Ain't It a Drag (Pt.2)

Return to Pt. 1

Ioki sat on his usual bench, chomping on his gum and wishing that his cover allowed him to eat a normal lunch. This diet of bubblegum, soda pop and cigarettes was going to do him in if Lucinda Walsh didn't rearrange his anatomy, first. He'd managed to avoid her so far, but the look of smoldering fury on her face, every time her eyes touched him, gave him ample warning of the fireworks to come. No doubt about it. Her boyfriend had identified his pursuers of the previous day and gotten word to Lucinda. Now the fur was about to fly.

Lucinda came out of the cafeteria, without her lunch tray, and zeroed in immediately on Harriet's bench. As she marched purposefully in his direction, Ioki made a brief, desperate wish that Ellen would show up to rescue him. He quashed that ignoble thought, reminding himself that Ellen had no part in this ridiculous masquerade. He was a big boy or a big girl, depending on which way you looked at it and he didn't need some scrawny, thirteen-year-old barnacle to protect him. At least, he hoped he didn't.

Lucinda planted herself in front of him, her arms stiff at her sides, and her hands unconsciously clenched into fists. Her normally lovely face was transformed by rage and something Ioki could only read as fear. He could tell by the puffiness around her reddened eyes, and the slightly sticky look to her lashes, that she had been crying. Probably all night. That realization did not make him feel better about any of this.

Ignoring the little voice in his head that told him he was about to behave like a total bastard, he slipped firmly into his role as Harriet the Spy and gave Lucinda a long, cold, disdainful stare. She did not flinch.

In a low, furious voