"Was it . . . did you?" she asked hesitantly.

"It was very special for me, too," I promised her, and it was true. It wasn't a pleasure from my body, but it was a truly special joy in my heart to make someone else feel so good. I felt . . . worthy in some way that I had never felt before.

We tapered off with little sweetheart kisses and nibbles, tongue-touches and squeezes, and after a few minutes Cheyenne rolled over so that I could wrap myself around her.

I'm not sure I had slept that deeply since the night my parents were killed.

I was having strange thoughts the next morning. It was almost as though the real me were Jamie Platinum. Nightwind was the next most real 'me', with Jamie Sinclair coming in a distant third. When I thought of the Sinclair house, it was 'his', not 'mine,' as though Jamie Sinclair were a real, but different person. So the next morning while we bustled about getting ready to be seen in public, in my mind we were headed toward 'the Sinclair mansion', not 'my house.'

I realized there was an exception to that. When I needed to address a problem, particularly a technical problem, I was definitely Jamie Sinclair again. Yet - this felt really strange, but it was real - even as I dressed to get ready to go to the Sinclair mansion so that we could work on the next step in Jamie Sinclair's revenge, it was still as though that were another person I was going to visit, not someone I was going to 'become.'

I hadn't been to a shrink since about a year after my parents were killed. Nothing had seemed to be changing. I was still not producing any testosterone. I still didn’t have any memories of that night. But now I wondered if I was somehow developing a psychotic break from reality. Who was I, really?

Was it that I enjoyed my life as Jamie Platinum but not as Jamie Sinclair? Would that change after he completed his revenge? Would I . . . could I . . . stop being a pretty girl once the need was gone? Did I want to?

Cheyenne broke into my churning thoughts as we drove back to the Sinclair house. "I'm sorry about last night."

"What? Why? Didn't you have a good time? I know I did."

"Did you, really?" she asked plaintively. "Oh, god, it was so awesome. I had a good time with the boys, and Brian is a really good kisser. From what I saw, so is Derek. And what happened later was just so . . . beautiful."

Her voice trailed off and I realized that tears were running down her cheeks.

"Shy, what's wrong?"

"Oh, Jamie, I just used you! I used you to get a fun date with a nice guy. I used you as an excuse to get a heart-stopping kiss without the risk of losing control and having him take it further than I wanted. But worst of all, I used you in bed like a . . . like a living vibrator or something, where all that mattered was my own pleasure and no satisfaction for you at all. Oh, god, I feel like such a shit."

"Don't!" I said sharply. "Shy, I had a wonderful time last night, and the very best part was when we were in bed together. You didn't leave me unsatisfied a bit!"

"But you can't . . ," she said, her voice trailing off.

"No, I can't," I agreed. "But Shy, I can't even feel a desire that didn't get met. Not a physical one anyway. For me, it's *all* about the sharing, and it felt - what did you say? - 'beautiful' to be able to give someone special pleasure like that. My thought last night - this is truly what I was thinking as we fell asleep - was that I had felt so 'worthy' of being someone's friend for the first time in a long time. Jamie Sinclair is pretty messed up and this body we share is limited in important ways. But Jamie Platinum can be a good lover because I can truly bring pleasure to my lover. I promise you, I did not have a single unsatisfied desire as we went to sleep."

"And Shy, this is important," I continued. "I mean exactly what I said. For the first time since I woke up in the hospital, I didn't go to sleep focused on my desire for revenge - angry with the need for revenge. I still want to get those who ordered the murder of my parents, and I'll get them, but it wasn't consuming me last night when we fell asleep. I felt calm, and happy, and . . . worthy last night."

"Really?" she asked, but she wasn't really doubting me.

"Really," I confirmed. "Now, keep your eyes on the road if you can, or pull over and dry your tears. But don't you dare regret what happened last night."

"Oh, god, Jamie, you are so special," she sighed.

"Special is right," I said with a laugh. "Special needs. Uniquely screwed up in more ways than I can count. But we're working on it."

She smiled and focused again on her driving. I patted her on the shoulder, but I was wondering if the last thing I had said were true. Were we working on "it", my special needs, by developing the Jamie Platinum persona or was I losing touch with reality? Was I actually getting to a better place with Nightwind's revenge, or would that anger and violence consume me - or worse, make me the same as the very people I was after?

Was I becoming a monster? A freak?

Or was it possible that I was becoming someone . . . worthy?



Chapter 11 - "Be Careful What You Ask For"

When we got to stately Sinclair manor, I had my act together again. That didn't mean I had resolved all of my questions. But I wasn't going to go off in a fugue about what kind of psychotic monster I was becoming, or start having vocal arguments between Jamie Platinum and Jamie Sinclair. Or knock-down, drag-out fights where I was both the knocker and knockee.

Something was strange when we got to the house, though. It took me a while to figure it out.

"Aunt Kate, you're looking chipper this morning," I said.

She smiled an especially bright smile, but just nodded. Well, she blushed a bit, too. What was there for her to be embarrassed about?

My curiosity just about had me twisted up in knots when a new player entered the game. Matt Dylan, who had spent the night in the security office in case there was a repeat attack, came in to get some brunch while we were telling Aunt Kate about our date with the boys. Cheyenne did most of the talking of course, but I was trying to stay in the conversation enough to keep her from spinning too outrageous a yarn. I gave Dylan a quick nod while he filled a plate and took a seat.

Something nagged at me for the next few minutes, enough that Cheyenne got to the really juicy part - at least the part in the hallway by her apartment - without argument from me. Now I had two anomalies nagging at me, and I couldn't put my finger on either one.

"So, are you going to start graduate studies in Kissing 601?" Aunt Kate teased.

"What?" I asked, trying to remember the prior conversation.

"She could, I mean, Jamie Platinum could." Cheyenne said. "Man, it was hot just watching them."

"That was just for a picture," I claimed, but none of us believed it and my cheeks got hot at their snickers. I'm sure it was just embarrassment, nothing of memory of what that kiss - those kisses - had been like.

And then I had another revelation moment . . .

"Aunt Kate, is there anything *you* need to tell us?" I asked, lifting a thin little eyebrow in query . . . and to keep from losing control of a building giggle. I was dressed sort of neutrally - no makeup and hair in a simple ponytail, but I hadn't bothered to put on my masculine eyebrows.

"Um, no, I don't think so," she said, but the blush was back in her cheeks.

"Perhaps . . ," I said, starting out casually, then pouncing with a turn to Dylan, ". . . *you* have something to share."

He looked at me blandly, then clearly and distinctly shook his head. It might have worked but I had seen the way he looked at Aunt Kate when he sat down, and the way she looked at him. They were both pretty subtle about it, but that nagging feeling that something was going on had crystallized when I blushed at the thought of kissing Derek. Aunt Kate's blush when I complimented her on her happy demeanor had the same sort of flavor. And Matt had smiled at her while he sat, with a smile that looked just that much out of place on his scarred face.

Cheyenne hadn't made the same connection. "What are you talking about?"

I looked directly at Aunt Kate, but I spoke to Cheyenne. "I think, while we were . . . recovering from our date, Aunt Kate was having an enjoyable evening of her own. Well she and a, um, 'friend' had an enjoyable evening of *their* own."

"What, who?" Cheyenne asked. Then she looked at her father and said, "Daddy! Did you . . ?"

"A gentleman never speaks of such things," he said pedantically.

"Daddy! You did. With Aunt Kate?"

He refused to say any more, but Aunt Kate was blushing enough to raise the temperature on her side of the table.

"Oh my god!" Cheyenne squealed happily. "Oh my god, that is so awesome!" She jumped up and ran around the table to Aunt Kate and started squeezing her until there was a different reason for my aunt's red face.

"Well," I said, trying to be very mature and cosmopolitan, but not really succeeding. "It would seem I'm going to be arranging a few more evenings out."

"You don't have to do that," Aunt Kate said quickly, but with a little bit of wistfulness in her tone.

I stood up and walked over to give her my own hug. "No, Aunt Kate, I don't *have* to do it. But I am very, very pleased to have such a wonderful reason to."

Then I walked around to Matt and pulled him to his feet. He towered over me and probably outweighed me by more than two-to-one, but he didn't resist. I think he was expecting a handshake, but he looked like he was wondering I'd fall into Jamie-Platinum mode and kiss his cheek or something. Instead I just gave him a hug. "Good for you, Matt. She's a great lady, and you deserve the best."

"Yes, she is," he agreed, not quite blushing because I'm not sure he knew how, but certainly a bit uneasy. He wasn't a touchy-feely type so I let him go after just a second and stepped back.

"Okay, that means we all go out tonight. I'll go as Jamie Platinum so that we can go wherever you want. I'm thinking . . . someplace we can get a huge steak. After all, Matt has to keep up his strength."

"I'll show you strength, you young pup," he said, but he was smiling.

We agreed to rendezvous at an appropriate time, letting Matt have enough of a break to go home and get some less military clothes. He also said something about taking a nap. He must have had a really *great* night.

I wasn't about to let Aunt Kate off that easy, but I thought she might be more comfortable sharing gossip with another woman. So I put on my fresh torso unit, fixed my hair and makeup, and found some casual clothes. Jeans that fit my new shape were very feminine, but still casual. Aunt Kate was cleaning up in the kitchen. We hadn't really left dirty plates so I think she was actually waiting for something, or someone. Her face lit up again when Jamie Platinum walked to the refrigerator and got a diet coke.

"So, tell me the whole story," I demanded, but with easy intimacy. I could tell she wanted to talk.

It still took her a few minutes to get started. It was only after she got up to refill her coffee mug that she seemed to find a place to begin.

"I invited Matt to have dinner with me, telling him that I didn't want to eat alone, which was true. After dinner - talking about you and Cheyenne, mostly - we moved to the TV room to watch some sort of movie or documentary or something. I didn't really pay attention. At one point I asked Matt if he'd like some more coffee. He smiled and said he would, but only if I brought it in a real mug - not one of those dainty china things with saucer. I laughed and agreed."

"When I got back and handed him his mug our fingers touched. I felt something . . . magical and looked at him, to find his eyes embracing mine. It was just a touch and a glance, but it was as though a world flowed through that contact. I could feel his loneliness, and I knew he felt mine." "Instead of handing him his mug, I put it down and just sat in his lap. I didn't ask for an invitation, and he didn't give me one, but I ended up in his lap with my head on his shoulder and his arms around me."

She couldn't sit still when she got to that point. Pacing about the room she continued. "Oh, Jamie, he has been through so much! His wife - Cheyenne's mother - died of breast cancer. It was horrible for him. And for her, of course. The treatments were brutal and in the end, they didn't work. He still feels guilty, though the rational part of his mind knows it wasn't his fault. But he was supposed to be able to protect her, and in his heart he failed."

"By the time he told me his story, softly into the quiet of the room with the TV muted, I was crying and his voice was so tight I thought maybe he was, too. But one of the saddest things is that I don't know if he can cry anymore. I think he's forgotten how."

I had been nodding at appropriate intervals, just to encourage her to continue. By this point she was crying again and I stood to hold her. Into her silence, I asked, "Did you tell him your own story?"

"Enough of it," she said. "I didn't want him to think that I was . . . innocent, or that I was fragile. I told him enough to show that I knew what the hard parts of life are like, and that I knew how to take responsibility for my own actions."

"Good approach," I said. "Then what happened?"

"Then . . . shall remain private," she said, but she smiled. "But it was good for both of us."

"I believe you," I said, squeezing her again.

After that catharsis, she needed a nap of her own. While she was resting, I did a little internet research.

Andrea Anderson was the CEO of Antares Corporation, a notionally non-profit organization specializing in consultation on drug trafficking and drug abuse prevention. It didn't take much time to find out that the non-profit aspect was more for purposes of tax evasion than purposes of nobility. Antares paid for a lavish lifestyle for its officers, complete with 'conferences' in all the resort spots of the world. Most of their money came from various government or pseudo-government sources like the UN - and therefore ultimately from taxpayers of one nation or another.

I wondered if they were using some sort of purloined letter strategy. By having fairly public graft disguised as essentially unlimited expense accounts, they could hide a lot more money from less open sources. Nelson Adams was nearly unconscious when he told me about Antares and that made me trust his information more than if I had 'forced' it from his unwilling - and probably lying - lips. However, his confession alone was not enough for Nightwind to arrange some sort of attack on someone who was not at the scene of my parents' death. I needed some corroborating data.

And I didn't really have any idea how to get it. Nightwind could penetrate the Antares headquarters - probably - but I didn't think they'd have a big "Incriminating Evidence" sign over a file cabinet in Andrea Anderson's office. I needed another incident - more attackers to question that might lead back to Anderson. Or maybe something linking her to the attackers we had already identified. I was trying to decide if some sort of roundabout approach - following her to some overseas conference to see whom she contacted or something - would be effective when Aunt Kate came out from her nap.

We both knew that Matt would be more comfortable in a jeans and jacket place than somewhere that required ties. We had both dressed in nice jeans - I still couldn't believe how much they cost - and sweaters. I wore a bomber jacket that was actually Jamie Sinclair's. Aunt Kate wore the fitted leather jacket I had worn the night before and looked damn good in her own jeans for a woman nearly twice my age.

Cheyenne came back with her dad and though she wore a short skirt, it was still casual and worked with our jeans. Since I was going to be wearing long pants and long sleeves, I decided to wear my black armor suit as well under the theory that it's when you least *expect* to need a way to protect yourself is when you will most need it. The helmet I could leave in the car, but there wasn't any reason I couldn't wear the rest of my outfit. There would be a slightly gauche touch of wearing gloves through dinner. I'd just avoid finger foods.

"Guess what?" Cheyenne said a soon as they had shed their own jackets. "You're famous. You have fan sites and everything!"

"What?"

Matt frowned at his daughter's enthusiasm, but he confirmed her report. "Cheyenne found some websites about Nightwind."

Well, that required a look. Apparently someone had talked to the survivors of the factory battle. It appeared that it was first reported on a blog site that had pretensions of being news. I guess in this case they had some justification. Someone had done a sketch.

"Oh, my god," I said. "That is just . . . disgusting."

"Awesome, you mean," Cheyenne said, poking me in the arm.

The sketch looked like it came right out of a comic book, and that was actually a bit of the plan so I shouldn't have been surprised, but the image . . . The woman in that image had a bust so big that she wouldn't have been able to drown even if she were carrying an anvil. And the 'artist' had added embellishments that there was no way were right. My torso unit didn't have those "features." They'd also made the black outfit look like sheer stockings - very sheer. There was just enough darkness to imply that I wasn't actually naked, but only just.

"I don't look like that," I protested.

"Yes you do," Cheyenne insisted. "Well, your outfit isn't that thin - not quite, anyway - and, yeah, some of it is . . . imagined. But you gotta give the guy credit. He has a vivid imagination."

"I don't have to give this guy credit for anything," I snarled, "except maybe invasion of privacy."

Matt interceded, "Actually, you don't have any expectation of privacy. As a vigilante, you can't sue anyone. And as a celebrity, whether you wanted to be or not, you lose just about all your rights to privacy for any images of you."

"It's one of the reasons that you need a 'secret identity,'" Cheyenne said.

"I guess so," I sighed, looking again at the images. "I think I need to make my suit thicker, though."

"Maybe," Cheyenne agreed, giggling. "But you have to admit, it makes an awesome distraction. Could *you* fight someone like that? In between wiping drool off your face?"

"Oh, be quiet," I demanded, shutting down the website. But I had to grin even as I blushed. "Let's get going."

The dinner started out nice enough. We did go to a steak place and Matt ordered a big one. I knew that I couldn't eat a lot when wearing my torso shaper so I just had a grilled salmon salad. Cheyenne had something similar. I noticed that Aunt Kate had a steak of her own - smaller than Matt's, but it pleased me to think that she thought she needed to keep her strength up as well. Or at least believed in being prepared.

We were attacked on the way back to the house.

A heavy-duty pickup truck came slamming out of a side street and took the front end off our car. Somehow, I knew instantly that it was an attack, not an accident. I made a quick twist in my hair and put my helmet on - I'd left it in the car, of course - and then I bailed out the opposite side from where the truck had hit. The shock of the collision had tripped me into hysterical strength and I ripped my jeans and sweater off - the sweater cost more than the jeans! - and vaulted back over our car toward the attackers.

They opened up with fully automatic fire using AK-47s. I felt an array of taps all over my body, but the rounds went whining off into wherever as fast as they hit. I did hear a few thunks behind me and I worried about someone in the car getting hurt, but the best way for me to take care of that was to reduce the threat.

I grabbed the forestock on the nearest AK and jerked it from the thug's hands, careful to avoid the barrel itself which would have burned my own hand. The rear stock broke on his jaw when I hit him and I knew he wouldn't be getting up any time soon. If I missed and hit his neck he probably wouldn't be getting up ever. Another shooter picked that moment to run out a magazine. His reload interval seemed like a good enough reason to pick on him. I put my tapered heel into his pelvis and thought I felt his femur break.

"Well, lots of old people learn to cope with a broken hip," I muttered. He wasn't too interested in fighting any more so I kicked his gun way - a long ways away, since I was still running on hysterical strength, and turned to see what was next.

Actually, there wasn't much. Matt had potted two of the attackers from inside the car. I should have known he'd be armed. There were a total of five, with the last one still in the truck. Apparently that guy had been driving and hit his head on the steering wheel when he crashed into us.

Matt was getting out of his door - actually, he kicked the bent-in door open from inside - and walked up to the pickup. "Amateurs," he growled, making sure the guy was unarmed and using a heavy zip-tie to hook him to the steering wheel. I moved to make sure the other wounded men were unarmed as well. I was coming down off my adrenaline burst so I actually gathered the remaining weapons into a pile. One of Matt's targets was shot in the abdomen and didn't look good, and something about the angle of the neck on the guy I hit first made me think he wasn't going to be getting up - ever.

That left us three, including the driver, to talk to. I wanted to interrogate them immediately but Matt intervened.

"You need to go," he said.

"Go?" I repeated.

"Yeah," he confirmed. "This place is too public. There are witnesses, and I'm sure the cops are on the way. You can't be here when the cops get here."

As if on cue, we heard a siren wailing toward us.

"Okay," I said. "Find out who sent these guys."

"Right," he said, and his snarl made it clear he wasn't going to let them stall with their answers. As I turned to go - it was going to be a five-mile hike to get back to the house - Matt called, "Nightwind, you know that we're going to have admit that we saw you this time."

"Oh, yeah," I said. I walked back over to him and lowered my voice. "Well, just pick it up from when I came over the car. For all you know I was paralleling you as an uninvited escort. Tell the others. You might even make up something about hearing my motorcycle."

He nodded, then started slapping the driver into full consciousness.

My suit did a pretty good job of hiding me in the dark. That's part of why I picked black. I stayed in the shadows a couple of hundred yards away and listened to his questions. When the police showed up I made sure there wasn't going to be any real trouble - at least for our side - then started for home. The post-adrenaline sag made me really tired, but I didn't want to call on hysterical strength again so I just trudged along, keeping to the darkness.

Then I did have to call on more boost because I got a radio call from Cheyenne. Her voice was whispering. "Nightwind, hurry. The cops want to take us home and talk to us there. They want to talk to Jamie Sinclair about all these attacks."

"Roger," I said, then pushed into boost so that I could run the remaining three miles.

"I won't have to pretend to be tired when they get there," I thought as I pounded along.

Detectives Sloan and Edwards were ringing for admittance at the gate before I even got out of my Nightwind attire. Thankfully, I could release the gate and still have a few minutes before they reached the front door. I stripped out of my outfit and put on some sweats in a hurry, reserving as much time as possible to cleanse off my makeup and glue on my Jamie Sinclair brows. I was reaching for the door handle when I remembered I still had on smallish loop earrings - but they were large enough that they were definitely feminine and therefore not right for Jamie Sinclair. I snatched them off and hid them in my left hand, expecting I'd be shaking hands with my right. I was running a brush through my hair when I opened the door, but quickly pulled it into a low ponytail that I hoped disguised the waves still remaining from my Jamie Platinum hairdo.

"What can I do for you, Detectives?" I asked, trying to stifle a genuine yawn.

"Have you talked with your aunt recently? Or with Matt Dylan?"

"Yes," I said, ushering them into the sitting room. "We talked earlier this evening before they went out to dinner, but I didn't feel up to it."

"You're not feeling well?" Sloan asked.

I sighed and shrugged. "The doctors said that one sign of depression is that you get tired a lot." I gave them a weak smile and said, "It's either that or I have some sort of bug. I'm hoping for the bug."

"We're sorry to bother you," Sloan said, "but . . ."

I lifted one of my pasted-on brows in polite inquiry.

"There's been another attack," he said bluntly.

"On whom?"

"On your aunt, and the Dylans."

I stood quickly. "Are the all right? Where are they?"

"They're fine," he assured me. "Their car was wrecked and they're getting a ride home from one of the patrol officers."

I sat down just as abruptly, sagging into the seat. "You said there was an attack? So this wasn't an accident?"

Detective Edwards took up the narrative. "No. Some of the attackers were . . . injured. They confessed to intending to kidnap your aunt."

"Oh my god! Is she all right?" I repeated as though I were in too much shock to recognize that question had already been answered.

"Yes, they're fine," Edwards repeated in turn. He frowned at me then said, "They said that this 'Nightwind' woman attacked the, ah, would-be kidnappers - or I suppose it would be more correct to say 'counter-attacked' them."

"Nightwind? Again? What does she have to do with this?"

"We were hoping that you could tell us," Detective Edwards said, looking sharply at me.

Before I could reply there was a discreet bong that signaled the front gate had opened again. I moved to the door to find a patrol car pulling up. When Aunt Kate got out I ran to her and we embraced.

"I presume you made your change in time," she whispered into my ear. I gave her a very slight nod, then caught Matt and Cheyenne with my eyes and gave another slight nod.

Aunt Kate was still hostess-in-residence at the Sinclair house so she set about making coffee (and a coke for me) before we returned to the actual topic at hand. Sloan waited patiently, but Edwards was fidgeting and as soon as Aunt Kate took a seat he launched his interrogation again.

"I'm sure you haven't told us all you know about this 'Nightwind' character," he accused. "I don't believe in coincidences at this level."

I looked at Sloan, not as an escape but with a slightly amused flavor. The older detective's frown was not buying my attempt to make Edwards seem a bit young and over-enthusiastic. That was probably a waste of time since even the younger detective was several years older than I was, though in some ways it seemed like my experiences had caused me to grow up a lot faster than typical teenagers managed.

"Why do you think I know more about this character than I've told you?" I asked. Always answer a question you don't want to answer with another question.

"She seems to have . . . adopted you and your family," Edwards replied. "I don't believe she would do that and not contact you about it."

"Is, ah, Nightwind wanted for anything?"

"Just for questioning," he claimed, and I could believe as much of that as I chose. The last time we'd discussed her he had reported that Nightwind had murdered someone in a 'gruesome' manner. Or at least, that the survivors claimed she had.

Turning my attention to Matt I said, "Is this person real? As I understand it, this time you were there when she showed up."

"Yes, we were there," he confirmed. "The truck hit us - oh, we didn't tell you that . . ."

He used that as an excuse to fill me in on what happened so that the police wouldn't catch me knowing something I couldn't have known. I'd still have to be careful about that.

When he reached the point where he was adding zip-tie cuffs to the assailants, he wrapped it up. I turned to Detective Edwards and nodded. "I do know more about Nightwind than I've told you. Come with me."

The two detectives looked at each other in surprise. I'm sure they didn't expect it to be that easy. But then, I didn't intend to make it as easy as they now thought. I led them to a computer on that floor and sat down. In a few minutes I had the Nightwind website up.

"I found this," I said. "It looks like someone got to one of your survivors from the fight, um, from the first fight, and he talked."

They looked at me in exasperation for wasting their time, which I took to mean they had already seen the site. I wanted to ask them if there were any others, because, well, because for all that the image on this site looked borderline pornographic, Nightwind was hot and I'd already recognized that I had a pretty big ego. But I let that slide and moved on to the other data I'd decided to share. This would be something I knew they didn't have.

I pulled out the bill from the skydrive storage site. "This is apparently something that Dad had backed up from his cell phone. I never got his cell phone back after they . . . after the attack. You guys didn't get it, did you?"

"No," Sloan said, taking the bill and studying it closely. "You've been paying this for two years and just now told us about it?"

"Actually, that's my fault," Aunt Kate said. "I was just paying the bill along with a lot of other bills after I was appointed Jamie's guardian. When Jamie turned 18 I started going over the bills with him. As soon as Jamie saw it, he knew what it was."

"Well, I *think* I know what it is," I said. "The files are encrypted."

"Can they be decrypted?" Sloan asked.

"I'm sure they can be," I said. "But it takes a lot more resources than I have to break the encryption. However, I don't know what resources are available to this Nightwind person. Maybe she found the cell phone. Or maybe she got this data and decrypted it. From what you said, she claimed to have data on a drug-detection device invented by my dad. This, or the cell phone, are the only places it could have come from that I know of."

"I want those files," Edwards said, images of important clues lighting up his eyes.

I paused before I answered, then spoke slowly as though I were thinking things over. I had decided to give them this link as soon as we had been attacked that night. I knew I needed to give them something. It had been occupying my thoughts during my tiring run home and while I changed.

"I'm not sure I want to just *give* them to you," I said. "There may be valuable data in there on Dad's discoveries. And . . . well, this file is the last thing I have from my Dad."

"But there may be evidence in a series of murders," Edwards complained.

"Yes, there may be," I agreed. I paused again. "Look, how about this? You get a court order that gives me a record that you seized my Dad's data. Then, if there are any new discoveries in there I have a way to retain ownership. You can have any data linking to crimes. God knows I want to get my parents' murderers more than you do."

I stood up and plucked the bill from Sloan's hand. Taking it over to a scanner, I made a copy and handed him the copy. "You have to understand, I don't know if these files can be decrypted by anyone without Dad's key. I just assume that the sample is large enough that real experts - something like NSA - can break it. And I don't know if there is anything useful in the files even if they *can* be decrypted."

"Okay," Edwards said, anxious to get at the data. I think he'd have left right then, but Sloan had another question.

"Tell me about the white-haired woman you had dinner with tonight."

"Who?" I asked. He had actually been looking at Aunt Kate but I acted as though the question had been directed at me.

"There was a white-haired woman dining with Ms. Webster and the Dylans tonight," he explained, then looked back at Aunt Kate.

"That was a nice woman who just . . . introduced herself to us. She said that she had heard about Jamie's case and thought she might be able to help us. She was quite disappointed that Jamie wasn't with us but we invited her to eat with us anyway."

"Her name?" Sloan asked tersely.

Aunt Kate smiled. "She said her name was Jamie Webster."

"And you believed her? That's an unlikely coincidence."

Cheyenne inserted herself into the discussion. "Geez, Detective, she was pretty, stylish, and she had platinum-white hair. She was way too interesting to send away."

"White hair seems to run in your . . . acquaintances," he observed, looking at my own pale ponytail.

Cheyenne laughed, "Oh, I don't think hers is natural. I think she did it to get our attention, and to show sympathy for Jamie, whom she expected to be with us."

"So, you just met her for dinner?"

"Yes," Aunt Kate confirmed. "Well, she met us. She admitted right away that she had arranged the meeting, following us from the Sinclair house. Frankly, I was thinking that it might be good for Jamie - our Jamie - to meet someone from the outside who was genuinely sympathetic to his situation. And she claimed to be able to help, though she didn't really get specific about how she might do that. We sat and talked for a while during dinner. Just visiting, since our Jamie wasn't there and she wouldn't get into any details. She left the restaurant at the same time we did, but I didn't see her car."

"So she wasn’t there during the attack?" Sloan confirmed.

"No," Aunt Kate declared with a professionally straight face.

"It's quite a coincidence, don't you think, that you have dinner with one young woman - someone who feels an unexplained affection for you - and then she disappears and another young woman appears from nowhere to save you from an attack. Doesn't that seem awfully convenient?"

"Are you suggesting that this woman is the Nightwind character?"

"It seems to be a possibility," Sloan said neutrally.

"I thought Nightwind had dark hair," I interjected.

"Why did you think that?" Edwards pounced on my revelation.

"All the reports you've shared said she was dressed all in black. If she had white hair, wouldn't that have been worth mentioning?"

"She always wears a helmet," Edwards said, deflating.

"Oh," I said, shrugging. "Sorry."

Aunt Kate shrugged as well. "The woman we saw was amazingly strong. I saw her break a gun - a rifle, I think - over a man's head with one hand. And I think she jumped clear over our car when she attacked. Jamie Webster is quite slender and I don't see how she would be that powerful."

"We'll want to talk to her," Edwards said.

Matt intervened. "She wasn't a witness or anything. Is there some reason you want to talk to her other than grasping at straws? There's no way Ms. Webster - the younger Ms. Webster - could be as strong as Nightwind. And I personally saw Nightwind shrug off multiple hits from an automatic weapon. That's not something that white-haired girl could do."

"Well, we still need to talk to her," Edwards insisted.

"I . . . may have to talk to our attorney about that," I said slowly. "Mr. Dylan has a point. Unless you have something more than the coincidence of two young women being in the same area at not quite the same time . . . Isn't there something about 'probable cause' or something?"

"We wouldn't be arresting her," Edwards said. "Just asking a few questions."

I started moving toward the door. "Look, detectives, I'm tired. I was just getting ready for bed when you rang the gate bell. I think you've reached the point where you're just fishing. I certainly would not tell this woman to avoid you, but I have to tell you that I'm not going to push my aunt to get this other Jamie to go looking for you, either. If you get something concrete, please let us know. In particular, if you get something off that skydrive file."

That bit of bait re-energized Edwards' curiosity and kept them from asking any more questions that evening, but I had one of my own after they left. I turned to Matt and asked, "So, what did you find out from the punks?"

"Facebook," he said. "They got their orders to attack us through Facebook."



Chapter 12 - "Objectives and Objections"

Facebook. Well, duh. Why should I be surprised that online social media were used for cutout communication by bad guys? I pointed at my computer, but it was actually Cheyenne - another surprise that shouldn't have been - who accessed the relevant user page.

"Urban Murk?" I asked.

"I think they were trying for m-e-r-c, as short for mercenary," Cheyenne said with a snicker. "But they probably got a spell check and just let it correct for them. On the other hand, their thinking was pretty murky, so . . ."

"We have the password," Matt said. "If you get - what is the term? - 'friended' you can gain access to a place that lets you ask for 'unconventional services.' They can negotiate a service and a price, all anonymously."

"How do they arrange payment? . . . oh, wait, let me guess. Pay-pal."

"What else?" Cheyenne asked, laughing again.

"Amateurs," Matt said dismissively. "They negotiated for 10% in advance - which is probably chicken feed for the sort of people we're after. The task was to kidnap someone from your household, so they started spraying bullets the moment we didn't all just lie down like sheep for them. That's hard on potential hostages - or would be if these guys could hit the broad side of a barn from inside it."

I thought for a moment, then smiled. "This is actually good news, I think. Nelson Adams and his crew were reasonably competent. They did their dirty work at least ten times without getting caught. These guys were punks with guns. If Andrea Anderson really is behind this, she might be getting desperate."

"So, what do we do now?" asked Aunt Kate.

I looked at the Dylans. "Do either of you know how to hack the Pay-pal accounts to find out who placed that contract?"

They both shook their heads. After a moment, Matt said, "I know someone who probably could, but I'm not sure it's a good idea to bring anyone else into our secret."

"Maybe not . . . but maybe," I said thoughtfully. "I guess it depends on just what sort of secret we let him in on. I'm assuming it's a guy . . ?"

Matt nodded, so I continued, "Well, assuming it's the normal sort of hacker stereotype - and I know we need to be careful with stereotypes - do you suppose that Nightwind could get him to hack the data we need?"

"Nightwind?" Matt repeated. Then he grinned. "For the guy I know, he'd probably give Nightwind the nuclear launch codes if she asked him in that sexy purr she has."

"Well," I said, "that's one of the reasons we created Nightwind, so that she can do things that we couldn't let Jamie Sinclair do."

With the progress of finding a next step to take, my last strength gave out and I was the next-worse-thing to asleep on my feet. I started toward my bed with hardly more than a nod to the others. Without comment, Cheyenne followed me to my room. With equal automatic acceptance, Matt walked with Aunt Kate to her room - maybe 'their' room now.

When we were ready for bed, I leaned over to kiss Cheyenne good night. It was a gentle, tender kiss that she returned with equal softness. After a moment I let my hand wander down in a repeat of the previous night's offer, but this time she caught my hand and brought it up to kiss the palm, and then to give it a little lick that sent an amazing shiver up my arm.

She put it back on her breast, but held it in place with her own hand. "Dearest Jamie, you can have me anywhere, any when, and any how you want, but you're tired tonight and I think as long as it's so one-sided, we're better if this never becomes an obligation, but only a celebration. Don't you think?"

I smiled at her and nodded. She slid under my arm a little further, rotating as she did so to keep my hand on her breast as we snuggled together. I knew she was right, but the feel of a tight little nubbin under my palm told me also that she also enjoyed my touch. That was satisfying in a way that didn't need any contribution from my unresponsive libido to leave me content, relaxed, and - very soon - deeply asleep.

Nightwind was, deliberately, a creature of the night so we had a full day before she could visit the hacker that Matt knew. I used that time to repair Nightwind's motorcycle. It was just a case of replacing parts, which I had ordered for overnight delivery the day after the battle with Adams. Tinkering in the shop, wearing sweats with my waist unconstrained and no boobs (fake or real) to get in the way was relaxing in a calm-before-the-storm sort of way. At one level I was busy with mind and hands to keep from dwelling on the problems before us. But at another level my mind was still churning through the challenges. That was an important distinction because the very fact I was not deliberately thinking on the real problems let my mind sort through some complications without getting lost in the details. I'd used that trick before, involving myself in some small problem when I didn't really know how to work on a bigger one.

The bigger problem was buried even further when Matt decided that I needed a sparring session. He was right - as usual - but the penalty for even a moment's distraction was high enough that I put everything but the physical on the back burner with the heat turned down low. And yet, the sparring session was really an aspect of the big problem.

I called a break and looked at Dylan. "This isn't working."

"You're not doing bad, kid. I haven't really tagged you for a couple of weeks now."

"No, it's not the fighting, it's the whole thing."

"What's wrong?" he asked. "Are you thinking that this Andrea Anderson is not the real ringleader?"

"No, I'm convinced she's in on it; if not the top boss, then a valid step closer."

"Then what's wrong?"

"There's too much overlap between Nightwind and Jamie Sinclair. And in particular, too much chance that an attack on Nightwind will hit someone else like Cheyenne, or Aunt Kate, or you."

"Do you think the cops suspect that you are Nightwind?"

I thought about it for a second, then shook my head. "No, but they do suspect that Jamie Webster is. They made that clear. And if they made the connection, then I'm sure Antares has. They can talk to witnesses, too."

"So, what do you think we should do?"

"I guess I still think that Nightwind needs to pay your friend, um, Cody Turner, a visit and see if there's a trail back to Antares. Even then it might not lead directly to Andrea Anderson."

I started pacing around the training room, idly touching weights or practice weapons. Letting the reality of my touch anchor my churning mind. After a moment I turned and looked at Matt.

"The way I see it, we have two choices. One is to get Cheyenne and Aunt Kate out of town so that they're safe. Nightwind will be the only available target, and she can traipse through the minefield until something goes off."

"And the other choice?" he asked.

"We use Jamie Platinum as bait," I said. "We keep Aunt Kate and Cheyenne in the house - virtually as a prison, because they can't ever be a target of opportunity like last night - and have Jamie Platinum visibly coming and going. I think we should assume that both the cops and Antares have made the connection by now that the white-haired woman who was at dinner with you the other night is really Nightwind."

I grinned a bit wryly and said, "Keeping Nightwind's hair hidden in the helmet so that no one could tell it was white has backfired on us, I think. No can tell it *isn't* white, either."

"Might be kinda hard on the bait," he observed.

"I have some ideas on that," I said. "Of course it starts with wearing my armor suit under my clothes all the time. I can ride my cycle as Jamie Platinum, so that gives me the helmet."

"What are you going to do when the cops take you in for questioning?"

"That's a problem, all right," I said. "I wonder if . . ."

I stayed in the house the rest of that day. So did Aunt Kate and Cheyenne. By default, at least the first day, we chose the Fortress Sinclair approach. When nightfall came, Nightwind went on the mission to Cody Turner's geek-cave.

It wasn't a problem to get there in the dark. I ran without lights for most of it, using the light-amplification capabilities of my visor. There were a few shouts and pointing fingers when I couldn't avoid witnesses, but I was there and gone fast enough - by changing course if I needed to - that I wasn't followed. About a half mile from Turner's house I cut the engine and coasted in, silent as well as virtually invisible in the darkness. Picking the lock on his door was simple enough. I was a bit surprised to find out that Cody didn't still live with his parents, and even more, than his cave was neatly organized. On the other hand, it was definitely a geek cave with several computers and at least half a dozen huge monitors dominating what others would have used for a family room. And there was an over-flowing trash can loaded with empty Mountain Dews. I was instantly envious - not of the Mountain Dews, but of the computer setup.

"Nice rig," I purred, lifting my visor to show my admittedly gorgeous eyes (did I mention that I was vain?) but leaving my voice-distorting veil in place.

He jumped about two feet in the air - he'd have made it higher, but he was still using at least one wired keyboard, and he had a little folding desk to support his mouse . . . mice. They held him down.

"Who are you?" he demanded, then I could see the heat in his cheeks even without my IR sensors.

"Nightwind?" he guessed. Not that it was much of a guess. Even though the images online were distressingly over on the semi-porno end of truth, there was enough validity to them that identifying me was no great deduction.

I sketched a silly little curtsy as confirmation of his conclusion, then moved closer. "I need a favor," I said.

"*You* need something from *me?*" he asked.

It was interesting to watch the play of emotions in his face. Cody should never play poker. At first there was pleased surprise that a hot girl would want something from him, then there was calculation as he realized that his computer skills gave him some leverage, then resignation as he realized that he was not going to be able to use them in that way. Whatever I wanted was mine for the asking.

I laid out the problem, giving him the "Urban Lurk" website, and pointing out the Pay-Pal account I needed to know about. In a couple of minutes he had the IP address of the account, and in a few more he had the server that the payment had been made from. Not surprisingly it was Antares. All he could tell me beyond that was the account name of the computer, ANTR0728. It gave me a point of attack.

"Thank you for your help," I said, letting the purr roll in my disguised voice. "What can I do for you in return?"

Cody was a nice guy. His first response was a blush, not a leer. Of course, the underlying desire was probably the same, but at least it embarrassed him. He never really considered taking advantage of my open-ended offer. At least, not what he was sure would be unwelcome advantage.

"Could you . . . ? I mean, would you . . . let me take a picture with you?" he asked tentatively.

"Sure," I said. He had any number of webcams so that part was easy. Well, not *too* easy because he wanted to move one so that it would show his computer rig in the background, to prove it was really him and not some sort of Photoshop fake. When he had things framed in the camera the way he wanted, he stood there shyly, awkwardly holding his hands in front of him, then at his sides, then quickly behind him when one of his hands happened to brush my leg.

"Oh, we can do better than this," I said with a laugh. "Close your eyes."

He looked at me in surprise, but then closed his eyes as ordered. He stood there quivering like a puppy expecting a treat, and I was almost tempted to give him a really nice treat. Instead I held a hand up to block the camera for a moment, pulled down my veil, and planted a not-too-nice little kiss on his cheek. Before he could react I had my veil back up. I put my arms around his neck and leaned close to his cheek, leaving just enough room that my helmet didn't bang his head.

I watched us in the monitor and realized he still had his eyes closed. "You can look now," I said, unable to stifle a giggle.

His eyes popped open and he immediately turned his head so he could see if the heat radiating from his cheek actually showed. "Wow, thanks Nightwind. You're awesome."

"Thank you, Cody," I purred, sure that the microphones he no-doubt had in the room would pick up my tone. I waved cheerily at the cameras and walked out of frame. Another wave for Cody alone and I let myself out the way I'd come in. This time I didn't care if he heard my bike and it was still warm, so I ran the engine up and down a few times for effect before launching on my next errand.

This time I not only coasted in for a quarter of a mile, but I parked my cycle a quarter mile away on a path that I could run - in hysterical-strength mode - a lot faster than I could be followed. It involved Parkour methods to use what looked like obstacles as avenues, and even then some of the leaps were beyond what I could do in normal mode.

And I was deliberately early for a rendezvous that was going to be risky no matter what precautions I took. If the other party showed up in force, I'd fade without ever showing myself. Or at least, that was the plan.

As such things do, the plan fell by the wayside as soon as it got started, but that was expected as well. Instead of a single contact in a small clearing near a creekbed, there were two - this part I had expected - but my heat sensors showed another half a dozen hot spots a hundred yards back in surrounding trees. They couldn't be seen in normal vision and they would have had a pretty good shot at surrounding me if I'd have been restricted to normal terrain. That was enough to violate the terms of the rendezvous and I could have just bailed, but part of what I wanted to show them was that I was more capable than they thought. That sort of capability showed in confidence, which is not arrogance if you can back it up.

After they had been standing there for a few minutes - commendably not talking between themselves - I used a little trick I'd prepared and said, "If you really want me to talk, Sloan, send those other guys away. Edwards can stay."

The other hot spots converged on the sound of my voice rather than leaving. They needed some training from Matthew Dylan because they made so much noise blundering around in the dark that I could track them even without my heat sensors. Fortunately for me, the sound of my voice came from a spot well away from where I was actually standing. Well, actually it didn't have anything to do with good fortune. It was planning and a healthy dose of paranoia. And a bit of electronics that was easily within the state of the art. My voice came from a walnut-sized speaker located about ten feet up in a tree bordering the rendezvous place.

I teased them a bit with another sound. "That's no way to treat a lady, detective."

There was a concerted rush to get to where my voice was coming from - though not from where I actually was. Just about the time they all arrived at the base of the tree that held my speaker, I gave them another challenge.

From a speaker in another tree about a third of the way around the clearing I let out a disdainful laugh. "Did you really think you could catch the night wind?"

The uniformed officers looked at each other, and then at the detectives in confusion. Sloan gave Edwards a dirty look that made me think the ambush had been the younger detective's idea, then growled something I couldn't quite make out to the crowd of cops. The effect of his orders was immediately clear, though. All but Edwards started making their way back to the parking lot up a short trail from the clearing.

I wasn't entirely ready to trust them, yet. In fact, it would probably be better to say that I didn't really trust them at all, but I wasn't entirely ready to trust in my own abilities to evade them yet, so I stayed in the shadows and used the second speaker again.

"Do you intend to try to arrest me tonight?"

Edwards twitched and Sloan gave him another dirty look. I didn't give them time to answer. After their non-verbal response I said, "On what charges?" I laughed and added, "Maybe I'll give myself up."

"Murder," Edwards blurted out. "And multiple counts of assault. And breaking and entering, and . . . plenty of others."

Sloan put out his hand to calm Edwards down, but it was probably a waste of his time. Edwards was obviously on a holier-than-thou mission to take down the vigilante who was intruding on the prerogatives of sworn officers. Considering the sterling success these sworn officers had demonstrated at getting my parents' murderers, I was not terribly sympathetic.

"Murder? My, my, that would be naughty. On what do you base this charge?" I challenged. I was still letting the voice distorter put a purr in m voice, but it was getting just a bit harder edged - a warning, not an invitation.

"Multiple witnesses saw you . . . saw you . . . do what you did to Nelson Adams," Edward replied.

He had been edging a bit toward my second speaker, so I decided it was time to switch back to the first. I actually had four around the clearing, but I didn't need to let them know that yet.

"Let me see. I am unarmed at a gun fight, and after getting shot a dozen times, I managed to defend myself - unarmed . . . at a gun fight - and for this *I* am the murderer?"

"Adams was helpless when you killed him," Edwards claimed.

"And you know this because thugs who confessed to wanting to kidnap Jamie Sinclair, and who, in the course of the fight, confessed to having murdered Jason and Jordan Sinclair, said so? Did they also tell you that this supposed attack on this supposedly helpless 6-foot-something, 200-plus-pound man was made by a slender woman who had just beaten this much bigger man to a pulp? After she had been shot at least a dozen times? I wonder if a jury would find their testimony compelling."

"That's up to them to decide," Edward said righteously. "It's enough to arrest you. And that's besides the attack on Jeremy Hansen."

"I presume you've got arrest warrants for both of those supposed crimes," I said in amusement. "How does the description of the offender read? 'Nightwind, a woman dressed in black.' Better not try and serve that in one of the Goth nightclubs."

Apparently Sloan had had enough. He put his arm on Edwards' shoulder and pulled him to the other side from where they thought I was. "Look, um, Nightwind, we got started out on the wrong foot here. Let's reset."

"And whose fault is that?" I challenged. "My offer was clear. Come alone. No tricks. No silly threats about arresting me. We'll talk about my objectives and see if there is any common ground. So far, you've violated every one of those conditions."

"But you . . ," Edwards began.

Sloan interrupted him this time with a punch at his shoulder. "Shut up. You can't catch her. Not tonight, not on ground of her choosing. I want to hear what she has to say. If you don't, then go back to the car and wait with the others."

Edwards rubbed at his shoulder - apparently Sloan had hit him pretty hard - but he shrugged and stepped back.

My voice next said - from behind them of course, "If you pull your gun on me, Detective Edwards, I won't take it kindly." I let the snarl sound through the voice distorter

This time my voice was coming from my actual location. I had stepped from the trees into the clearing. It was still pretty shadowy where I stood and I had my visor down so I was pretty much just another shadow among many. But it was enough.

Sloan stepped quickly to place himself between Edwards and me once again, asking, "Why did you ask to meet with us?"

"Because you made it clear that you wanted to meet with me." This time my voice was so flat the mechanical sound from the distorter seemed almost natural.

"You could have done it less dramatically," he said, then he looked at Edwards and shrugged at the inanity of his statement.

"You said something about your objectives?" he prompted.

"Let me tell you a little story," I said, allowing the purr back into my voice. "A little birdie - a nightingale, if it matters - told me that Jamie Sinclair's father had discovered something that would make detecting drugs in things like shipping containers very easy. I made it my business to look into the matter . . ."

"Why?" Edwards asked, interrupting me.

"Because I wanted to," I said dismissively. I looked back at Sloan - he could probably tell because I turned my helmet a little - and continued. "I found the files, but I couldn't crack the encryption on them. (A lie, but one that kept Jamie Sinclair from being any more of a target than he already was.) "However, the size of the files made it seem likely that there was something of substance there. Yet Hansen had never filed on the patent. And of course, the Sinclairs were murdered not long after the inventor talked to Hansen. So I paid Mr. Hansen a visit."

Sloan held up his hand cautiously, not quite asking for permission to talk, but the next best thing. I paused and nodded.

"Hansen said you broke into his house and assaulted him. You need to understand, Miss, um, Nightwind, even though I want to catch the criminals who attacked the Sinclairs as much as you do, I can't condone felonies by vigilantes."

"So don't condone them," I said quietly. "I never said I was innocent nor asked for your blessing. But I'm not admitting to anything except a conversation in a man's home. And I'm not really a vigilante. I'm more of . . . an entrepreneur. I saw an opportunity to make a little money on a patent. My method might have been unconventional, but not illegal. Everything else was self defense. I'll remind you that I've never used a gun, and the bad guys were unloading bullets by the bucketload. As for Hansen's, um, injuries, if he . . . fell down his stairs and tried to blame it on an intruder, then I guess you'll have to decide what to do with his accusations."

Sloan nodded, frowning and not accepting the distinction, but not wanting to shut off the communication.

Well, I didn't expect him to buy it - though it was consistent with all the facts he knew about so he'd have to consider it. "Mr. Hansen was . . . is . . . dirty. He'd been revealing clients with potentially useful anti-drug inventions to Nelson Adams. The Sinclairs were one of the families he betrayed; Hansen claimed they were one of ten families. He claimed that Nelson Adams and his, ah, associates were the ones who murdered the Sinclairs."

I paused to make sure my own emotions were under control. The voice distorter allowed me to disguise my emotions as well as my basic voice tones, but this was getting into things that were really, really hard to talk about.

"Nelson Adams confessed to this. He confessed to gang-raping Mrs. Sinclair as part of an attempt to get Mr. Sinclair to tell him where the files on the drug-detector were kept. I presume, because I found them and Adams didn't, that Sinclair never talked. For all I know he talked right away but Adams and his goons were too stupid to recognize what Sinclair was talking about."

"Where were the files stored?" Sloan asked.

"In rented memory storage. The system is usually called a 'skydrive,' or now they talk about 'cloud computing.'" That confirmed what Jamie Sinclair told them so it was clear that Sloan was just checking.

"Tell us about the attack last night," Sloan said.

"Whoever was directing Adams lost the use of that team. They hired some punks, using a social network site as a cutout, to kidnap someone from Jamie Sinclair's extended family as a way to get leverage on me. I stopped the attack."

Sloan nodded, taking out a notebook, he asked, "What was the site?"

"Urban Murk," I supplied. Once again, I figured he'd gotten the data from the punks after Matt Dylan was done with them. But Sloan wrote it down dutifully.

"Is there anything else?" he asked. "Have you . . . completed your mission, now that Adams is dead?"

"No, it's not complete," I said softly. The voice distorter still put a bit of buzz in the words, but it didn't sound like a purr so much as a groan. I shrugged and concluded. "I found out that Adams was working for Antares, a so-called non-profit corporation. It's a front for drug dealers. I don't know whether Antares actually handles the drugs or just clears the way for those that do, but they're dirty up to their shiny office towers. I'm going to take Antares down. You can work with me, or get out of my way. That's the deal."

"I can't make a deal with a vigilante," Sloan said flatly.

"Entrepreneur who is good at self-defense," I corrected, but I shrugged. "If the only way you see me is as a vigilante, then it appears our business is over."

With that I faded back into the darker shadows, but I didn’t move off right away. I did move back far enough to put a couple of trees between us, and not coincidentally that put me right at the head of my fast-escape route to my cycle. But I wanted to hear what they said.

"Nightwind!" Sloan called. "Wait. Maybe we can work something out."

I used one of the other speakers to reply. "Not likely. Your opinion is clear, and Edwards is just twitching with the urge to come after me. Sorry, not interested."

"Wait," Sloan called again. "Let me talk with my superiors. As you said, the only witnesses against you are all murderers and felons. Maybe I can work something out. How do I contact you with an offer?"

"How do you catch the night wind?" I taunted. "If you're serious, you'll figure something out."

With that I did leave, moving slowly and silently rather than running. It took me about half an hour to get to my bike, and it would have taken almost that much time for them to drive the long way around even if they knew where to go so I wasn't too worried about being ambushed. But I still didn't waste any time clearing the area.



Chapter 13 - "Close Encounter of the Third Kind"

I let my inner geek run free for the next few days. The near-porn images of Nightwind had bothered me since I'd seen them, but I hadn't really understood why when I started working on a way to approach Andrea Anderson. The nagging irritation in the back of my mind wasn't as clear as a question, just a sense that I was missing something. I thought the reason those images had bothered me was because they made it look like I was nearly naked. Yet I knew that wasn't really true and anyone can draw a false image. Why was I letting it bother me?

Cheyenne came in on me while I was pondering that question. I just happened to have one of those images open on my screen when she looked over my shoulder.

She laughed and slapped m shoulder. "Geez, are you vain or what? How much time do you spend admiring yourself, anyway?"

"That's not me," I said so automatically that it was clear the response was intuitive.

"It sure looks like you . . . well, except for the fact that your, um, 'excitement' is showing."

"A lot of other things are showing, too. My outfit isn't . . . oh, hell, that's what it is!"

"What?" she asked in confusion.

"That's what's been bothering me," I said. "They made my suit look like it was almost sheer, but it's not."

"Well, when it gets stretched tight, it does tend to look a little . . . thin," she said.

"So do dance tights, but they're still opaque," I said. "But that's the point. I think I could thin down the dynafiber to the point it really was sheer, and maybe do it without losing the protection it provides!"

So that was what I worked on. I grew some more dynafiber, this time in thinner strands. I also played around with my automatic weaving machines until I could get them to accept the finer threads. It took a different kind of weaving machine to create continuous cylinders, but I could do flat patterns and then put a seam in them. Which is how stockings were made before some genius invented a better way.

The basic problem with my armor suit was that it showed when I was in Jamie Platinum mode. I could cover it with casual clothes like jeans and a sweater, but I couldn't really wear a skirt or a normal blouse without a turtleneck. This was an issue because I was having a hard time figuring out an approach to Andrea Anderson. A sneak into her home in the middle of the night wouldn't work because she lived in a high-rise with lots of security. Leading her on a catch-me-if-you-can chase to an ambush site wouldn't work because she had minions to do things like that. To get to her I'd have to find some third kind of approach. It seemed to me that I'd have to find some way into her world that was more direct - and therefore more public - than a nighttime sneak. Jamie Sinclair still looked too young so that meant Jamie Platinum would have to do it, but I was reluctant to go into the lioness's den without my armor.

My torso unit covered me from my shoulders to my knees already so I needed something to overlap the torso unit from above the knees to my feet, something for my arms, and something for my head (until I could get to my helmet). Since the link between Nightwind and Jamie Platinum was no longer much of a secret, I could do without the veil except as protection for part of my face.

That gave me something specific to work on, and then I had a deadline to get it done.

"Guess who's coming to dinner?" Cheyenne asked as she entered my workshop with a diet coke and a sandwich.

"What, huh?" I said in confusion, trying to get my mind refocused. "Dinner?"

"Well, not dinner here," Cheyenne said, which wasn't much help. "Your Ms. Anderson is going to attend a conference in our fair city."

"She's not *my* Ms. Anderson," I snapped, then sighed. "Sorry. I know what you mean. So, she's coming here?"

"Apparently. Antares is on the list of sponsors for the conference and there are a couple of papers by their people. There's a cocktail party that I'm sure we could crash."

"Not 'we,'" I said. "You're not leaving stately Fortress Sinclair if that bitch is in the same state."

"But . . ," she began. Her protest died out at the look in my eyes. I was trying to be stern, but I don't think it was working. I just saw her in what my imagination pictured as what happened to my mother and it was so horrifying that I was lost in the pain for a long moment. It might have been the first little tickle of an actual memory, or it might have been pure speculation based on what Nelson Adams had said, but it was bad regardless of the source.

She just nodded without further argument. I stood up and hugged her for her understanding.

"I'll need your help," I said.

"I thought you just said I wasn't going."

"You're not going to the conference," I said. "But I'll need your help getting ready. I may be able to do the casual girl-on-a-movie-date thing, but I'm not ready for high society."

"You knocked Derek's socks off with that teal dress," she reminded me.

"Yeah, but he wasn't thinking all that clearly," I said.

She laughed and nodded. "Okay, point taken." Then she got serious again and said, "And also the point that the Anderson bitch will not be so easily distracted."

"Right," I said. "I'm thinking I need to convince her that I'm an entrepreneur, and can operate at the same backstab-with-a-smile level she operates at. I need some lessons in bitch-queen."

One of her arched brows lifted even higher and she said, "So, you think *I* am an expert in bitch-queen?"

"Well, I don't see Aunt Kate filling that role, and I don't think your dad has the right . . ."

". . . shoes," she offered, and we both laughed.

"Oh, don't remind me," I groaned.

Three days later I found myself in a very tony crowd indeed. It's a good thing that Jamie Sinclair was rich, because if you didn't have a $20K watch and at least twice that in jewels you were likely a servant and could expect to be handed an empty drink to carry away. I was considering the irony that my bling to show I belonged at that level had actually belonged to my mother, and I wouldn't have been in that fancy crowd if I weren't trying to avenge her murder.

I had on a pinstripe power suit that just edged into an indigo that no man would wear. The skirt was short enough - and my heels were high enough - to make it clear that I had the self-confidence to celebrate my feminine beauty, not deny it. My new sheer stockings - actually dynafiber armor - were just long enough that the welts wouldn't show unless I sat down. Which was okay because I didn't expect to be sitting. Running, maybe, and hoping that I didn't get shot at. While my stockings were pretty much run-proof, I had this image of my taut little skirt shot away to reveal a lacy garter belt and . . . Anyway, the potential that seamed stockings might appear unprofessional was offset by not displaying any cleavage at all. I even had a man-style shirt and a no-kidding necktie. Of course, the fact I couldn't actually display any realistic cleavage had something to do with that choice, but Cheyenne had assured me that I made the contrast between too-sexy and too-stiff work.

True equality of the sexes will come when a woman can be fifty, fat, and balding and still think she's sexy to someone young enough to be her child. Or maybe when both men and women think that the primary measure of sexual attractiveness is in the size of their bank accounts regardless of how they look. In any event, while trying to make my way through the crowd toward my target, I was hit on discreetly by three men and one woman, bluntly by another man (the fattest, and the most ostentatiously 'blingy'), and just plain ogled by too many to count. Lots of money does not equate to lots of class.

When I finally made my way to the vicinity of my prey, she was having the same problem. Well, she wasn't young enough to be her suitor's daughter, but other than that she was fending off offers that had little to do with business - unless she were in a lot older business than a non-profit bureaucracy. Andrea Anderson was a trim, 40ish redhead with her own pinstripe power suit. In her case she went for the opposite balance, with a little longer skirt but a lot more cleavage display. I managed to catch her eye and smile, and she winked back at me. A few minutes later she had extracted herself and came over to where I was sipping on some too-dry wine.

"God, I hate that," Andrea Anderson sighed. "Those toads think that just because they're staffers on some congressional committee that all the women in this town can't wait to drop to their knees and blow them."

"Eeuwww," I winced, but then I grinned conspiratorially with her. Inside my stomach was churning at that image, but that wasn't the biggest challenge to keeping my composure so I fought it down.

"Also, at least one woman," I added. "The one over there who got her hair color out of a can of spray paint."

"Which one, dear?" she asked. "I think that describes about half the women in this room."

She looked at my platinum blonde hair and added, "Present company excepted, of course."

"I use Rustoleum primer white, myself," I claimed. "By the way, I'm Jamie Webster."

I wondered if that name would mean anything to her, but she was pretty cool. I saw just a hint of something in her eyes - a momentary loss of focus that was only noticeable because the focus was so sharp before and after.

"Andrea Anderson," she said, offering her hand. "Of Antares."

"Yes, I've heard of you," I said. "I met someone who worked for you and your name came up."

"Oh, who?" she said. Damn that woman was cool. She asked it as casually as if it were just a conversational filler. But that momentary flash of other-focus was in her eyes again.

"Nelson Adams," I said. "Some sort of trouble shooter for Antares, as I understand it."

"He no longer works for us," she said. The claws were starting to come out, now.

"Yes, I heard that, too," I said.

"What brings you to the conference?" she asked.

I smiled and reached out to touch her elbow in a professionally intimate way. "Would you believe that I wanted to meet you?"

"Yes," she said, her eyes narrowing. "I can believe that. I believe I've heard of you, too, now that I think about it."

"Nothing true, I hope," I said, with a smile that showed a few too many teeth.

"Some of the reports do seem a bit hard to believe," she allowed. "Is there a special reason you wanted to meet me?"

Play time was over. That was fine with me. I wasn't really comfortable with that sort of thing. I looked directly at her and lowered my voice just a bit in volume and quite a bit in tone so that it was flat and direct. "What would you pay for the design data to Jason Sinclair's drug detector?"

"You have it?" she asked. "I understood the encryption was too tough to crack."

Bingo! I'd only said that twice. And both times Detectives Sloan and Edwards had been the only witnesses. If I could get either of them to admit to a linkage with Anderson or Antares, I had a corroborating source.

"Well, for your purposes, does that matter?" I asked. "You don't want the device to fight drugs. You just want to make sure that it's *not* used to fight drugs. If you have the only copy of the data then you don't really need to decrypt it."

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said blandly - but by not taking offense she made it clear her statement was only for the benefit of any recording I was making. "Antares is fully committed to fighting illegal drugs. Besides, how would I know that the data are on the actual Sinclair design?"

"I guess you'd just have to trust me," I said, smiling with a few extra teeth again.

She smiled back and this time there was no friendliness at all in it.

"I don't think I'm interested," she said. "But I'll be sure to keep you in mind."

"I'm sure you will. I can just about bet that you'll be thinking about me again," I said.

She made a small wave at someone and another hardcase - Nelson Adams' replacement, probably - came over. She reached out to touch my elbow in that same publicly professional gesture and said, "This is Mr. Baker." Turning her eyes to him, she added, "Ms. Webster is just leaving. Would you see that she gets to where she needs to go, please?"

"Of course, Ms. Anderson," he said. He reached for my elbow and started to guide me to the exit. One of the funny things about my dynafiber armor was that a slow application of force came through as if I had no armor at all. It only protected me from shock loads. His grip might as well have been a steel vise and I saw Anderson smile as my arm was compressed.

It hurt. No doubt about it. It hurt about as badly as my early sparring sessions with Matt Dylan when I wondered if my joints were being dislocated by a throw. The good news in that bad news was that pain is one of the ways to trigger an adrenaline spike and I could feel my hysterical strength build. I reached my other hand around and grabbed Baker's wrist. Holding Anderson's eyes with my own, I squeezed Baker hard enough to feel at least a couple of his bones crack.

"Thanks for the offer, but I can find my own way out," I said. I turned my back on her and walked away as though I didn't consider her any threat at all. That wasn't true and all the way to the exit I was wishing I had my helmet on. In my tiny purse I had thin gloves and a silky balaclava that could provide me protection in about two seconds, but I couldn't use them in the crowd - at least, not without giving up on the pretense of being a normal woman. As I reached the doorway, I turned to look back at her to find her eyes blazing with anger, but also with unanswered questions.

I hurried home from my encounter with Ms. Anderson and changed into Nightwind as I was reporting to the rest of the team on what happened.

"Do you think she warned whichever of the cops is working for her?" Cheyenne asked, taking my skirt to hang it in the closet.

"I don't know," I said. I called out to Matt who was discreetly standing where he couldn't see me, though in fact under all the artifice I was nominally male and it should have been the two ladies who waited outside. "Matt, what do you think?"

"It's hard to say. From what you reported, the detectives didn't come up in conversation so she might not realize that she put you on to him. I think we need to proceed on the assumption she will tell him - whichever him it might be and don't forget that it could be both."

"Oh, right," I agreed. "Which one do you think it is?"

"I think it's Edwards," Cheyenne jumped in. "He's always been more actively against Nightwind."

"Could be," I said. "Which one do you think I should visit first?"

"Visit Sloan first," Matt said. "If he's dirty, then he might just try to frame you for an attack on Edwards if you go there first."

"That works the other way, too," I observed.

"Yes, it does. But the other side of that is if the dirty cop is Edwards, he won't be as good at framing you. I think Sloan is a lot more competent."

"Oh, I see," I said. "Well, so be it."

Nightwind's first destination was actually a quick stop by Cody Turner's place. He was mine for a smile - but I had my veil up so that wasn't really an obvious option. Nonetheless, I could smile with my eyes and that was enough. He gave me addresses for both Sloan and Edwards and I was quickly on my way. I started with Sloan, not only because Matt recommended it, but because I thought Edwards was the one who was working for Antares. Sloan's innocence was confirmed when I found him sleeping soundly in his small studio apartment. A quick and quiet check found his service weapon near his badge on his dresser. I didn't want to make any noise unloading it so I just moved it well out of his reach near the other end of the room. Then I moved back and tapped lightly on his pillow.

"Detective," I said softly, letting the purr rumble in my voice. "Detective Sloan."

The combination of my voice and the tapping near his head was enough to wake him, but not with a scrambling jerk. He shrugged, then stiffened, then opened his eyes to squint into the darkness. I raised my visor and said, "Detective, you should lock your door."

"I did," he said, blinking a bit in confusion.

"Well, it was open when I got here," I claimed. It was false, of course, but it provided both of us an excuse not to get into a snarling match.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Well, Detective, we have a dilemma," I said. "A friend of mine had an interesting conversation with the head of Antares tonight."

"Oh, damn," he said. Then after a pause asked, "Did anyone survive?"

"Of course," I said, sniffing like I was insulted. "Or at least, she was fine when . . . my friend left. You can ask about a hundred people who were at a quite upscale cocktail party."

"Oh," he said. After a moment he blinked his eyes again and sat up straighter. "So, why are you here?"

"She indicated that either you or your partner are feeding her information."

"What?" he said. "Did she say that?"

"Not directly," I admitted. "But she said something that she could only have learned from you or Edwards. That means one or the other of you told her."

"Well, it wasn't me," he said. "And I don't believe it was Edwards."

"I guess we'll have to see," I said. "You were asleep when I got here, so I'm guessing she didn't call you. If he's *not* asleep when I get there, perhaps he'll have a good excuse."

"Wait," he said. "You can't go after him."

"Watch me," I said, my purr roughening into a snarl. "Or better yet, don't. You won't want to be there when I . . . talk with him."

He frowned and was clearly trying to decide what to say next, but I had what I came for. I turned away and was almost to the door when I heard a sharp crack and - simultaneously - felt a tap on the back of my helmet.

I turned around to see Sloan holding a gun in one hand, and his abdomen with the other. Around his fingers black blood pulsed out.

"Damn," he groaned. "I always figured the stories about you being bulletproof were bullshit."

He must have been a pretty good shot. His bullet hit my helmet squarely enough to bounce directly back at him. From the look of his blood, he'd hit one of the arteries in his liver. That was not good.

"So, you're the one," I said softly.

"Yeah," he said. "Damn this hurts."

"Let me call an ambulance," I offered, moving to the phone.

"Don't bother," he sighed. "I'm history. By the time they get here, I'll be long gone."

He looked at me and sighed again, then grunted a little and put his gun - an extra that I should have checked for - down. "Look," he said, "you know Sinclair, right?"

I nodded, so he continued, "Here's the deal. I'll tell you want you want to know if you get Sinclair to look after my kid."

"You have a child?"

"Yeah, well, she's hardly a child any more, but she needs help. She got strung out on drugs. I think now that Anderson arranged it. But she - Anderson - came to me and offered to help my daughter if I'd help her with a little inside information on drug busts. She said Antares was in the drug-fighting business as well, and if we helped her with police methods and things she could learn enough to make her organization more effective."

He chuckled weakly, then winced. "That was true, actually, but the effectiveness was in smuggling drugs, not fighting them. By the time I found out what Antares was really about, I was in too deep."

"About your daughter?" I prompted.

"She's still recovering," he said. "I think she's clean - for about a year now - but she can't get a job and she's still depressed. My . . . situation won't make it any easier on her. Can you help her? Or get that rich kid to help her?"

"I'll try," I said.

He nodded, smiling a little and leaning his head back on his pillow. The dark blood was still coming out around his fingers, but not as strongly. "Okay, here's my end of the deal. Andrea Anderson is dirty. She ordered hits on at least four people that I know of, including the Sinclairs. I think there were more. She doesn't actually handle any drugs, but she arranges for permits or a blind eye from customs agents on her payroll. She tells her clients when raids are scheduled so that they can cover up. She's got a protection racket going with the drug wholesalers where those who don't pay her get busted for real, after which Antares gets the credit. I don't know who else is in on it with her, but I'm pretty sure she's the top. She's never said she had to consult with anyone before making a decision or any of that kind of stuff."

As he finished this revelation his voice was getting weaker. I upped the amplification on my audio sensors to hear what he had to say, but after he'd fooled me once, I wasn't going to trust him by getting any closer.

He didn't say anything for several seconds and I thought he might have been gone, but he took a shuddering breath and gasped out, "Amy Sloan, 6325 4th Street, Apartment 709. Remember!"

"I'll remember," I whispered, but there was only my own conscience to hear.


Chapter 14 - "How Good Are You, Really?"

Edwards was asleep when I called him. There was a grogginess that sounded real, and deeper than Sloan's sleepiness, at least in contrast. I think Anderson had called Sloan and he had prepared his backup weapon for an ambush, then fallen back to sleep - though perhaps not deeply. Edwards, on the other hand, took almost a minute to wake up enough to realize who I was.

"What the hell are you calling me for?" he growled. Well, I always thought he was a jerk.

"Sloan is dead," I said bluntly.

"You killed him!" he said. He was definitely awake now.

"No, I didn't," I said. "He shot at me and got hit by a ricochet. It was his own gun, with only his own prints on it, and he'll have GSR on his hand."

"Where were you?"

"In his apartment. I let myself in."

"Breaking and entering on a cop? You're insane."

"Perhaps, but that's not the issue tonight," I said. "Sloan was . . . involved with Andrea Anderson and Antares. He was on the take, and had been for at least a year."

"What? I don't believe it."

"You better. He did it to help his daughter who had gotten hooked on drugs. He told me he thought that Anderson had arranged that, but by the time he found out she had too much on him."

"Why would Anderson do that? Are you still claiming that Antares is really a drug dealer, not anti-drug?"

"Yes," I said. "Sloan confirmed it. He also said that he knew for a fact that she had ordered the hits on at least four people."

"Convenient that he's dead and can't confirm that to anyone else, isn't it?" he snarled.

"Not for me," I sighed. "Look, I'm telling you so that you can . . . go take care of him. Do what you want. He was your partner."

He paused for a moment, then there was grudging acceptance in his tone. "Yeah, okay. But if I get there and find out you're the one who killed him . . ."

"Yeah, right," I said. "You know I've never used a gun in any of my encounters. But believe what you want. If you're honest you'll be guided by the evidence. I can live with that."

I broke the connection and headed for home. By the time I got there and debriefed the others, it was another late night for Nightwind. Cheyenne helped me undress and we went to sleep together. The next morning we were both awakened by Aunt Kate pounding on my bedroom door.

"Get up and dressed. Detective Edwards is here."

I shrugged and moved to the bathroom. The time I might have spent shaving was taken gluing on my white eyebrows. In about ten minutes I was in sweats and walking into my sitting room, which was already occupied by Detective Edwards, Matt, and Aunt Kate. I took it as a good sign that the detective wasn't accompanied by uniformed cops just waiting to arrest me.

I yawned somewhat ostentatiously, then asked, "What can I do for you, Detective?"

"I believe you can get a message to the vigilante known as Nightwind," he said.

"Not directly," I said. "And I don't think she considers herself to be a vigilante."

"Whatever," he said. So much for any hopes that he was coming around to trust Nightwind. "Tell her that her information was correct. We found Sloan, and in his records we found the payoffs. They aren't traceable, but his notes had some references to Antares that make me inclined to believe the rest of her story. It's not hard enough evidence to use in court, but he was getting extra money from somewhere, and he was shot with his own gun, and the GSR was on his hand."

I nodded. "Is there anything else?"

"Yes," he said, standing and moving over to get in my face. Since he was at least six inches taller than me (without my heels), and probably fifty pounds heavier, I'm sure he thought that would intimidate me. A few years ago before I had started training with Matt - and made a few other changes in my life - he might have been right. Instead I just looked him directly in the eye and waited.

"Don't go after Anderson and Antares. I know you're involved with Nightwind. I know you all are. Don't any of you go near Anderson. If she's dirty, we'll get her. Tell that costumed clown the same thing."

"Like you got the people who killed my parents?" I asked. "Like you got the people who killed the other inventors?"

I bumped him roughly - but apparently accidentally - with my shoulder as I walked over to take a seat. Looking up at him with relaxed nonchalance, I said. "I'll try to get your message delivered. I can't promise that she'll comply."

"Yeah, you do that," he snarled. He moved toward the door and it was only because Aunt Kate was already standing and close that he didn't let himself out.

"Nice guy," Matt growled.

"He's just all caught up in the nobility of being a sworn office of the law," I said, sighing. "And I suppose he's upset that his partner was killed, and that he was on the take. He might calm down later."

"He might," Matt said grudgingly, but I don't think he really believed it. Well, I didn't either. It was pretty clear that Nightwind was not going to be getting any official help.

"So, what do we do now?" I asked Matt.

"I don't know," he admitted. "From what you said, Anderson has already arranged a competent - well, somewhat competent - replacement troubleshooter. I've had some friends look into Antares - discreetly so it won't get back to you - and their security is pretty good. Anderson lives in a high-rise that has full-time guards and lots of electronic security. She travels with an escort. I'm not sure how we get to her without going at her hard - and I don't think we can do that without getting innocents hurt.

"That's not an option," I said bluntly. "I can accept collateral damage from bad guy weapons if the alternative is just to run and hide, but I won't - we won't - deliberately put bystanders at risk."

"Just waiting favors her, though," Matt pointed out. "She can sit back in her web, pulling strings to have minions attack us for as long as she wants. Even if we continue to beat them - and without getting hurt ourselves - it doesn't really hurt her."

"You're right, of course," I said. "Somehow we have to figure out a way to take the fight to her."

I stood up and started pacing around the room, touching things again. Somehow, touching things grounded me in the real world. In this case, we were in our sitting room rather than my workshop. That room was set up as much as a mini-library as a parlor, and the things I was touching were books, a globe, some mementos of places my parents had visited.

One of the books I happened to touch was The Count of Monte Cristo. My fingers paused on that one. After a moment, I looked up sharply and said, "I think Jamie Platinum needs to go on another date."

"What?" Matt said. He frowned and looked at me like I'd grown a second head. In an ironic way, that was the problem. I had three heads now, and deciding which one should be in charge could get complicated.

"Here's the plan . . ," I began.

******************

The next day, a bit after noon, Cody Turner's doorbell rang. He activated the spycam he had placed by the door . . . and nearly fell out of his chair. An absolutely gorgeous woman - so blonde her hair looked white - was standing outside his door. She had an amused little smile that implied some secret knowledge. It made her mysterious and captivating, and . . .

She reached out and rang the bell again, startling Cody out of his daze. He jumped up - plopped back down to untangle himself - then jumped up again and ran to the door just as she was reaching for the bell a third time.

"Hello?" he said, his voice catching so that he sounded like a cricket.

"Hello," the woman said. She wasn't blonde. Her hair was pure white, like the soft snow made of really large, sparkling flakes in the Uma Thurman / Lucy Liu scene from Kill Bill I. "A mutual friend said you might be able to help me."

******************

Cody was kind of sweet, actually. His poor, no-good-at-poker face showed every thought. At first he was clearly trying to keep from saying anything stupid, and deathly afraid he would anyway. Then his mind was flashing with fantasies at what sort of help I might need - and, since he was a pretty good hacker at what price he might be able to get for his help. And then it wandered off into confusion at the thought that we might have a mutual friend.

And then, so brightly I expected to see it cast shadows, you could see the lightbulb going off over his head when he realized who that mutual friend might be.

"Aren't you going to ask me in?" I asked with a smile.

"What, oh, um, sure. Please," he stammered, stepping back.

I let him see me study his face for a moment, then said, "It looks like you might have guessed who our mutual friend is."

He twitched, but then he nodded slowly. He didn't say anything though, for which I gave him a brownie point of two. At least he wasn't one to blurt out secrets.

It wasn't all that much of a deduction. Since I was pretty much a known target for the bad guys, I wore my armor any time I left the house. I had a dynafiber balaclava in the purse slung over my shoulder and my real helmet with all the sensors in my car. In this case, my armor suit was concealed by shapely designer jeans, a soft angora sweater, and my fitted leather jacket. All that showed of Nightwind were the fairly-generic tips of my boots, the turtleneck at my throat (with the veil turned under), and my gloves. My makeup was Jamie Platinum-daytime rather than Nightwind-dramatic, and for the first time he could see my lips, but I didn't try to fool myself with the thought that anyone who had seen Nightwind with her visor up would be unable to link her to Jamie Platinum.

"What, um, what can I do for you?"

I looked around his computer rig, searching for a seat other than his working chair. In the end, I just found a bit of tabletop space and rested one hip on it. I looked at him for a moment, trying to confirm in my own mind that this would be the right path. I didn't really want to involve him any more than I already had. But I needed some leverage, and I couldn't see any other way to get it.

"Sit down, Cody, and let me tell you a story," I suggested. He moved to his own chair and sat, looking expectantly at me.

"You remember when Ah . . . Nightwind asked you to follow back a Pay-Pal account, and it ended up at Antares?" I began. He nodded, so I continued. "Since then, I've found out that the head of Antares, Andrea Anderson, is a major criminal, responsible for ordering multiple murders, for enabling drug trafficking, and for bribing police and customs officials. She's tied into several drug dealers, and may be setting herself up to control them all."

At these claims, his eyes widened, but he still didn't say anything. I was beginning to like this guy more and more.

"I want to stop her," I said. "And I need your help."

"My help?" he repeated, but this time it wasn't the confused reflex of a parrot-like repetition. This time it was a leading question, one where he had a pretty good idea of the answer already.

Even though I had made a point of sitting down to start my story, I had to stand up and pace a bit now that I was getting to the hard part. My gloved fingers started to touch the things in his computer setup, but I snatched my hand back when I realized that he might be as touchy about his cyber life as I was about my multiple lives.

"I don't have enough evidence to get her convicted of anything, even though I have enough to make me morally certain she's a criminal. Two of those who told m . . .um, Nightwind so are dead. Much of what they told her about Anderson is unverified as yet, but I believe they were telling the truth as they knew it."

"Did you, I mean, did Nightwind kill them?"

"One of them," I admitted. "In both cases they attacked her. One man shot at her, from behind and without warning, but was killed by a ricochet. The other . . . well, he attacked first, too. But Nightwind finished the fight."

I shuddered, and it wasn't an act. I didn't want to kill anyone else. I didn't even want anyone else to die as a result of attacking me. But I was going to get those who killed my parents - regardless of the cost.

I looked at Cody and sighed. "There have been three deadly attacks on Nightwind, or on her friends. The fact only the attackers died - some of them - doesn't mean future attackers won't succeed and they're certainly willing to kill. If you help me, you'll be in danger, too. The first question is: How good are you, really? Are you good enough that you can do some computer wizardry for me and *not* have anything lead back to you? If you're not - and this is no time to brag if you can't back it up - then I don't want you involved. It will be too dangerous."

It was interesting to watch Cody absorb that question. When he first saw me - as Nightwind - he was shy and almost cartoonishly inept. He went through that again when he saw me as Jamie Platinum. But now, when we moved into his world where he was a true expert, that technical expertise led to a confidence of personality that was quite impressive without being arrogant. He *was* that good, and he knew it as simple fact. I was convinced he would be okay before he even started to talk.

"Yes, I'm that good," he promised. "There are a few of us who are good enough to take on a major crime lord - or lady, or perhaps 'bitch' is more appropriate. I know all the ones who are and it would take one of those to catch me. They're my friends and I totally don't think any are as evil as you make this woman out to be. Even if, somehow, they ended up working for her, I'd know that they were after me. If you give me some way to contact you and call for help in that event, we can make this work."

"Okay," I continued, "second question: Are you famous enough that if she goes looking for a hacker who is helping me - it will be obvious that someone is involved - that she will get to you? I believe that they won't be able to backtrack you based on what you do for me, but can they track you down based on the fact it must be a good hacker and your name comes up?"

This caused him to think a while longer. He didn't answer immediately, in fact. Instead he activated one of his computers and spent a few minutes searching for something. As Jamie Sinclair I was a pretty fair hand with a computer myself - though it was more as a utility tool than as a . . . lifestyle. A sign of my own expertise was that I could type almost as fast as I could talk, and a lot faster than I could write longhand. But Cody put me to shame. He typed in short little bursts as he sent out a command then waited for the response, but each burst was zipped out so quickly it sounded like one buzzy keystroke.

After a few minutes, he turned back to me and nodded. "Okay, here's the deal. Antares is headquartered in New York, of course. They get most of their funding from the UN. Andrea Anderson has several homes, but they're mostly in New England. There are a couple of guys at my level who operate in New England, and I can route my signals so that Antares would at least have to check them out before they get to me. Depending on what you want done, I should be okay, and more importantly, I will certainly have enough warning to do something if they do get on my trail."

I nodded, leaning a hip once again against the table in his work area. "Okay. I believe you, but I want you to know that your safety is more important than completing this for me. I'll find some other way to get at her if I need to. Okay?"

He nodded, very solemn now but also starting to quiver with suppressed curiosity. So I laid out the plan for him.

In The Count of Monte Cristo, when Edmund Dantes becomes rich beyond counting he uses his wealth to bankrupt his nemesis, Fernand Mondego. My plan was to use my resources, which now included Cody Turner and my other friends as well as a lot of money, to foil Andrea Anderson's plans. I wanted to ruin her as a crime 'bitch', and do so in a way that she had to come out of her fortress if she were going to repair the damage to her empire.

In part, I was relying on the fact that she was - per her online data, anyway - 42 years old. That was young enough to be thoroughly engaged in cyber space. But it was not so young that she lived entirely in the virtual world. I expected that she would still want face-to-face contact with her network when things started going wrong. Yet she couldn't have an array of known drug traffickers parading through her fortress locations so she'd have to go to them, and then I'd be waiting.

With Cody's help, we were going to see that e-mails went astray, or were changed to promise safe passage that actually led to the authorities. I wanted to interrupt the protection payments to her, and her bribes to key officials. I wanted to . . . let Cody be creative.

I nearly had to let myself out of Cody's house. He was quickly so intent on his creative firestorm that I think he forgot I was there. As I stood to leave, he twitched and looked at me. Then he worked his way out of his keyboards and walked me to the exit.

"You think of something really nice you want," I said. "When we're done, I'll see that you get it."

"Oh, that's okay. I'm happy to do it for you."

"Thank you, Cody, that's sweet," I said. "But even Nightwind gave you a kiss. I'm sure we can do something better than that."

His eyes lit up again with new fantasies. I shook my finger at him with a silent 'naughty, naughty' on my lips, but I grinned and so did he. I had a feeling that money wasn't all that important to him, but I also felt that he was a nice enough guy that his request would be reasonable. After all, I'd already been on two dates with a guy. I could survive another.

As I drove back to Fortress Sinclair, I was thinking about what I had just done - or more importantly, how I had done it. As Jamie Sinclair I could have approached Cody with a straight- up business proposition. He might have taken it for the challenge alone, but if not I could have bid high enough to make it worth his while anyway.

I hadn't even considered that. From the moment I started laying out this strategy, my plan was for Jamie Platinum to be the one to ask Cody for help. I knew it was playing to his willingness to please a beautiful woman - using his male libido against him, in effect. Was that because my own male libido had been crushed? Was I becoming bitter and manipulative - becoming as evil as the people I was after?

I had followed a rational path to get to where I was. I needed an ability to be treated as an adult, and with my undeveloped body it was easier to make that happen if I looked like a woman than as a man/boy. But I could have made Nightwind male. I could have worked out other shapes to store my battery cells, and I knew it. Yet from the first time I presented as a woman, there wasn't really any doubt that I would shape my armor to maintain my feminine appearance.

It was a big factor that as either Jamie Platinum or Nightwind I was beautiful. That's vain, but it would be hypocritical to deny it. I liked being pretty. I liked the way people's eyes lit up at the sight of an attractive woman, and knowing it was directed at me. I liked the power that came from the way people - including Cody - would go out of their way to help a pretty girl. It was manipulative. Was it also evil?

Or . . . since the limitation on my masculine development was the result of a trauma that no one should have to go through . . . was I just making the best of a bad situation? Was it okay to turn my lemons into lemonade, my scrawny, neutered male body into a vivacious, curvy woman?

Was it okay to enjoy it so much?

****************

I figured that air travel as Jamie Webster wouldn't be too difficult. My armor was not metallic. It wouldn't show on a nudie-cam, and wouldn't set off metal detectors or chemical sniffers. I could even take my helmet as carry-on baggage since it looked like a slightly technoid version of a motorcycle helmet.

If the nudie-cam at airport security revealed anything unusual where I was tucked away, no alarms were raised. I was still disgusted. Benjamin Franklin was right; we'd given up liberty for safety, and now deserved neither. Americans shouldn't be treated that way. It was all a power trip to show that the mighty federal bureaucracy was doing something - even if it weren't particularly effective.

So I was in a sour mood when I got to New York. I checked into a mid-range hotel and took an afternoon nap. Nightwind was going to be out late. Cody had found a few points of attack, and it was time to start being an annoyance to a certain spider in her web.

Well, more of an annoyance.

Moving in a really large, high-population density city after dark is not as easy as it looks in all the comic books. I could travel the rooftops, and do it pretty quickly with Parkour moves . . . most of the time. But every now and then there'd be a street too wide to jump. Then I'd have to make my way across without being seen, and return to the rooftop level for another run. I was about to abandon the effort for that night - no matter how much it disrupted my plans - when I hit a long stretch where I could make good time and got back on schedule.

Entering a bonded warehouse was a lot easier than it should have been. Once I was inside most of the space was dark and I could move with little risk of detection. If there had been motion sensors active it would have been a lot harder, but that was sort of the point.

"Good evening, Mr. Everman," I said from the shadows, my throaty voice a rolling purr.

"What? Who's there?"

The man whom I knew to be Everman was a Customs inspector. He was 'inspecting' crates after hours. That wasn't unusual if there were a backlog. What was unusual was to do it alone. For obvious reasons the normal procedure was for two-man teams. But Everman was senior enough that no one was going to accuse him of doing what he was actually doing: Putting acceptance stickers on containers that had not, in fact, been inspected properly. He would then move them to the other side of a very distinct line on the warehouse floor so that the consignees could take delivery.

"You have three choices," I said from the darkness. "In about 10 minutes, DEA agents are going to come boiling through that door based on an anonymous tip of drug smuggling. The packages they're going to look for are the very ones you're working on. What a coincidence!"

"So here are your choices," I continued. "One, you can just continue with what you're doing and have them ask some very uncomfortable questions on how those crates got your approval when they find the drugs in them. Second, you can go pull off your stickers and move them back to the uninspected side of the line and just let DEA get the credit for a major drug bust."

I stepped from the shadows and let the purr resonate through my voice-distorter. "Or you can choose Option 3. You can pull your stickers off, and - heroically - find the drugs yourself! That way you get the credit for doing such a good job. Isn't that an interesting option?"

"Who are you?" he asked again, his eyes captured by my black-caressed curves for a long moment before he raised his gaze enough to try to see my face through my visor and veil.

"Oh, I'm just the night wind flowing through your life on an evening of decision. So, which will it be? Going to jail for . . . . why, for doing what you were actually doing? Looking incompetent while DEA gets all the credit? Or . . . being a hero?"

"I can't . . . she'll . . . I mean . . ."

"Oh, don't worry about Andrea," I suggested.

"You know . . . I mean . . . who?"

I let my purr rasp in a rough laugh that didn't have much humor in it. "*Ms.* Anderson and I are old friends . . . or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we are old acquaintances. I offered her a business proposition and she decided not to take my offer."

I tapped a wrist that didn't actually have a watch on it. "Time's marching on, Mr. Everman. If you don't hurry, the choice will be taken from you."

He jerked and then looked at the crates. There was a moment of agonizing indecision, then he started quickly moving the crates off the hand-truck and back into the uninspected area. His inspection stickers were removed and - along with the top sheet on his clipboard - quickly wadded up and thrown away.

I watched his frantic movement from again in the shadows. When the DEA showed up - Cody had actually been the one to alert them via e-mail, complete with shipping numbers of the relevant containers sent to the personal accounts of half a dozen agents - I watched for long enough to see how it would play out and then vanished back into the night.

My next stop was to the private residence of the drug kingpin for whom that shipment had been intended. He was 'old school' and depended more on human guards than electronic systems. That was okay with me. My hysterical strength was easy to tap into after a moment's contemplation of my purpose in life and it let me leap to a roof that they were sure was unreachable. From there I eeled my way in through an attic vent - laughing to myself at the obstacles my 'battery storage' shapes provided - and from there cut away a part of the ceiling in his master bathroom. The guards out in the hallway were half dozing anyway and they wouldn't disturb the boss's sleep just because they might have heard a sound in his own bathroom in the middle of the night.

I didn't bother to drug him and tape him to the bed. I just put my hand over his mouth and squeezed. He woke in a hurry of course, but I had myself set and he wasn't going to overcome my strength from flat on his back.

"Shh, Mr. Renaldo," I whispered. "You don't want to fight me. I have some information you're going to want."

I moved my hand just enough that he could talk, but I could have it back before he could draw the breath for a good yell and he knew it.

"Who are you?" he grunted.

"I'm just the night wind," I said. "I have a warning for you. Andrea Anderson is losing her grip on her employees. One of the customs officials on her payroll just rolled over to the DEA and gave up your drug shipment. You'll want to make sure your cutouts are . . . cut out so the trail doesn't lead to you."

"Why are you telling me this?" he asked, relaxing a little - not that I moved my hand away.

"Let's just say that Andrea and I are competitors," I offered, tightening the purr in my voice to make it sound like a soft snarl of warning. "It's not good business to be associated with her. Not any more, anyway. You can tell her I said so."

"Who *are* you?" he asked again.

"Just the night wind, blowing through the lives of the just and the unjust," I said. "Now, here's the deal. I'm going to leave. If you call for your guys, there will be a fight and you will lose. You, personally, will lose not only a few bones and the odd bit of skin, but also some fine furniture. If your goons start shooting, it will get a lot worse. If you do nothing for, say, two minutes, then all you're out is a little sheetrock."

"Sheetrock?" he repeated in confusion.

But the moment he had *not* shouted when I moved my hand away, I had headed out. I was back into the attic and then on the roof well within the two minutes I had demanded. I hardly needed any extra strength for a drop-and-roll landing back on the other side of his estate's wall.

Step three was mostly Cody's doing, once I told him it was time. Part of Andrea Anderson's engagement with cyberspace was to use voice-over-internet-protocol for her house phones. Of course, she had cell phones as well, but that was a slightly different problem. Cody could make her VOIP phones do whatever he wanted - including faking her voice. Unfortunately, he couldn't do that real time, but he was able to shunt her phone to his own voice recorder. That meant Renaldo's anger only had the unsatisfying outlet of an uncaring answering machine. He next tried her cell phone, but for some reason her cell phone wasn't working. In fact, none of the cell phones in or around her house were working. Must have been a problem with the local tower.

So it wasn't until the next morning as she watched a TV report on a major drug bust that Anderson became aware of the divergence between her plans and reality. Poor Renaldo didn't even get the satisfaction of speaking with her. She wouldn't leave her castle and none of the phones worked there.

At least, that's what Cody reported to me after I had a refreshing nap and a leisurely brunch. My return trip to stately Sinclair manor took another insulting trip through airport security and I resolved to find a better answer for that too, but I was still in a bit better mood when I returned home than when I got to New York.



Chapter 15 - "Something Wicked This Way Comes"

I was a bit pumped up after my mission to the spider-woman's lair - or at least her hunting grounds. It had gone well and I'm sure I was babbling a bit through a family dinner with Aunt Kate and the Dylans. Afterward we all moved to the TV room to watch some comedy thing that Aunt Kate liked. In the middle of a show that no one was watching, a cell phone rang. We did the silly look-at-each-other thing for a moment before I realized that it was the cell phone I had arranged for Jamie Platinum.

I dug it out of her purse and looked at the caller ID. It was Cody Turner, and I was instantly worried that he might have information about an attack on him and was calling for help. It turned out there was an attack, but he wasn't the target.

"This is Jamie Webster," I said cautiously.

"Jamie, they're going after some guy named Sinclair!" he said.

"What, who?"

"Some guy named Baker called from Anderson's townhouse on Central Park West. I was monitoring her calls. He told a guy named Stuart - don't know if that's a first or last name - to get a crew together. Baker said that they might not know how to get to Nightwind directly, but they did know how to get to someone named Sinclair, and he was in the thing with you - or with Nightwind - whatever! They're going to attack Sinclair. Maybe even tonight! Do you know anyone named Sinclair?"

"Okay, take it easy and tell me a few more things," I said, not answering his question. Depending on how deeply he had penetrated the local police files, he might know of the connection they suspected between my two Jamie personas but I wasn't going to worry about that particular issue right then. "When did you intercept that call?"

"About five minutes ago," he reported.

"And they were in New York - both ends of the call?"

When he confirmed, I said, "Okay. It will take them at least three hours to get here. We'll see what we can do. Now, Cody, did you get any sense at all that they knew about you?"

He reassured me that it was just me - or just Sinclair - that they planned to attack. It might have been another kidnap attempt, but it also might have been retribution for Nightwind's activities so we had to assume they were prepared to come after us hard. The first step of that - over their objections - was to get both Aunt Kate and Cheyenne out of the house. Matt arranged for some bodyguards from his security detail to cover them, leaving the two of us and a few more guards to face whatever was coming.

Then I slapped myself in the forehead and said, "Wait, we can get more help."

I called Detective Edwards and this time he was apparently awake. "Detective Edwards, this is Jamie Sinclair. I've just received a phone call that informed me Andrea Anderson is planning to attack me. Probably tonight."

"What? From whom?"

"From an informant," I said. "I'm not at liberty to say who."

"Was it from that Nightwind vigilante?" he demanded.

"I'm not at liberty to say," I repeated.

"I don't trust her," he said.

"I know that, Detective. But I do. And if we are attacked tonight - after you've been warned - and you didn't take any action . . . well, I may not like to go out in public since my experience, but I will if I have to. And I'll arrange that this story is the lead on every news program in three states."

I deliberately let my voice rise a little, as though I were on the edge of panic. "Detective, please. I'm about to be attacked. I can't be sure that Nightwind is even in the area to help - she . . . I mean, my source may have been calling from somewhere out of town. I need help!"

For once, being perceived as an underdeveloped kid was helpful. He heard the worry in my voice and decided to humor me, if nothing else. "I'll take care of it," he promised.

And so, we watched the second battle of Sinclair Manor from our security cameras. Three unmarked cars and a Step-van pulled up within an hour. Three hours later, two SUVs came rushing down the street and the lead one crashed into our gate. It was a lot stouter gate than it looked, and though they managed to bend it a bit, they didn't get their truck past the steel poles that rose from the ground when we were in security mode. They weren't able to get the second truck stopped when the first one didn't penetrate the gate, so that one piled into the back of the first. By the time they got themselves sorted out, a nice array of police including a SWAT unit was waiting.

Once the scene was secure, Matt and I walked out to talk to Detective Edwards. I was in Jamie Sinclair mode of course. Matt was in a fairly military-looking outfit of black BDUs and a harness with a pistol. One of his security team carried an AR, but they never stepped off my property. None of the attackers was Baker - whom I expected to have a cast on his wrist anyway. We'd find out later whether one of them was the 'Stuart' from the call, even if it meant Cody had to hack the police report.

"Thank you, Detective," I said with genuine respect. "You and your team did a good job."

He nodded, then frowned. A moment later, he sighed but said, "Tell your anonymous friend that her tip was right. I still don't like vigilantes, but if she gets more information like this I'll try to follow up on it."

"Thank you, Detective," I said again, adding a bit of formality to my tone. "If I should happen to talk to her, I'll let her know."

That little incident didn't diminish my exuberance at the way the night had gone. If anything it raised it higher. I'd done my taunting mission to Anderson's home turf, and her counterattack had failed to do more than bend a metal gate, and at the cost of another hit team. We arranged for Aunt Kate and Cheyenne to return, but I wasn't really ready to go to sleep when they arrived. It wasn't really that late, especially for Nightwind.

Still, Aunt Kate - and therefore Matt - were ready to go to bed and Cheyenne followed me to my room as naturally as if it were her own. We did our nighttime drill including a cleanser and moisturizer routine that Cheyenne had insisted Jamie Platinum perform religiously. When we got to bed I gave Cheyenne a tender kiss, which she returned with delicate sweetness. I was still riding a high and though I had agreed a bit more intimacy would not be an obligation or a routine thing, I let one hand move down for a gentle caress while we kissed. Instead of pulling back, Jamie let her own hand copy what mine was doing.

"Oh my god!" I gasped.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing," I said, still catching my breath. "But when you touched me . . . it was . . . ohmigod, I don't know how to describe it!"

"But . . ," she said, then she gasped herself. "Oh, I just remembered. The last time we did more than kiss, you were wearing your body shaper."

"Oh, yeah," I remembered. "My, um, chest is pretty sensitive, even though, um, they never really got very big. Anyway, I usually wear something to keep from rubbing. I guess in tonight's excitement, I forgot. That's the first time that you've really touched . . . me."

"So," she said, grinning and kissing me, "did you like it?"

"Oh yeah," I said, kissing her as well. Her hands drifted down to my waist and raised my nightshirt over my head. Before I got my hands all the way out of it she was kissing me, and letting her fingers send a complementary message on my exposed buds. That started a silly little rush between us where I was trying to get the shirt off my arms and kiss her and let one leg slide up her leg so that we could share the smoothness and then I had my shirt off and was trying to work her nightgown over her head and . . .

It was fun to play at a competition between us, but it was more than silly tickling games. Each time she caressed one of my buds it seemed like the nerves in my body were ignited clear down to my toenails. Then, when I was helplessly gasping after a shockingly tight pinch that nonetheless felt wonderful, she rolled me on my back and straddled my waist. I let her capture my wrists in her hands as she leaned down to kiss me again. Then, still holding my wrists, she slid down so that her talented, soft, moist lips were exploring areas that had never felt that sort of magic before.

I let her have her wicked way with me for a time I didn't even care to measure, but then I had to contribute as well as consume. I freed my wrists and pulled her around so that I could reach an amazingly moist treasure with one hand while tweaking her own proud advertisements with the other. That didn't stop her from her own amusements, but we weren't interested in stopping each other anyway.

Though at some later point it seemed that she lost interest . . .

I wasn't sure why. I was just very - very, very - aware that her lips and tongue and even sometimes naughty teeth had quit tormenting my swollen buds. I managed to get my eyes open and was about to ask her what was wrong when I realized that in addition to stopping what she was doing to me, she had stopped breathing. She was in shudder mode, apparently frozen yet vibrating with a tiny, rapid motion that didn't have time for trivial things like breathing. I was very happy to hold her in that state with my own fingers for as long as she wanted to stay there, and in fact I was particularly pleased that I had managed to interrupt her before she reached the point where she was too tired to continue her attentions to my own . . . opportunities. I was concerned that if she had to quit she might feel like she had not done enough for me. In one sense, she couldn't 'do enough for me,' but it was because my body made that impossible. In another, there was no chance that I would be unsatisfied. So I was very happy to have helped her find a pleasure that I couldn't even need.

When she finally breathed again, she collapsed against me, barely moving except for huge, desperate gulps of air. As soon as she started to stir, I used my hands to urge her up to lie beside me, her head on my shoulder and my arms around her. I pulled up the covers so that we didn't need to worry about our discarded tops, and in a few minutes she was asleep. I wasn't that spent, and in all honesty I had been enjoying what she was doing to my nubbins so much that I would have let her continue for even longer. But it was just because it felt good. It was like being massaged with a fur glove; sensual, but not sexual. That sort of sexual response was still not part of my life - might never be again. Still, it was a very beautiful conclusion to a very successful day to learn that even short of sexual explosion, my body could still give me sensual pleasure.

At our more-or-less standard brunch meeting the next morning I didn't even try to hide my smug expression. Cheyenne had a dissipated look that was even more revealing. Aunt Kate looked like she was going to say something, then she blushed and looked at Matt. That pretty much took away any justification for her to say anything about Cheyenne and me, so she smiled wryly at me and just put a few more eggs on my plate.

"Thank you," I said blandly. Actually, I wasn't all that hungry. I'd spent enough time in my body shaper that my waist was getting smaller and it just didn't take much to feel like I had stuffed myself. And I wasn't particularly interested in feeling stuffed, especially if I'd have to squirm into my torso unit again to go out as Jamie Platinum or Nightwind.

While we ate, I asked, "Matt, you have a lot of contacts. Do you know someone with the sort of connections that could get a story in the news?"

"I'm not sure what you mean," he said.

"Anderson's power base is Antares. Those non-profit organizations that try to influence international policy live or die by their funding, which is driven by their influence on governments, and that is typically driven by their reputations. I was wondering if we could get someone to put out the word on what Antares is really up to. That might dry up their funding and that would *really* hurt Anderson."

Matt frowned for a while, but he finally shook his head. "I guess I don't move in those circles. Besides, the mainstream media all think 'non-profits' are sainted, noble servants of the public interest. They'd be more likely to squash a story like that then spread it."

I nodded at the logic of his perception, but I still wanted to find some leverage there.

Cheyenne provided a possibility. "Maybe you don't need to go through an old media channel. How about finding a blogger who has a fairly wide audience?"

"Like Matt Drudge?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "But there are others."

"Your father's point may still apply," I said. "The sort of people who fund Antares are not likely to read an anti-foundations website."

"A lot of people who hate him still read Matt Drudge," she countered. "And there are some who aren't too ideological - less so than the mainstream media for sure. Let me look into it."

I nodded, then Aunt Kate had a suggestion. "If you want to go after her funding, maybe your friend Cody Turner could help. In the movies, hackers can do just about whatever they want with people's bank accounts and credit cards."

"Great idea, Aunt Kate. I'll talk to him," I said.

I stood up, anxious to start a new round of attacks on Antares but Matt held up his hand.

"Jamie, I don't think you should go off alone again."

"Why not?" I said. "I wear my armor. I may look like an ordinary girl, but even when I'm Jamie Platinum I'm still protected."

"Not well enough. Let me ask you this. If you were going against someone with Nightwind's abilities, could you beat her?"

"Well, yeah," I said. "But that's because I know her weaknesses."

"It's always a bad idea to assume your adversary isn't at least as smart as you are. Nightwind has had half a dozen specific encounters already. If I were Antares, I'd have a team analyzing what you've done and figuring out countermeasures."

"So what do we do? I won't give up," I said firmly.

"I don't want you to give up," he said. "I just want you to take full advantage of your abilities."

When my response was a frown of confusion, he continued. "Nightwind is part of a team. She's the head of the team, both as leader and as prime warrior, but she's still part of a team. You need to take advantage of that. You didn't do that on your trip to New York."

I nodded slowly, but changed that to a shake of my head after only a moment. "I won't put you others at risk."

"Jamie," he said. "We *are* at risk. We've been at risk since Nightwind said Jamie Sinclair was under her protection. You made that linkage, and Anderson has already tried to exploit it three times."

He stood up and walked over by Aunt Kate. "We're in this with you, all the way. We'll only be able to go outside the house in safety after Andrea Anderson and Antares are destroyed." He squeezed Aunt Kate's shoulder in a protective, yet companionable gesture. "And we want it that way."

Aunt Kate patted Matt's hand on her shoulder and nodded. "Jamie, I know this is important to you. But what you have to realize is that getting your parents' murderers is important to *us*, too."

"All of us," Cheyenne said, rising to stand next to me. She put her arm around my waist and pulled our hips together. "We're a team. And the worst of all possible outcomes would be for something to happen to you because we weren't there to help."

I put my arm around her shoulder and turned her so that I could hug her. Even without the heels that my feminine personas wore, I was just enough taller than her that I could kiss the top of her head.

"Thank you. All of you," I said quietly. I didn't let Cheyenne go but I did turn her a bit so that we could both look at her father. "So, what does that mean?"

"What did you intend to do today?" he asked.

"I was going to change into Jamie Platinum and go visit Cody Turner."

"What about Nightwind?" he asked.

"I guess her next mission might be to visit whoever has the blog we want to use against Antares," I said. "I was thinking that a nighttime visit from Nightwind would be more . . . impressive than a phone call."

"Probably," Cheyenne said, snickering. "Especially if he's a guy, and not gay. That narrows my search just a little."

"It might," I said, grinning in agreement.

The good news was that since it was pretty much an open secret that Jamie Platinum was Nightwind - though Jamie Platinum was herself a mystery - I got to ride the superbike and even wear my sensor helmet. And I had on my armored long underwear so I could actually become Nightwind in only a moment or two. More importantly, I was as protected as Nightwind even when I was wearing jeans and a sweater. The weather had turned a bit cooler so I wore Jamie Sinclair's oversized leather jacket when I rode to Cody Turner's house and looked like any other curvy young woman leaning down with her bosom caressing the tank of an overpowered motorcycle.

The rest of the team was following me in the van. They were monitoring police frequencies and hanging back enough that they could see if someone tried to follow me. That included deliberately allowing me to get out of sight every now and then, then coordinating a rendezvous over the comm. system. A big part of our security-conscious approach was keeping Cody Turner's identity secret. The first time I visited him, Jamie Platinum was a mystery who had appeared at one dinner then disappeared. I didn't think anyone had been following her then. But by now we had to assume that she was as marked as Nightwind for attention and it wouldn't do to bring the forces of Antares down on his head. It was only after we were all very sure I wasn't being followed that I actually rode to Cody's place.

This time when I rang his doorbell, he came almost immediately.

"Hi, Cody," I said brightly. He blushed - as I would expect - but this time he got out of my way in invitation before I could tease him about it.

"How'd it go?" he asked. After all, it had mostly been his information that had guided my mission to New York so he had a natural curiosity.

"Just great," I said. "The customs guy - Everman - decided that he would like the credit so he 'found' the drugs just before the DEA showed up. And Nightwind got in and out of Renaldo's place without any trouble as well."

"Great," he repeated. "So, what's next?"

"I wondered if you could hack into Antares, or Anderson's accounts, and like, make all her money go away. Keep it if you want, but take it away from her."

Cody laughed, then sighed. "You've been watching too many TV shows. I have managed to trace a fair bit of her money - I have no real way of knowing how much she has or where she keeps it all if she hasn't checked on it since I've been following her actions online - but banks exist to keep people from stealing money. I couldn't really get to any of it."

"Hmm," I said. "That's too bad. I wanted her to think that we had stolen her money. For her, money is power and losing it will hit her where she hurts the most."

"Oh, I can do *that* for you," he claimed.

"What? I thought you just said that you couldn't get to her money."

"I can't," he said. "But I can make her *think* that I have. Especially if she's as gullible as you in believing what they show on TV."

"Ooh, I like the sound of that. Can you make her think she's broke?"

"Probably not," he said. "But I can hurt her. I can arrange a few automated calls that her balance has dropped below minimum standards for discounts, and . . . let's see . . . I can set it so her own computer shows zero balances in any account she checks."

"That sounds excellent," I said. "As far as I'm concerned if you can get to her money, then fine. There are several charities that I think could use a nice donation. But if all you do is make her *think* we've stolen it, I'm satisfied."

"Consider it done," he promised. "It will take me about . . . oh . . . most of a day to set it up. I think it would work best if it happens all at once. I'll let you know."

That took care of the first action of the day. On the way home, Matt turned out to be right (again) - thankfully when I was well away from Cody's. Of course I never rode in a straight line to or away from anyplace important, but I picked up a tail. I actually saw the trailing car before they recognized it in the van, and that gave me an idea.

I leaned into the bike a little and flitted through a few narrow openings, losing the tail before the van even got close enough to help me in any significant way. But the good news was that they did catch up enough to see the tail car. Then we reversed the order with the van tailing the intruder and me trailing the van - actually, I mostly paralleled it a street to two away, but when the trail car hit the freeway I managed to make the next entrance, now following where I could just see the van. Aunt Kate did a pretty good job of following the car, though it didn't look like the other driver was actually trying to get away.

Then we all had an electronically assisted laugh when the car pulled into a police station. Apparently Detective Edwards had some sort of watch out for me as well as for Nightwind. I suppose a woman with white hair riding an insanely high performance motorcycle wouldn't be that hard to identify.

Cheyenne had been working in the back of the van while we were having this little chase, and she had found the blogger she wanted us to use for our anti-Antares campaign. While we were waiting for darkness, I dramatized my makeup to Nightwind standards and arranged copies of the specific information we wanted to plant.

Carl Clark wanted to be Matt Drudge . . . or maybe Geraldo Rivera . . . or somebody cool, in any event. He sported a Drudge-like fedora, a Geraldo-like moustache, and a three-day stubble on the rest of his face. To his credit, he'd broken a couple of stories starting with exposes of faked images in news reports. When Snopes had gone partisan, he'd filled in behind them with truth reports that were becoming recognized as trustworthy and he'd reached the point where a lot of people, some of them quite influential, were visiting his "Truthteller" website on a near-daily basis.

I 'let' myself into his apartment and waited in a shadow until he had to step away from his workstation for a moment (to answer a totally coincidental doorbell - totally). While he was gone I carefully perched my curvy hip on his desk. I decided I'd start this interview with my visor raised because . . . well, because I thought my eyes were pretty and figured he would to.

Letting one of my better purrs saunter from my throat, I said, "Hello, Mr. Clark."

Apparently he'd stopped by his kitchen to pick up a cup of coffee. He'd need another, because that one splashed all over his floor. Thankfully he had a ratty old rug running down his hallway so that the mug didn't break.

"You might want to clean that up," I suggested. Then I smiled with my eyes and said, "Sorry."

"You're . . . you're . . .," he stammered.

"It's possible," I said. "Whom did you have in mind?"

"You're Nightwind," he said finally.

"Ah, *that's* who I am. I knew I was someone."

"Why are you here?"

"Why Carl - you don't mind if I call you Carl, do you?" I asked, letting the purr tell him things that I didn't have to say directly. "You may need to take a self-esteem pill or something. Do you think so little of yourself that you can't believe someone would want to visit you?"

"Well, yeah, but, I mean . . . you're not just some ordinary girl. You're a superhero - heroine."

"No girl likes to think she's ordinary, Carl. You should know that," I said, letting a little disappointment in my voice. Then I laughed and said, "And I'm hardly a superhero - or a superheroine. I'm just the night wind, blowing over the just and the unjust."

"Yeah, right," he said, finally regaining a bit of his composure. "I have a feeling that your visit tonight is not a random bit of breeze."

"No, you're right about that," I agreed.

I pulled a folder out of my backpack and laid it on his workstation. "In here you'll find a little story. Once upon a time there was a company called Antares . . ."

I told him some of what I had learned, primarily the parts that were facts, or verifiable. For example, it was a fact that Nelson Adams was listed as an employee of Antares, and that he had been killed in a fight where the survivors said I was a participant and they admitted to an attempt to kidnap Jamie Sinclair. It was a fact that Jeremy Hansen was seen in the company of Nelson Adams, and that he had been interviewed as a patent lawyer by Jason Sinclair about a new type of drug detector. Those were either public knowledge or verifiable with a few phone calls.

I told him that I had been present when Jeremy Hansen and Nelson Adams had confessed to working for Antares and in particular Adams mentioned Andrea Anderson. I also told him that Antares was not really an anti-drug organization. In fact, Adams had said that Andrea Anderson was an international drug trafficker. I told them that I had personally confirmed Antares involvement in drug smuggling, leading to a tip I provided to the DEA that led to a major drug bust. I also gave him the name of nine other anti-drug inventors who had died after approaching Hansen.

"But my evidence from Nelson Adams and Jeremy Hansen is hearsay. And the source who told me about the drug shipment in New York is not able to testify publicly. You'll need to decide what to do with this information. You can get sued for libel if you publish it - but you can also get the scoop of your career," I concluded, standing up and moving toward his door.

"Wait, you can't just leave this with me," Clark protested.

"Actually, I can," I said. "Of course, you can just throw that file away. That's up to you."

He picked up the file and started leafing through the pages. It was all true, though of course not all the facts were in there. I walked toward the front door and was wondering if I'd have to let myself out when Clark came running up behind me.

"Wait, how do I contact you?"

"You don't," I said easily. "If I decide we need to speak again, I'll find you."

"Wait, please," he said, "can I at least get a picture of us together? To make this more credible?"

I thought about that for a moment. Finally I shook my head. "No, I don't think so. If you decide to do something with this data, then you'll be a target for Andrea Anderson in any event. But you might be able to convince her you just received that file in the mail. If you have a picture with me, then they'll know it was not a one-sided communication and they'll think they can get leverage on me through you. But I won't give them that leverage. Think about that, too, before you go public with this file."

"You're not making this easy," he growled.

"Welcome to *my* world," I said. "No one told me it would be easy."



Chapter 16 - "Fashion Disaster"

The next day things started happening about mid-morning. Aunt Kate had a general rule against bringing work - which most especially included computers - to the kitchen table where we shared our meals. She didn't mind talking about things at our brunch strategy sessions, but going beyond conversation to any sort of documentation was discouraged. However, that day she didn't complain when Cheyenne brought in one of the laptops. Cheyenne went immediately to the "Truthteller" website and found that Carl Clark had apparently stayed up all night. He had done a lot of research, starting with the data I had provided, and managed to get a pretty comprehensive story on his site. Most of the verifiable information from my file was presented in his story, and he did as good a job as I could have wanted with innuendoes on the rest. Antares was looking pretty bad. He even managed to bring Andrea Anderson's name into the report as head of Antares and therefore responsible, either directly or through inadequate supervision of her employees.

"Oh, my," I said, after scanning his report and seeing another factor. "Even *I* was not *that* cruel."

"What?" Aunt Kate asked, not seeing what I had noticed.

"Read this," I suggested.

The website reported, "The troubling aspects of Antares operations suggested additional research. A review of published financial reports showed in several years that total expenses were significantly in excess of total donations to Antares. While there may be more than one explanation for this, I contacted a friend at the IRS and suggested there might be some irregularities. My contact at the IRS reviewed the data and concurred. Antares is now scheduled for an in-depth audit."

"The IRS?" Aunt Kate said. "Oh, good, they deserve it."

"Yes, they do," I agreed. "I'm just not nasty enough even to have thought of it. I should have, though."

"Well, Jamie," Matt said, "if that's the worst mistake you've made in this . . . adventure, you're doing pretty well."

"Oh, I've made plenty of mistakes," I countered. "But with your help, all of your help, we'll make it through. I actually think . . ," I said, then rapped my knuckles on my forehead, " . . knock on wood, that we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."

If so, then the next train whistle came in the form of an anonymous e-mail. It said only, "All appear empty. Good for 12-18 hours."

"What does that mean?" asked Aunt Kate.

"I'm pretty sure that's Cody Turner. It should mean that Andrea Anderson's accounts are showing zero balances. She should also have gotten a few computer-generated overdraft notices."

"Oh, she won't like that," Cheyenne said.

"I hope not," I agreed.

And then there wasn't really anything to do. All of my pieces were in play. The next move was up to Anderson. If she didn't do anything then I'd do another round of drug interceptions and see if I could foment discord among her allies, but I'd already done that once and I hated to have to repeat myself. That would just be asking to be predicted and intercepted - with unpleasant results. So I spent a few hours adding bells and whistles to my helmet, but it was mostly to keep my mind from spiraling into incoherence wondering which hour, which minute - and how - we'd see results.

My concern turned out to be unnecessary. The cyber attack - both open in the website and hidden in her accounts - started just after breakfast our time. In the mid-afternoon there was a buzz for admittance at our front gate.

"Yes?" Matt said.

"Hermes Courier Service, Package for a 'Nightwind,'" the speaker said.

"What sort of package?" Matt asked.

The courier was on a camera display and we saw him shrug. "Looks like a letter. It's got this address."

Before Matt could say anything further, I stepped to the speaker. "What are your instructions in the event that there is no Nightwind here?"

"It says that I can deliver it to anyone at this address," the courier replied.

I looked at Matt and shrugged. He did the same, then said, "Wait there."

He called one of his guards who went to the gate. To reduce their vulnerability, we didn't put any guards directly at the gate but there were always guards who could get to the gate in seconds. Matt didn't address this as an emergency so they approached the courier cautiously. Once the package had been signed for the guard called us from the gate, using the speaker and camera placed to observe visitors. He described the package as a letter in a plain manila envelope. The return address just said, "Antares."

Matt thought a moment then called the guard. "Put on a respirator and gloves, then open it."

The guard did as directed to find a single sheet of paper on the inside.

"It says, 'Ready to deal. Pick a time and place.'"

"Is that all?" Matt asked.

The guard nodded, but also said, "Yes. No signature. Nothing traceable as far as I can tell, though I suppose the FBI might be able to get something from it."

"That won't be necessary," I said. I looked at Matt with a question in my eyes, but he shrugged so I told the guard, "Bring it up, and thanks for being there for us."

"Just part of the job, ma'am," he said. Which caused me to blush because I was in Jamie Sinclair mode at the time. But then, my voice was one of the reasons that we had set up feminine personas for me in the first place and there wasn't a monitor for visitors to see our end of the conversation. The fact Jamie Platinum was sometimes around the house meant it was at least possible that I was in one of my feminine personas.

Not surprisingly the guard was correct. The invitation was likely to be as much of a trap a she could arrange, of course. But she was letting me set the time and place, so . . . nothing ventured, nothing gained.

We all took a ride - Jamie Platinum on the cycle and the rest in the van - back to Cody Turner's. He sent an equally terse message through some anonymous path to Andrea Anderson's e-mail. At least I signed mine, using an involved NW graphic that would do for a signature if I ever needed one.

I had thought of the irony of sending her to the same warehouse dead end where I had met Nelson Adams, but I decided I didn't want her to have the option of sneaking reinforcements to the meeting place. So we picked a place that was wide open and a few hours outside of town. I allowed her enough time to fly down, but not enough - I hoped - to amass a hit team once she got here. Cody was still playing with her phones and I didn't think she'd trust them to arrange a criminal conspiracy. If she had to meet with an attack team in person after she arrived, we hoped it would be too hard for her to work something out.

Not that I was taking any chances. I was in full Nightwind mode when I stopped the bike in the middle of the parking lot at an unused racetrack. The van was 400 yards away in a garage that we rented for a few hours at an outrageous price (though it also paid for the residents to leave for a few hours), and it was one of only two buildings within even that range. The area was dark, of course. With my sensors I had a pretty good view of the surroundings - there was enough light for good low-light TV and I could go to infra-red if I needed to. The van had equivalent sensors, backed up by a lot more magnification power.

At about the appointed time a car rolled into the lot. I flicked through the range of images I could receive and saw that - surprisingly - Andrea was alone. She stopped the car about 50 yards away, fiddled with something inside, then stepped out.

"Keep an eye on the car," I said into my comm. mike. "See if she's really alone."

"Roger," came Matt's terse reply. I almost apologized because I realized that it was insulting to presume that he wouldn't have done that on his own, but I was a bit tense and I figured he'd make allowances.

As Anderson approached I saw that she was wearing $1200 shoes, which made me wish I'd picked a grass field instead of the relatively smooth parking lot. Her makeup was perfect and not a hair was out of place. The only surprising thing was that she wore a serape-like cape that seemed too casual for the crispness of the rest of her appearance. Cheyenne would probably explain how this was the very latest fashion and want us both to get similar things. But it occurred to me that the cape might be hiding something - like a gun.

"She's got something hidden under her poncho," Matt reported.

"I figured that," I replied. "Can you tell what it is?"

"No," he said. "I'll try to get a better image but nothing seems to be getting through her poncho."

I had intended to raise my visor when she got close, but I decided to leave it down. My visor was the only place that wasn't covered by dynafiber armor. It was a tough, aircraft-grade polycarbonate material in which I had embedded the filaments that provided my displays, so it was pretty good protection. It might not have been bulletproof, but with even a bit of warning I could turn far enough to get a low grazing angle on any impacts and the protection would probably be enough for anything less than a high-velocity rifle round.

"Hello," I said when she got about ten feet away. She stopped there, saying nothing.

"You asked for this meeting," I prompted after a moment.

When she spoke, her voice had a fierce anger, but there was something else, too; something that I couldn't quite figure out. There was a flatness to her tone, despite the anger that bit off each word. It was . . . resolved, as though a tough decision had been made and needed to be implemented in an uncompromising, unemotional way. I wondered what she was going to offer me.

"My associates do not take kindly to missing delivery on their product."

I didn't respond immediately. After a moment when she didn’t add anything, I shrugged. "The happiness of your accomplices is not high on my list of concerns."

"It should be," she said. "You have no idea what you've done."

"Why don't you tell me?" I offered.

She looked around then sneered. "Do you think that recording me is going to make any difference, you stupid bitch? Okay then, here it is. I ordered the deaths of the inventors of ten different devices that would make customs inspections for drugs more effective. I did this because I've been operating as a facilitator for illegal drug shipments since I founded Antares. There, are you satisfied, now? You have my confession."

"Is that what you think I was after?" I asked.

"You know, I really don't care," she snapped. "I'm not playing games."

She took a couple of steps closer, then seemed to judge the distance between us and stepped back again. "I may be ruined, but you're dead. Do you hear me? Dead! Some of those accounts you cleaned out contained money that doesn't belong to me. It belonged to my 'associates' and they're going to want their money back."

She calmed herself down a little, then said, "You may have destroyed me and destroyed Antares, but you won't live to gloat about your triumph."

That look of resigned determination showed on her face again. She said, "There's just one thing I'd like to know. Why? Why did you take me on? Did you really just stumble across a stupid encrypted file and think you could make some money off of it? Are you really just in this for some chump change? You stupid, fucking bitch. With your skills and my organization, you could have made more money than you and your friends could ever count. Now, all you'll get is dead."

"I didn't do it for money," I said quietly.

"Then why?" she snarled.

"Because one of those inventors you so casually murdered was my father. And my mother died with him," I said, the distorting purr in my voice sharpened into a snarl of my own.

"What?" she said. "Who?"

"Jason and Jordan Sinclair," I answered.

"Wait, you're their child? I thought you just found his files."

"I did find the files. That's what set me on the path that ended up at you. But they were my parents."

She frowned thoughtfully, then said, "But . . . they only had a boy, some kid who had a breakdown or something. He hasn't left his house in years."

"Oh, it hasn't been that long," I said dryly.

"You're a boy? I don't believe it."

"Well, I'm not going to drop my pants and show you," I said. "Believe it or not. I don't care."

Her face twisted in a nasty little smile and she said, "So, you did go psycho, and turn into a little queer, too. Do you like wearing panties now?"

Before I could answer she barked an angry little laugh and said, "Wait . . . I've seen you! Without your mask and all. You're Jamie Webster, right? You really are a little sissy queer. But you do make a beautiful little girl, missy."

I didn't bother to answer that. Instead, I came back to the reason we were there.

"You asked for this meeting," I said, repeating my prior comment. "You said you were ready to deal. What are you offering?"

This question took the twisted smile off her face. After a moment, it strangely returned. "The deal is, you get to die and I get to be the one to kill you," she said with that sense of inevitability.

She reached her hand inside her poncho/cape. I thought she was going for a gun and started to raise my arm to protect my visor. A call from the van didn't really make any difference - it certainly didn't get my arm moving any faster.

But it wasn't a gun that she had under her cape. A bright flash of light barely had time to register on my senses - it was only as an afterflash that I realized it had even happened - when I was engulfed in a hailstorm of pellets that rattled against my armor like a hailstorm in June.

There were impacts on my visor and two things I knew intellectually became very, very real to me. One was the difference between conventional armor and dynafiber. My visor distributed the load so that there were no local penetrations, but it did not reject the load into the fabric of space. So my visor started moving in response to the impacts - absorbing the momentum even though nothing penetrated. The second thing I discovered was that my dynafiber helmet was as resistive to impacts from the inside as from the outside. My visor moved until it hit my nose, then my head started to move when my nose was pushed . . . until the back of my head hit the infinitely immovable wall of my helmet.

It was a very good thing that Cheyenne had carefully arranged my longish white hair into a snug little twist. That roll of hair cushioned my head and allowed it to stop moving before the hard parts reached the helmet wall. I still felt a sharp rap and an immediate headache started to form, but other than my nose I don't think there was any damage.

My nose, on the other hand, started to bleed immediately. I couldn't tell if it had broken or was just unhappy, but the very strength in the visor that had protected me from worse damage had won out on the argument with my nose. It wasn't much of a contest. I had to pull down my veil to give the blood someplace to go.

My visor was starred with several steel pellets that rendered it essentially opaque. I tried to get it out of my way and it took only an instant to discover that it would no longer raise into its stowed position. My only choice was to take my entire helmet off which would render me vulnerable to a variety of attacks. There was a reason that the first types of body armor that troops have used since history began were helmets. Heads are fragile - or at least the jelly in them is.

I still ripped the helmet off my head as quickly as I could - which also cost me my comm. capability. But it turned out there wasn't really any hurry.

Andrea Anderson was lying back ten feet or so from where she had been standing. There wasn't much left of her below her breasts. It didn't take a rocket scientist to see that what she had under her poncho was a suicide bomb of some sort. When I walked over to her I could see enough remnants to decide it was a claymore mine. Nothing but the best for Andrea, even in death.

Surprisingly, she wasn't dead. When I bent down over her some of my hair came down from its twist and framed my face, which was made up as Nightwind of course. Her eyes were open and they focused on me when I entered her field of view.

"It hurts a lot more than I thought it would," she whispered. "I thought the explosion was supposed to be directional."

"There's still a reaction," I said. "Your stomach got in the way."

She smiled wryly and said, "Always the expert. I heard you were bulletproof, and . . . didn't believe it but . . . decided not to take any chances. Still wasn't good enough."

I didn't think she was breathing. I certainly couldn't see any motion in her chest but her blood was still pulsing through the wreckage of her waist so there must have been some circulation. She looked at me one more time, then the light faded in her eyes as they lost enough energy to function. Her lips barely moved one last time as she whispered, "I still can't believe you're a boy."

The van arrived even as her words were drifting from her lips, but she was gone.

Cheyenne shrieked and Aunt Jane panicked when they saw the blood down the front of my outfit, but Matt recognized the difference between a bloody nose and real injury. He helped me get my head back and gave me an icepack to put on it.

"Get Detective Edwards on the phone," I asked. By the time they had made the connection, the bleeding had stopped. My nose was swollen and I couldn't breathe through it, but I could talk without dripping on the phone.

"Detective, this is Nightwind," I said.

Even over the tiny speaker I could hear his dislike. "What do you want?"

"Detective," I said tiredly, "I know you don't like me. Hell, I don't even blame you. I don't fit in the well-defined niches in your world. But that doesn't really matter."

He said, "Go ahead, I'm listening."

I sighed, then began, "Andrea Anderson sent me a message asking for a meeting. When she got here, we talked for a few minutes, in the course of which she confessed to the things that I've told you she did."

"What did you do with her?"

"*I* didn't do anything but talk. Apparently that story on Truthteller today hit her pretty hard. Some other things as well."

"So, where is she now?"

"She's dead," I said flatly. "And no, I didn't kill her. I didn't even touch her. She had a suicide bomb and set it off."

"She killed herself? With a bomb?"

"Yes," I confirmed. "I think it was a claymore strapped to her waist. The backblast was enough to . . . well, she's dead."

"Where are you?"

I told him, then said, "Look, Edwards, I called you because I think you're an honest cop - like I said, if I were you I probably wouldn't like me, either. But this is out of your jurisdiction. If you want, I'll call the local cops. I just thought I'd give you first option."

"No, that's good. I'll take it from here," he said quickly. There was a slight pause, then "Don't go away, okay?"

"Fine," I said, then broke the connection. I picked up my helmet and saw that aside from the visor it was still intact, so I disconnected the visor entirely and put the basic helmet back on. My nose was tender, but I pulled my veil up again anyway.

Sirens started about 2 minutes later, but they were in the distance. It was about five altogether after I hung up on Edwards before the lights started a psychedelic nightmare in the parking lot. Or maybe it was just my headache, and my nose, and being really, really tired that made the lights so painful.

Cheyenne worked on the recording while we were waiting. It looked pretty good - good enough that it would probably be accepted as complete at least until we were out of the area. But all reference to me being Jamie Sinclair was erased. We didn't erase the part where I took off my helmet, though. So they could see my white hair and be pretty sure that I really was Jamie Webster.

I wondered if Edwards would try to arrest me as Nightwind. There were enough images of me now, and stories even with made up images, that he could probably have found a judge to issue a warrant for me. But the local cops who showed up apparently had orders only to secure the scene. They did send for the medical examiner, so when Edward arrived accompanied by local detectives they could go through what was left of Anderson to confirm her ID. We showed them the edited record - not admitting it was edited, of course - and they took that, too.

Edwards asked me to accompany him to re-enact the attack. He stood where Anderson had stood and looked at how close I was.

"I don't believe that the only places those balls hit you was in your visor."

"I never said they did."

"What happened to the rest?"

"If it's important, get a magnet and sweep the area. You'll probably have to go out a couple of hundred yards."

"We found some pellets in Anderson," he reported.

I just nodded.

"Are you really bulletproof?" he asked.

"Not entirely," I said, looking at my visor in his hands. Since it had pellets in it I had handed it to him while we walked to the spot of the attack.

He waited for a moment to see if I would add anything, but I didn't feel the need.

"You could be a nightmare as a criminal," he said.

"Good thing I'm not, then, huh?" I replied.

"Aren't you? How many people have died at your hands?"

"At my hands? I only know of one. And that was self defense - you know, the unarmed at a gun fight thing? The others that died did so at their own hands, or from ricochets, perhaps from their accomplices who weren't generally too careful about where they shot."

He looked at me for a long, hard moment, then nodded. "I think I believe you. For the first time, I see just how tough you really are. Anyone who can stand ten feet in front of a claymore as it goes off and not show anything more than a starred visor is tougher than I want to think about. I guess if you wanted to be a bad guy, you could have been a lot more trouble than you were."

Edwards looked down at Anderson's dead body and asked, "What are you going to do now?"

"I don't know," I said honestly. "As far as I know, Andrea was the tip of the pyramid that I was after. I don't know of any trails leading higher." After a moment I surprised myself with the next thing I said. "And I don't think I want to know, either. I just want to go home."

"Where is that?" he asked slyly. I just smiled at him and didn't say anything.

"How do I get in touch with you?"

"The night wind flows where it will," I said with an airy wave. "But you can figure that out."

His last question was a dismissal, so I waved at my friends and went to my motorcycle and hit the starter. The two hours on the ride back to the house gave me too much time to think, but not enough time to resolve anything.



Chapter 17 - "Unconscious Choices"

I really was tired when I got home that night. It hadn't been that strenuous of a night but for some reason I felt like I had been run over by a truck. Cheyenne helped me out of my Nightwind gear, helped even more to get my makeup off around my nose, and I was expecting to slip off to sleep like a vanishing breeze.

But I couldn't get to sleep. After a while - a long, long while that I could hardly believe was only 2 hours when I checked a clock - I got up and went to sit in a chair in my room, staring out the window.

It wasn't long after I left that Cheyenne came to me, sliding easily into my lap and laying her head on my shoulder.

"What's wrong?"

"I don't know," I said. "I just can't sleep."

"It's been . . . an important day. I guess I can see why it would be hard to wind down."

"I don't think that's it," I said. "I mean, I was lying there thinking, but it wasn't like my mind was churning with too much energy to relax. It was more . . ."

"What?"

I twisted her around a bit so I could look directly at her. "Shy, I hounded that woman to death! She was bad, and she deserved justice, but what gave me the right to . . . kill her? How does that make me any different from her?"

"We didn't kill her," Cheyenne said, and I noted the change to a plural. "The difference is that she sent people to kill your parents - and others. That's murder. We never planned to and did not murder her. I suppose Nightwind might have beat her up or something, but even that would have been less than she did to your parents."

Cheyenne sighed and put her head back on my shoulder. "How did you think it would end?"

"I guess I thought she'd . . . confess, and go to jail. Or, like Nelson Adams, she'd attack me and I'd have had a legitimate need to defend myself."

"She *did* attack you. And the backblast she initiated is what killed her. She'd have killed you if you didn't have your wonderful armor."

"But she set off that bomb because we had backed her into a corner," I said.

Cheyenne squeezed me and said, "It's the difference between being the actor and being the defender. If she had never pulled that . . . trigger or whatever those things have, then she wouldn't have been hurt. She'd have had to face justice, but she'd still be alive."

This time she was the one to pull her head up and look at me. "Jamie, love, you've changed since this began. You were the actor when you went to Jeremy Hansen. You were . . . ruthless. And you were harsh with Nelson Adams - harsher than the law would allow. But that changed you. After that, you never initiated any violence. It's not a coincidence that you started using your mind instead of your muscles."

She leaned up and kissed me, softly. "And it's not a coincidence that your mind was even more effective than your muscles. You're a good person, Jamie Sinclair - even though you went through a bad period."

I nodded to her, there in the dark, and let her head rest on my shoulder again. Sometime after that, I fell asleep. But Nightwind's actions roamed in my dreams and I saw something dark in that reflection.

The next morning my nose felt like it was the size of a football. Aunt Kate wasn't taking no for an answer about going to see Dr. Allridge, and I wasn't trying to get her to. The doctor said that my nose would be okay - nothing broken. Some ice would help with the swelling and I could expect a couple of black eyes once the fluid that caused the swelling moved down to my cheeks.

Since it had been a while he decided I needed a general physical so I had to go through the full "hospital gown with the built-in draft" thing. I was so focused on my nose - almost literally, since it was about all I could see - that I didn't even think about the fact my body was smoothly hairless. Dr. Allridge didn't say anything about it, but I know he noticed.

In the course of my physical, he also noticed that my nipples were unusually . . . noticeable. There wasn't much total volume and actually the nipples themselves weren't all that prominent . . . most of the time. The areolae were pretty large, though - bigger than Cheyenne's actually. And if they were stimulated, my buds could pop out painfully hard.

That wasn't the only place he inspected that I found embarrassing.

"Hmmm," he murmured quietly when he did an exam that was a whole lot more than 'turn your head and cough.'

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"What?" he said, surprised. He realized that he'd been muttering so he smiled and said, "Oh, nothing. Probably nothing."

It was amazing how that modifier took his statement from being reassuring to being a source of added stress.

He smiled, oblivious to the racing thoughts behind my eyes, and added, "You wouldn't feel you were getting your money's worth if I didn't let the vampires have some of your blood. I'll send in the tech. After she gets done, you can go home and we'll get back together when the results are in."

That did little to reassure me, but I was still feeling tired so I just let the tech have her way with me then went home. True to the doctor's word, the swelling started to go down on my nose that evening. By late afternoon when it was approaching time for dinner, it was not too ridiculous. I did have two black eyes and I ducked into the bedroom for a few minutes and used some of Jamie Platinum's cosmetics to hide those dark areas so I looked pretty much normal. Well, normal for that in-between, neither-fish-nor-fowl Jamie Sinclair.

Aunt Kate noticed that I was very quiet at dinner. "What's wrong, dear?"

"Nothing, I guess," I replied, which was not a very compelling denial. I tried a little harder with, "Just tired, I guess."

"Are you coming down with something?" she asked.

"I don't think so," I said. "I had trouble sleeping last night, and I guess I'm just . . . tired."

That was repetitious, at best, and not convincing even if true. It just begged a bigger question.

Which, surprisingly, Matt was able to answer. "I know why you're tired, kid."

"You do?"

"Yep," he said confidently. "Let me ask you a question, first. How long have you been going after Andrea Anderson?"

"I don't know," I said. "A couple of months, I guess."

"Nope," he contradicted me. "You've been going after her since your parents were killed. You didn't know who you were after exactly, until recently, but your life has been pointed at getting those who murdered your parents for most of three years - a big chunk of your whole life."

I nodded, not quite picking up on his point though.

"So what are you gonna do now?" he asked.

"I don't know," I shrugged.

"That's the reason you're tired," he said. "You have no purpose in life."

He stood up and moved over to where I sat, pulling me to my feet. "You're young, healthy - well, except for that nose, and you've pretty much hidden even that - wealthy, and have a pretty secure life. In the future before you, you're never likely to be hungry, or cold, or stuck in the rain. At least, not against your wishes. You don't have any challenges in life - after spending years on an obsession that consumed every waking moment. It's like all the air you breathe has gone out of the room."

"I see," I replied, and I did see what he was talking about. I didn't see what to *do* about it, but I saw his point.

"So," he continued, "we need to find a new purpose for your life."

He walked back over to Aunt Kate and helped her from her chair with a courtly flourish. She was a bit surprised, but stood at his unspoken invitation.

"But you're not going to find it by sitting her fretting. Get on something nice. We'll all go out to dinner. My treat."

I was about to beg off because I really was tired, but . . . maybe he was right.

Cheyenne had been pretty quiet through her father's analysis but she stood quickly when my decision must have shown in my face. She practically pulled me out of the room toward my bedroom.

It was only as I was adding a couple of rings as last accessory touches that I realized I had dressed as Jamie Platinum without even thinking about it. I had on a deep red dress that was probably a bit too short, set off as usual by the contrast of a very conservative neckline. My hair and makeup were stylishly elegant in a way that emphasized the glamour by making it look casually easy. Diamonds just the sophisticated side of too large sparkled from swingy pendants at my ears and danced in counterpoint with rubies on my fingers. It was the look of a woman - a wealthy woman - who was secure in her own identity . . . including her sexuality. Not apologizing at all for being beautiful, yet not dependent on the appreciation of others to feel feminine.

But I didn't *need* to be Jamie Platinum any more. Unless the reason I needed it wasn't really about finding justice for my parents. Did I need it, for other reasons?

Actually, I had dressed as a combination of Jamie Platinum and Nightwind. I had on my torso shaper of course, but I had also selected my sheer dynafiber stockings so that essentially everything except for my head was covered in bulletproof armor. And in my slim purse were thin gloves and a balaclava hood that would complete the protection. So, did I have a need to be Jamie Platinum . . . or Nightwind?

Which brought me back to an earlier spiral. Why had I made Nightwind female in the first place? Jamie Platinum was because it was easier for me to be perceived as an adult woman than as an adult male, but that had never been a requirement for Nightwind.

I was pensive when we left the house but Matt was almost obnoxiously cheerful, demanding that I stay involved by telling an embarrassing story about Cheyenne that I just couldn't tune out. It was exactly the kind of things that parents did to their kids - that the kids hate but everyone else loves. In fact, the kids don't really hate it, because it shows that the parent loves them enough to have been part of their life as they grew up - and cherished those memories. Cheyenne blushed, of course, but she smiled a little, too.

Aunt Kate and I didn't share those sorts of growing up memories. She only showed up in my life a too-short time before my parents were killed, and the time after had been too solemn for the funny-story types of memories. But she was a dear soul and so she countered Matt's story about Cheyenne was one of her own about herself. It was even more embarrassing - something to do with a popsicle that she was . . . enjoying in a suggestive way that she wouldn't admit was deliberately naughty - and it allowed Cheyenne some time to recover.

That led Matt to tell his own embarrassing story. " . . . so there I was, trying to sneak into this barn to set up my observation post, when this old cow who was overdue for milking decided I was the solution to her problem. She started mooing and butting her head up against me and I swear she just about stuck her tits in my hand. That's when the chief came to see what the noise was about . . . to find me with my hand on a cow's udder."

"'Damn it, Dylan, get your hands off those tits!' he yelled. So much for keeping things quiet."

"Of course, the rest of the team had their own interpretations of what I was supposed to have been doing with that cow . . ," he concluded.

I don't know if his story - or Aunt Kate's for that matter - were true. What was important was that they did get me out of my funk. Even if I didn't have great and noble battles against dastardly foes to fight, my life still had the potential for interesting things.

As we entered the restaurant I was suddenly struck by the strangeness of our joint appearance. This was, as best I could remember, the first time I had actually seen Matt in a semi-formal social situation. It caused me to look at him again, as though for the first time.

He was almost deliberately ugly. His face was scarred, including his shaved head. He didn't appear to have any neck at all. His body was massive, giving the overall impression of something on the border between human and rock elemental. Yet he moved with a balanced glide that was at once screamingly discordant and unnoticeably subtle. It jarred at your perceptions because his static appearance was virtually a caricature of the muscle-bound oaf, yet his movements were just this side of graceful and that dissonance bothered you without being so obvious you could tell why you were bothered.

And he had on a really nice suit, with three beautiful women in attendance. I could just about see the smoke coming out of ears all around as brains overloaded trying to fit him into some neat pigeonhole, only to have some anomaly block off one option after another.

We - that is, the aforementioned 'beautiful women' - were another set of mind-bending anomalies. Aunt Kate was clearly a bit older than Cheyenne and I but she was still very attractive, and she had a serenity that seemed to glow about her. She had - literally - made her peace with her God and this world had no hold on her. Except Matt had that hold. He was obviously besotted with her despite the two younger, and - if I may say so myself - prettier women who were also in the party. And she just as obviously returned his affection in a show of romantic bliss that was as discordant with his tough-guy scars as his gliding grace. Yet they were so natural in their mutual attention that it bestowed authenticity on the rest of their appearance.

Cheyenne played her own part in establishing our strangeness because she was so perfectly normal. Not average because she was very, very beautiful. But she had a sunrise-on-wildflowers smile that gave you hope for the very future of mankind just to know a girl could be that pretty and that innocently happy. On the other hand, my platinum-white hair and still-solemn demeanor, coupled with equal beauty, seemed like the bored sophistication of a jaded dilettante for whom nothing could ever be quite satisfying. The irony was not lost on me that the one person who *was* least natural also *looked* least comfortable in our group, but for a reason that had nothing at all to do with my glamorous sophistication.

Matt arranged for a table but this was no packed, hurry-them-in-and-out place so there was no rush to pick our entrees. While we waited for cocktails, Matt surprised me by asking me to dance.

"I don't dance," I said.

"Sure you do," he said. "You just don't know it yet."

He pulled me to my heels and led me to the dance floor. As might be expected in a place that oozed class, the dance music was from a live, but sophisticated ensemble - no rock bands for this place. Matt took his position, whispering, "Put your hands the other way, Jamie." I let him have my right and put my left on his shoulder and in a moment we were flowing across the floor.

"Wow," I said softly. "You're great!"

"Thank you," he said with a smile. "We've, ah, 'danced' on the mats enough that I knew you could do this."

"Oh, no, does that mean I'm going to end up with bruises . . . again?"

"Not unless you stick your toes under my foot," he promised.

"Stick *my* toes under *your* foot?" I repeated, well basically repeated. "I thought that sort of thing was your fault - stepping on my toes."

"Actually, it's not," he claimed. "If you don't fight me for the lead, you'll find that we stay out of each other's way. Just . . . feel what I'm doing and do the right thing."

To prove his point, his hand in my hip gave a slight push and I found myself twirling under his arm, then back again. My hand was actually settling on his shoulder again before I really realized what had happened.

"Oh, wow, that was awesome," I said. "You're . . . well, I should have known. Is there anything you can't do?"

"I can't be Nightwind," he said.

I laughed at the idea, but he was serious.

"What do you mean?" I asked quietly.

"I can't be Nightwind," he repeated. "Oh, I know you could make me an armor suit, and even without your strength I could hold my own in the fights you've faced, but there's more to Nightwind than the physical things."

I was looking at him, of course - no head-on-shoulder intimacies between us - so I let an eyebrow invite him to continue.

He smiled at me in a very fatherly way - so much so that I felt my eyes take on an immediate shine - but he started explaining before I lost myself in that thought. "I've seen you grow as you worked through this problem, and I'm impressed. To begin with you did things about the way I'd have done them - going after Hansen with a club and threats. But you haven't used force in the last three missions. And you've led us with an easy competence that is a textbook example of the difference between an officer - which you are - and an enlisted man - which I was and still am. You work the problems with your mind, but have the physical ability to fill your unique role in your own plan. All I am is muscle. So I couldn't be Nightwind even if I had the armor."

I nodded at him, not realizing at the time that it might have seemed arrogant to accept his praise as though it were self-evident. It was more that I was acknowledging that I had heard him, but he smiled and gave me another twirl.

"You're an awesome wo . . . person, Jamie," he said. "I guess you need to find a path forward, but with your abilities I'm sure it will be impressive."

"I caught your first word, Matt," I said. "Do you think of me as a woman?"

He smiled. "Well, when you look like that it's hard not to."

I let my elbow push into his unyielding chest, but I didn't repeat my question.

"I think you're happier as a woman," he said. "But I don't know if that will change now that your mission is over. But I guess . . . yes, I do think of you as a woman. I'm sorry if that disappoints you."

I didn't answer. Before I could, the song ended. But I couldn’t have answered even if I had all night. I didn't know if I was disappointed or pleased that he was so comfortable thinking of me as a woman - as though the disguise were when I put on my little snowy eyebrows.

It was only later that I remembered his almost-wistful expression when he said he couldn't be Nightwind. Why did that even matter, and enough that he brought it up so quickly? I wasn't going to be Nightwind any more either.

Was I?



Chapter 18 - "New Choices"

My lab reports came back the next day and again I found myself seated in the doctor's waiting room as unambiguously Jamie Sinclair as I could be, complete with non-designer jeans, a polo shirt, and my hair pulled back in a low ponytail. Aunt Kate had asked to come along again - she didn't quite 'hover' over me but she was always more than ready to come with me if I had an errand. She sat there, looking through an old magazine while I browsed with my smart phone, when Dr. Allridge came back to the waiting room himself - which I did not take as a good sign. He walked over to where we were sitting and smiled at Aunt Kate. But he spoke to me, "Jamie, I know you're an adult now. You don't have to have your Aunt Kate come with you to discuss these results, but you can if you want."

"I don't have any secrets from Aunt Kate," I said, smiling at her with a secret we had shared that was dramatic enough to make blood test results seem pretty tame. Well, I guess I hadn't actually told her what Cheyenne and I had done in bed so perhaps I had some secrets at that, but she probably guessed considering some of the expressions I know we had worn on the mornings after. On the other hand, she and Matt had a few . . . privacies of their own that I didn't really consider keeping secrets.

Dr. Allridge invited us into his office and we arranged ourselves in comfortable seats. He looked at the file for a moment, then up at us. "I was going to do some sort of good-news/bad-news thing, but I don't know which parts of what we've found you'll consider good and which parts bad, so let's proceed without judgment."

That didn't do anything to relieve my concern, but I nodded.

He looked at his notes again, and sat back. "I'm going to review a little before I get to the current results. We discovered that your body had quit producing testosterone after the trauma of what happened to your parents. Since there was no physiological reason for this, we determined it must be psychological. The same considerations applied to the gap in your memory."

"Since all people produce both male and female hormones, with variation in the amount and proportions leading to most sexual characteristics, the estrogen in your system - in the absence of any testosterone - tended to give you some minor female secondary sexual characteristics. In fact, overall there seems to have been a bit of increase in estrogen beyond the normal levels for a young man, though not inordinately excessive. Your skin has become a bit smoother, for example. I see some amount of fat redistribution, though you're pretty lean so that's not a big deal. And of course your nipples have taken on some feminine characteristics. I found that they are sensitive and reactive in a way that is pretty typical of a healthy young woman."

He looked at his file again, running his finger across a line as though he wanted to be absolutely sure he got it right. "When I was examining you yesterday, I saw evidence of recent development in your male genitalia as well. What we found in this blood test, which is different from even a few months ago, is that your body has apparently started to produce testosterone again."

"It has?" I said, shocked.

"Yes," he confirmed. He paged back to an earlier place in the file and sighed. "At the time, we thought that any sort of hormone replacement therapy would be high risk. If your body were actively rejecting testosterone, adding some artificially could have caused any number of reactions, most of them bad."

He looked at me and smiled, "To anticipate your obvious question: I don't think you're about to go through a long-delayed masculine puberty development. What we see is, ah, less than the normal testosterone levels for a post-pubescent male. But you are definitely producing testosterone again - just a bit on the low side of normal. Certainly the levels are nothing like those of a young man caught up in the turmoil of puberty. To that end, I don't expect to see your skeletal structure change much from this point forward, any more than those of an adult male change in sexually-specific ways that are unrelated to simple aging. I'm afraid that your facial characteristics, and probably your voice, won't change from where they are. I'm sorry, but I think we have missed the opportunity to give you a normal masculine appearance. This is made even more likely by the fact your father was slender, and of fine features for a man. Your mother, of course, was very beautiful, but in a delicate way that suggests you were never destined to play linebacker for the Bears anyway. Anything we did now - even testosterone supplements - would not be likely to make much difference in your basic skeletal structure."

"I see," I said, slowly, trying to absorb his information.

"There is an anomaly though," he added. "It seems that your estrogen levels remain a bit elevated for a man. I don't think it will cause any further increase in your breast development, but it means that the increased sensitivity probably won't reduce despite the returned presence of some amount of testosterone."

He frowned and looked at the data again. "It would seem that you are caught in a limbo between traditional physical norms. I think in time - perhaps a few months - you may find that you again have the ability to achieve an erection and male sexual climax. In a bit longer - perhaps a year - you may even become fertile. I can't promise anything based on the data to date, but I think those outcomes are likely."

"On the other hand," he said slowly. "I'm afraid that you will always have a very . . . delicate appearance. If we supplemented your testosterone levels now that it appears your subconscious has quit rejecting it, we might get you to the point where you need to shave occasionally, and perhaps you'd see some hair on your chest."

"And if we don't?" I asked softly.

"Then I think you'd remain much as you are," he said. He finally stood up from his desk and walked around to our side, resting a hip on the front edge. "Jamie, it's clear that you have been . . . exploring a feminine appearance. I don't blame you. You are obviously much closer to the look of an attractive woman than that of a textbook example of manhood. If you choose to continue in that path, then not doing anything artificial to your hormone levels provides the best opportunity for continued exploration."

He reached around to tap on the file. "One of the basic principles of medicine is: First, do no harm. Just to make myself perfectly clear, I would prefer to let your body work out its own solution to the trauma that you have suffered. However, I will help you in whichever path you prefer."

I nodded, looking off into a distance well beyond the limits of the room. "If I were to, um, prefer the appearance of a woman, what sort of help are you offering?"

He smiled, "Well, nothing that we have to decide in a hurry. The obvious example of course, would be breast augmentation. Additional steps would depend on you, but some of the more dramatic changes would require psychological counseling, a real life test, that sort of thing. We have an opportunity to take our time because you don't seem to be heading into a masculine puberty so there is no need to head off any changes that you don't want."

"I see," I said. Looking back at him I said, "You've given me a lot to think about. I do have one question - well, I'm sure I'll have a boatload of questions, but at least one for now. You said that you think I might eventually be fertile enough to father children. How sure of that are you?"

"Pretty sure," he said, surprising me. "What I can't be sure of is whether you will be able to do it the, ah, natural way. But I am sure that we could get enough viable sperm for in vitro fertilization."

"Oh, I hadn't thought of that," I said.

"Well, now you can," he said. "Jamie, I am very pleased with what has happened in the last few months. Your body seems to be coming out of its unnatural state, and while there will always be anomalies, I think you are reaching a viable long-term condition."

He reached to shake my hand, helped Aunt Kate from her seat, and walked us to the door of his office. "Oh, one last thing. If they haven't come back by now, I wouldn't hold out much hope of your memories ever returning. I'm sorry, but it might be just as well."

"Perhaps," I said. Regardless of what would happen in the future, I had certainly come to closure of a sort with the attack on my parents. It wouldn't bring them back, but at least I had the satisfaction of knowing justice was done, and that no other families would have to face the nightmare that I had lived through - at least, not because of the same evil people.

On our way back to the house, I asked Aunt Kate to make a stop. She was surprised at the place I wanted to visit - delighted, but surprised. I swore her to secrecy of course, but if things went well she wouldn't have to keep the secret long.

After we got back, I asked Cheyenne if she'd like to get out of the house for a while. It wasn't important to me where we went. What was important was how we dressed, and in particular, how Cheyenne thought *I* should be dressed..

"What do you think I should wear?" I asked.

"Well, if we're just going out casual - shopping or something - then I'm planning on jeans and a light jacket," she said.

"What about me?" I asked again.

She picked up on something in my tone - it wasn't anything I was deliberately including but I'm not surprised she noticed. "Why are you asking, Jamie? You can wear whatever you want."

"Can I?" I asked cryptically. I sat down on the bed and patted a space beside me. "Last night, when your father and I were dancing, he said he sees me as a woman. Do you?"

"Well, not when we're in bed together," she said, smiling.

"Really?" I pushed. "What we do in bed together is wonderful, but . . . wouldn't it be pretty much the same if I were a woman?"

"I guess," she said. "Do you want to . . . become a woman? I mean, all the way?"

"What do you think I should do?"

She shook her head. "I can't make that decision for you."

"No, you can't," I agree. "But I would like your input."

"Are you considering surgery? Going all the way?"

I didn't answer directly. "Let me put it this way: Suppose I could do . . . whatever and become as much like a normal woman as science can provide. Or alternatively, suppose I could . . . fulfill a masculine role in bed even if I still looked pretty much like I do - no hairy chest or bulging muscles, but a, um, a set of functioning equipment. Which would you prefer?"

"Wow, what a question," she said. Her eyes lost focus for a moment, then she looked at me. "I guess I don't know. I'm not just dodging the question. I appreciate that you'd like my input. I just haven't thought about that sort of thing and it's too important for a quick answer."

"Fair enough," I said. "Tell you what; why don't you call Brian and see if he and Derek would like to go to an afternoon movie? Just casual."

"You want to go on a date with Derek?"

"I want us to double date," I said.

It wasn't much of a surprise that the guys were available. It was a Saturday afternoon and I'm sure they were missing a game of some sort, but they didn't seem too disappointed to give it up in favor of a day with us. We picked another mystery movie which turned out to be pretty disappointing because in place of any real plot they just had a lot of gory special effects. But partway through Derek started doing an MST3K riff on what was happening and we ended up laughing so hard I thought they'd throw us out of the theater.

Pizza was almost an automatic decision, mostly because Cheyenne and I could eat just a little while the boys ate as much as they wanted. The discussion centered around bad movies and led to some good-natured arguments that added to the companionship.

Since I had driven we were walked back to our car by the boys rather than worrying about showing them where I lived. We said good night in the traditional way - at least, the traditional way for a public good-bye. I have to admit that I was breathless after my own . . . finale, and it seemed to me that Cheyenne's eyes weren't tracking very well as Brian helped her into her side of the car.

There was actually a method to my madness in the double date. It would be hard for me to imagine a more enjoyable evening. At least, one spent in public. I actually had a good time, even with the unavoidable undercurrent of sexual tension. Maybe because of that undercurrent. It was tremendously flattering to have such handsome, confident men so obviously think we were desirable.

On the way back to the house, I took a detour that led to another bit of property that we, um, that I owned. It had a coded gate so I knew we would be private when I drove to a ridge overlooking a lake shining in the moonlight. And yes, I did know that would be a perfect lover's lane. That's why I was there.

I stopped the car and went around to pull Cheyenne out her side. I beeped the door lock, despite the fact that we were pretty private. It gave me an excuse to take my handbag along. I was so used to carrying it that it just naturally hung from my shoulder, but this time I wanted it for more than a place to hold my keys. Taking her hand, I led her along the ridge line to a half-buried boulder that provided convenient places to sit. For a while, we just looked at the lake in the moonlight.

"Did you enjoy yourself tonight?" I asked.

"Well, yeah. Sure," she replied.

"Brian is a nice guy," I said. I smiled, "Good looking, too."

"So is Derek," she countered.

"Yes," I agreed. "But . . . I don't see myself making a life with Derek."

She paused for a moment, then said, "Are you asking if I see myself making a life with Brian?"

I didn't answer, not really. But even silence was an answer of sorts.

She shook her head. "I like Brian. I like kissing him. Don't tell Daddy but I'm not a little virgin flower anymore, so I know what it could be like to go to bed with him, and the idea does have its . . . interest."

She stood up and moved directly in front of me, blocking my view of the lake and making it clear she wasn't interested in that view either. "But if you're asking me if I'd rather make my life with him or with you, well, he's no competition at all."

With that, she leaned in to kiss me and while it started out gentle, it definitely didn't end up that way.

When we came up for air, I still had to push. "But . . . look at me . . ."

She interrupted with a, "Gladly. You're the prettiest thing from horizon to horizon."

I laughed a little, but wouldn't let her lean forward to kiss me again. "That's the problem. I'm glad you think I look pretty, but Brian is handsome. You're beautiful. You two belong together. Or someone like him."

"Are you kicking me out, or trying to be noble?" she asked.

"What? Oh Shy, I'd *never* kick you out. I just want you to be happy."

"Then marry me," she said.

"What?"

She pulled me to my feet and squeezed me enough I could feel it though my drum-tight waist shaper. "I don't care if you can't have kids. We'll adopt. I don't care if people think we're lesbians. Hell, I don't care if you get a sex change and we really are lesbians. I just want to spend my life with you. We'll find our own kind of happiness. We'll *make* our own kind of happiness. Now that you're safe from the bastards - well, and a bitch - who threatened you, I'm ready to make an honest woman of you."

"But you should have a strong, handsome man to make you feel like the princess you are."

"Princess? Hell, I'm more of the scullery maid type. And we both know you're the strongest person in three states. So the only thing is that I'd be going to bed for the rest of my life with someone who smells sweet and feels soft rather than something hairy and smelly. I'll take that trade."

This was really getting to the point of the evening. "So, you'd rather I stayed looking like I do than . . . well, go as far toward looking like a man as I could?"

She nodded once, firmly. "Yes. I may have some sort of screwed up sexuality myself, but after a wonderful evening, as nice as I could imagine one could be, with a really nice guy . . . all I want is you."

She shook her head, mostly at herself. "Now, don't get me wrong. If you want to look more like a guy I'll still love you anyway. But if you wanted to continue to look like a beautiful woman, well, honestly . . . that's the way I like you best."

"Oh, good," I sighed. "I have something to tell you, and then something to ask you."

She arched an eyebrow even higher as question and invitation, so I gently pushed at her to get her to sit on the rock.

"When I went to the doctor today, he told me that my body had started making testosterone again," I said.

She gasped, but before she could speak I continued. "He said I'm past the puberty point so my body probably won't change much - no beard or heavy jaw line or anything. And I'm glad, because I think I want . . . no, I *know* I want to continue to look like a woman. But . . ."

I reached in my purse and pulled out a little square box. "But Dr. Allridge said that in a few months I should be able to make love to you as a man to his woman - for all that my body will still look like a woman's. And maybe in a little longer than that I could even father a child."

I went to one knee and said, "So, Cheyenne Faith Dylan, I love you with all of my being. Will you make me the proudest man in the history of the world and marry me?" I opened the box and showed her the ring.

She looked at the ring and blinked. Her mouth dropped open and she lifted her eyes to mine.

"Oh, Jamie," she finally said. "Oh, Jamie, yes, yes, I'll marry you. And I'll have a dozen babies if that's what you want. Oh, Jamie . . ."

Her last statement, whatever it might have been, was lost in my lips as we did our best to heat up the open field to stellar core temperatures. I know I did my part.

Our standard family brunch meeting the next morning started out with a nicely usual round of embarrassed glances. It was clear that Aunt Kate and Matt had not wasted their evening alone. For that matter, after we got home Cheyenne and I did just about everything but sleep . . . well, not everything. Some things would have to wait a while. But we gave it a shot, anyway. When - and it was definitely going to be a 'when', not an 'if' - I was able, we would know. Right away.

By prior plotting, Cheyenne didn't mention anything about my offer, and her response. She just wore her new ring and waited for anyone to notice.

As might be expected, Matt missed it. He was too busy smirking and watching Aunt Kate prepare brunch. On the other hand, as soon as Aunt Kate brought the first platter of food to the table, she gasped.

"Oh, my God. Is that what I think it is?"

"I guess that depends on what you think it is," I said. Okay, so I was smirking, too. Besides, I figured her 'surprise' was mostly for Cheyenne's benefit anyway - so my love could enjoy her moment in the sun. After all, Aunt Kate was there when I bought the ring! And a big ol' diamond worn on a girl's left-hand ring finger is pretty clear.

Matt started to tune in but his eyes were darting around trying to find out that 'it' was.

I pulled Cheyenne from her seat over to sit in my lap, then looked at him. "Cheyenne has consented to make an honest woman of me . . . with your permission, of course."

I had deliberately dressed in a somewhat ambiguous style that morning. In actual fact, everything was feminine, down to makeup and carefully styled hair. Cheyenne and I wore matching nightgowns - hers a pale green that brought out the strawberry in her hair, with mine a red that was just dark enough to avoid screaming 'strumpet.' Well, maybe dark enough. They were, in fact, also just sheer enough that you could imagine that you saw the dark circles accenting our very female nipples, and mine were at least as noticeable as Cheyenne's. Mine "almost" showed because I was not wearing my torso shaper so I had Jamie Sinclair's body, complete with extras. So when I said that Cheyenne was going to make an honest *woman* of me, that was the impression that we presented - one beautiful woman in the lap of another - yet there was enough of Jamie Sinclair showing to make it clear that I was in my 'real' persona, not Jamie Platinum.

"A honest *woman* of you . . ?" Matt repeated, with just enough emphasis to be clear.

I told him what the doctor had said, concluding with, "I expect that I will mostly present as a woman. For one thing - and probably the most important thing - Cheyenne likes me this way. I'll need to wear my torso shaper most of the time I'm out of the house - I'll need it to appear as an adult woman because this shapeless body still looks immature -, but even when we're in the house I'll probably dress as a woman. Is that okay with you?"

He nodded. "I already told you how I feel about that."

Matt looked at his daughter. "Is this really what you want, baby?"

"Oh, daddy, yes. More than anything," she said.

"Then I'm very happy for you," he said.

"Me, too," Aunt Kate said, then she grinned and looked at Matt with an eyebrow raise that spoke volumes without a single sound.

He wasn't totally clueless. Standing up, he took Aunt Kate's hands in his. "I won't be able to afford to get you a rock as big as that one, but Katherine, my love, will you marry me?"

She smiled and pushed him back to his seat, planting herself in his lap and answering with a kiss. That seemed like an exceptionally good idea so I used it, too. For once we didn't do justice to Aunt Kate's cooking. But even cold eggs can taste wonderful if the circumstances are right.

After our much-delayed brunch, Matt declared that he needed a workout. His eyes indicated that he thought I did, too, and unfortunately he was right. So I put on my Nightwind outfit minus the helmet and joined him in the exercise room. We had a good session, working up a nicely stinky sweat and picking up a few muscle strains. (I couldn't really get bruised in my dynafiber, of course.)

While we were working through some cool-down exercises, Matt looked at me and said, "Did you enjoy your time as Nightwind, your adventures, your battles?"

I touched my nose that was still a bit sore, though not as swollen. But I grinned and said, "Yes, overall I did. It was emotionally very intense, particularly when I fought Nelson Adams. And that can be . . . draining. But there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment, too. Nightwind has an amazing set of abilities and I enjoyed the chance to use them."

"Do you want to continue?" he asked.

I looked at him in surprise. "I only became Nightwind to get those who killed my parents. That's done."

"Yes, it is," he agreed. "But there are other bad guys out there, and Nightwind does have those amazing abilities you mentioned.'

"I guess I never thought that far," I admitted. "What do you think I should do?"

"Let me talk about those abilities for a moment," he said. "Do you think the most important thing about Nightwind is her armor or her strength?"

I shook my head without needing any time for thought. "No. Those are important, but the thing that makes Nightwind work is all of us, the team."

"I agree," he said. "And that's the point. You have a unique ability to make a difference. In part because it takes money to do what Nightwind does, and you have the money. In part because you have assembled a very capable team."

I nodded, but asked, "Is there even a need for a - Edwards is right, you know - some sort of vigilante like that?"

"Oh, yeah," he said firmly. "I have some contacts that have identified several challenges where the police are a bit too hemmed in by rules to get to real justice. We'd have to be careful of course, but there are places where we can work with moral certainty yet without the evidence for legal certainty. We might all end up in jail, though."

I nodded, but waited for him to go on. "Now I'll get to the tricky part. My sense of what you should do may be tainted by my own feelings about Nightwind. I enjoyed being part of that team. I enjoyed making that difference. I'd like to continue doing it."

"I see," I said quietly. And I did see. "I think maybe I was deliberately avoiding thinking about this because I know that *I* enjoyed it, too."

"So did I," Aunt Kate said, surprising me as she walked into the training room. "I've been . . . withdrawn since your parents rescued me. I think I was afraid of the world. I could function on simple things like going to the store, but I didn't make a difference. I like being part of the team."

Cheyenne had followed her and I had the feeling that I had been set up. But that was okay. If they felt that strongly about this, then I was glad to know it.

"Well, *I* sure would," she said. "Even though I'm the junior member of the team, I think it was great."

I looked at my friends and said, "Well, that pretty much takes care of one question. We need a firebreak between Nightwind and Jamie Sinclair. Jamie Platinum does that, so I need to be able to look like a woman even without Nightwind's veil and helmet, and be able to *not* look like a woman in my official persona - the one who votes and pays taxes and all that stuff. I guess I won't be going full time into female mode. Is that a problem for anyone?"

"Not as long as you're mine in all your identities," Cheyenne said. "And you did say that you'd *mostly* be your beautiful self, right?"

"Mostly," I grinned, lifting one arm to sniff at the smelly pit below it.



Chapter 19 - "Who Can Hold The Night Wind?"

Dressing as Nightwind reminded me of some unfinished business. I had a promise to keep. My second set of dynafiber garments were clean so I could go right away, but it was something better done at night anyway.

Now that the decision had been made, I admitted to myself that I was really glad that my friends wanted Nightwind to continue. I knew I did, though I had been feeling guilty about it on several levels. Cheyenne had put the worst guilt away: about continuing to present an appearance of a beautiful woman. If that's what she preferred then I had a reason even if it hadn't been what I wanted most in the world - after her happiness.

There was also a potential that it was just the indulgence of a rich, spoiled kid. But Matt's assurance that there were situations where we could be morally certain of someone's guilt but not have the evidence for a trial showed that there was a real need for Nightwind as well. That was classic vigilante thinking, but . . . there's a reason history is full of vigilantes. As well as a reason to fear them. It was a tightrope we'd have to walk, but it could be a rewarding one; even a noble cause.

And finally, there was a deliciously guilty feeling when I broke the law - just a little - 'in pursuit of justice.' There was a thrill to know that I might get caught. It was naughty rather than evil, or at least I told myself so. That was another tightrope to walk but it was certainly different from hiding in my oversized house, afraid to come out for fear of ridicule as an arrested-development boy who would never look like a man. It made me feel alive.

On that third topic specifically, a few hours later I was enjoying a run after dark using my night vision rather than the cycle's lights - appearing and then disappearing from the perceptions of people who would use my mysterious presence to add a little spice to their life as well.

The run to Cody Turner's place only took about half an hour; less than before because I wasn't really worried about being followed, but more than it might just because I was having fun. I 'let' myself into his house and moved silently to his work area.

"Hello, Cody," I said, letting the throaty purr my veil provided drift to his ears.

He jumped high enough to get tangled in his toys and I let a laugh follow my greeting. To have me show up, silently, at his shoulder was worth a few startle points.

"Da . . . dog gone it, don't do that!" he said, but he grinned sheepishly.

"Why not?" I asked. "I'm the notorious masked marauder of the night breezes, after all."

"Notorious, maybe," he agreed, letting his sheepish grin become a little more comfortable. His eyes tried hard to look at my eyes - I had raised my visor - but he couldn't keep them from drifting down to follow the abundant curves (he didn't know how artificial they were) outlined so enticingly by the tightly stretched material of my armor. Then his eyes would jerk back up to meet mine, followed by a bashful look down at his hands, then another attempt to look me in the eye. If I hadn't been in that same shy situation so many times myself, I might have been offended, but all I could be was sympathetic.

"I owe you a gift," I said. "You've been a lot of help, and ah . . . Jamie Webster promised you a reward."

"That's not necessary," he said quickly.

"Which is one of the reasons I want to do it," I returned. "I know you weren't helping me for money. But you were helping, and I'd like to find some way to show my appreciation."

This time the purr from my voice distorter might have been a bit too much with that offer, but he just blushed again and shook his head.

"Thanks, Cody, but I'm serious," I said. I flowed with the grace that Matt had taught me and perched one hip on a work table. "How about, as a start, I start picking up your data access fees? Are you up to 40 gig Ethernet, yet?"

"40 gig?" he repeated, swallowing. "Um, no, not yet."

"Good. Consider it done. I'll set up an account so you can just do a direct withdrawal. Now, what else?"

"I'm sorry, um, Nightwind, but I can't do that."

"Why not? It's just money."

"I know, but I don't use regular ISPs. I don't want to be traced." He shrugged, then grinned. "It's okay, I'm not, um, . . . limited by access speeds anyway. I can get as much as I need."

"Oh, stupid me," I said, knowing my eyes would show my smile. "So, what can I do for you?"

An idea came to me, and I decided to take a chance that he was a nice guy. "Or perhaps . . . you'd like Jamie Webster to make that offer?"

Now he really did blush, and I could see that the idea was going to play in his fantasies for a while even as I saw him decide he couldn't really live out that fantasy. Then, just as I saw his no-doubt prurient images fade, I saw a real idea come to him.

"Nightwind . . . um, what are you going to do now? I mean, you got the people you were after, right? I saw the report on Andrea Anderson."

"I don't know, exactly," I said. "But I think I'll find something to do."

"Then that's what I want," he said. "I want to help you. On whatever you're doing."

"That could be dangerous," I said, shaking my head. "I couldn't ask you to do that. The first time was . . . urgent. I didn't like putting you at risk, but I really needed your help. I'd just as soon avoid that kind of risk again."

"But I wouldn't," he said. "I want to help. It was . . . look, I know I live in a cave, near enough. I spend entirely too much time in a little geek world that, frankly, is irrelevant to the real world. You changed that for me. For once, I . . . mattered. I liked it, and I don't want to give it up."

I still frowned. "You know, it's only a matter of time before people know you're associated with me. Maybe they do already."

"Yeah, well, I'm not that easy to find - not really. I mean, you did it, but no one else has. If need be . . . look, this is a rental house and I can be out of it in 30 minutes - less if I leave my computers. All the data is backed up elsewhere. I'll take the chance."

I was still frowning, but after a few moments I nodded anyway. "Okay, it's your choice. If you do find that you need to abandon this place on my account, I'll see that you're set up again."

He nodded, looking eager at the potential to be part of something bigger than his living room. That gave me an idea.

"So, what do you do when you're not at your computer?" I asked.

He blushed again, then shrugged. "Nothing much, I guess. I mean, I go to the grocery store and all, but . . . nothing much."

"Do you ever go to conventions? I understand there's a hacker convention in Las Vegas."

He snorted. "Those guys? A bunch of wannabes, maybe. No one serious goes there."

"Well, what about another sort of convention? Like, Comic-Con in San Diego?"

He shrugged. "That would be cool, but I've never been there."

"Then here's an idea. I'll take you to Comic-Con. You can either go with Jamie Webster as your date for a day or two - separate rooms, sorry - or you can work up a costume and you can go with me. We won't have to tell them that I'm the 'real' Nightwind instead of just a fan in a costume so it won't be too obvious to any lurking bad guys that you're a target . . . but if you drop a hint or two to any friends you feel you can really trust, well, I won't contradict you."

"Oh, damn, that would be so cool!" he said, eyes lighting up in a way that made me feel really special. "Um, if it's okay, I'd love to go with, um, you. I mean, Nightwind."

"Deal," I said. "And in the meantime, if anything comes up where I can use your special talents . . . well, I'll be thinking of you."

"Oh, wow, that is so cool!" he said again.

I smiled and lowered my visor as a way to end the interview. Walking silently back to his door I waved at him. He looked like he wanted to follow me, but I could see he was thinking that I needed to 'get away' clean so he just waved back. I could see his eyes flicker to his computers and I knew it wouldn't be long before a select few friends would have a very 'cool' claim to digest.

On the way back to my house I heard a voice in my head. It wasn't a major leap of genius to think of putting a cell-phone link in my helmet comm. system, and it made 'normal' calls a lot simpler than the dedicated radio rig I used with the van. Not many people knew the number to my helmet, so it wasn't like I was opening myself up to lots of distractions.

"You got a call," Matt said without preamble. His voice held a hesitant quality, yet also one of anticipation.

"Let me guess . . . Detective Edwards?" I replied.

"How did you know?" he asked.

"Well, obviously I didn't 'know,'" I said with a laugh. "That's why I said it was a guess. But other than Cody, my doctor and my lawyer, I can't right off hand think of anyone else who has my number to make a call. It's too late for the doctor and the lawyer, and I just left Cody's, so . . ."

"All right, showoff," he said, but I could hear the humor in his gravelly voice. It was hard to pick out if you didn't know what to listen for, but it was there.

"So what did he want?" I asked.

"He wants to meet with you."

"Tonight?"

"Yes," Matt confirmed. "You can pick the time and the place, but he said it was important."

"I think we need to get the van out," I said. "I'd like to set up some speakers again. I don't really trust him. Which is fair, because he obviously doesn't really trust me. Not that I blame him."

"Yeah, I know," Matt said, and this time the humor in his voice had a smug undertone. "And we're already in the van. If you can make it to Rock Creek park in 30 minutes, we'll be ready."

"I should have known," I said, letting him have the points his smugness claimed.

I made it in time to work out my escape route again, just as before. But when the appointed time came, Edward showed up alone. I scanned the area for anyone lurking, but I couldn't detect anyone on either night vision or infrared. So instead of using the mislocation offered by the planted speakers, I just stepped out of the shadows.

"Thank you for meeting me," he said formally as I walked up.

I just nodded.

"Were you out doing something as Nightwind, tonight?" he challenged.

"Only visiting a friend," I said.

"I thought your adventures were over when you got Andrea Anderson. Antares is as dead as she is and the IRS is picking over the corpse."

I repeated, "Just visiting a friend."

If he expected anything more he was disappointed. Finally he shrugged and said, "In the recording, Andrea Anderson said that you had stolen a lot of her money - including money that didn't really belong to her."

"You working for the IRS now?" I asked.

"No," he snorted, and it seemed quite genuine, as though he wasn't a big fan of them either. "You can have the money, as far as I'm concerned. I just wanted to know if we should expect drug enforcers coming through here looking for it, and for you."

"I can't promise that they won't come after me," I said, "but it won't be because I have their money. I didn't actually take any of it. I just made Anderson think I did. Oh, and the Truthteller report that the IRS was after Antares? As far as I know that's true, but I didn't really have anything to do with it."

"Didn't 'really' have anything to do with it?" he repeated - emphasizing my qualifier.

"I did point Carl Clark at a few suspicious facts about Andrea Anderson. He did the digging that he used to alert the IRS himself. Frankly, I wish I'd have thought of it."

He nodded, then said, "What made you go after her? I don't believe you're a mercenary who just happened to stumble across something she wanted, and then got crosswise when she wouldn't meet your price."

"Why Detective," I said, letting the purr dance between us, "she was a bad person. Isn't that reason enough to see that she . . . changed her ways?"

"Permanently?" he said.

"That wasn't my choice," I said firmly.

"No, it wasn't," he agreed. After a moment, he returned to his point. "So, how did you make her *think* you had her money?"

I just shook my head silently.

He sighed, but he didn't push it. After a moment he looked at me and said, "What are you going to do now?"

"I haven't decided," I said - which wasn't quite a lie. I knew that I was going to continue to be Nightwind, but Matt hadn't come up with any targets yet, so I didn't know in detail what we would be doing.

"Would you be open to an occasional suggestion?" he asked.

"What?"

He smiled, and repeated, "Would you be open to an occasional suggestion? I may have some, ah, challenges for you every now and then."

"I don't answer the Bat-signal," I said with a not-very-ladylike snort.

He laughed a bit tightly. "And I don't want a vigilante lose in my town," he said. "But we may find a, um, mutually beneficial level of discomfort."

"I won't promise to act on whatever you bring up," I said. "But believe it or not, I do want to help where I can."

He grinned with a bit more actual humor. "I actually believe you. Lady, I've seen people who were in front of a claymore when it went off. You convinced me that you could laugh at regular cops. If you haven't been playing little tin god - goddess - already, then I'm inclined to trust you."

Now his grin went away. He was very somber when he said, "The problem is not that you have bad intentions. The problem is that you might make a mistake - an honest, careful, rational mistake - and someone innocent could get hurt. You can see that, can't you?"

"Yes," I said with equal gravity. "I worry about it a lot. I won't lay out the evidence I had before acting against Antares. It wouldn't be admissible anyway. But I knew to a moral certainty that each person I . . . visited was dirty. I won't act unless I'm sure."

I sighed and reached out to touch him on the elbow. "Those whom society grants special authority have a special responsibility. I respect your boundaries, and I think they're a good idea. At least in general."

I stepped back and straightened up to something almost approaching attention. "But government is not the solution to all problems. Sometimes citizens need to take responsibility for their society - personal responsibility. I have some unique abilities. Even without the blessing of government, that gives me a corresponding responsibility. You can see that, can't you?"

I deliberately ended my little self-expiation with a repeat of his own question. He nodded, but then he paused for a long moment, not meeting my eyes. Yet I knew he wasn't done with me. I just waited patiently and eventually he looked at me again.

I offered a gambit to get him talking. "Why don't I think this change of heart is just a random thought that came to you while you were shaving or something?"

He squared his shoulders a little in an obvious decision gesture, then said, "Look, I'm not asking you to do anything right now, okay?"

"Okay," I said cautiously.

"But we've had, that is, our city has had several cases of 'white slavery' lately," he said, then his face twisted up in a bitter, mirthless grin. "Well, not all of them are white, but that's the typical label for this. It's young people - some of them young boys - forced into prostitution."

"I know what it is," I said quietly.

"Right, well, I was starting to look into it, and the word came down for me to back off."

"Oh?" I said.

"Yeah," he confirmed, "and I don't like it. I'm afraid that someone high up in our city government is involved."

"Any ideas who?" I prompted.

He looked guilty for a moment, but he shrugged. "Not really. There's someone I don't like personally who has the clout to get this squashed. That's not enough to go on."

"I see. Well, I may poke around a little. Any, um, suggestions I think you called them on where I might poke?"

"I'm not accusing anyone of anything," he said. "But . . . I understand there have been some, um, 'wild' parties at the home of the city manager."

"Ah, well, I can't say that I'm much of a party girl, but I might make an exception if it's a really 'wild' party," I said.

His eyes raised to mine and we shared a private message - a message that was a far cry from the first messages Detective Edwards' eyes had ever sent to me. It was mutual respect, even though we were troubled by that mutually beneficial level of discomfort. But it was also an acknowledgment that the gap between moral certainty and court-of-law proof could be driven as much by politics as by rules of evidence. And that was another area where my limitations were different from his.

"Could I ask you one more thing?" he asked.

"I'll bet you want two - because that was one already," I said, letting a smile sound in my purr again.

He smiled wryly, but nodded. "If you do get involved in something, will you let me know?"

That was a good question, for which I did not have a good answer. I thought about it for a long moment, then offered a compromise. "I won't promise to tell you everything I'm looking into, but I will try to let you know before I do anything but research. Would that be okay?"

He nodded thoughtfully, recognizing the boundaries that allowed.

I waited a moment, watching him. He waited too, but it became apparent that neither of us had anything further to say. So I waved at him and stepped back into the shadows, using the dark outfit and silence that Matt had taught me to disappear.

"I wish I knew how she did that," Edwards muttered to himself as he moved back toward his car.

That made another long night for Nightwind - the entire four-headed amalgam that was the real Nightwind. I gathered up my speakers and a few other toys and then rendezvoused with the van before heading home. They had heard the entire exchange, of course, but we didn't make any specific plans. Still, Nightwind had a new mission and we all felt the excitement. Yet by mutual consent we didn't start thinking about strategy right away. Cheyenne was her usual wonderful help in getting out of my dynafiber apparel, after which we went to bed - and in fact, went right to sleep.

The next morning we did our matching nightgown thing again. It wasn't for any effect it might have on Matt or Aunt Kate. It was just that we each liked the way the other looked in a filmy, flowing bit of softness. We were bustling cheerfully around the kitchen for our family brunch when Aunt Kate and Matt came in, blushing and grinning at each other in a way that made it clear what had delayed their arrival.

When Aunt Kate saw us her face showed a frown, but it was a funny frown - as though it were artificial. Her eyes seemed to be dancing with laughter even as her lips turned down. "There is one more problem to address."

"Only one?" I asked with a laugh.

"One for now," she countered with her own laugh. She walked around Cheyenne and I, studying us from all angles with apparent seriousness.

"So, who gets to wear the wedding dress?" she asked finally.

"I'll flip you for it," Cheyenne offered, looking at me with the same sort of semi-serious appraisal Aunt Kate had demonstrated. "Heads or tails?"

"Oh, shoot, beautiful," I countered. "We'll *both* wear wedding dresses."

"Deal," she said, snuggling into my arms for a foretaste of our life together. Like her kiss, it was going to be complicated - sweet and soft and yet passionate and intense.

And very, very alive. My life had ended in very important ways almost three years before. But out of the ashes a new life had risen.

Maybe I'd change my superhero name to "Phoenix."

Nahh. I was Nightwind. That was good enough for me.



Finis


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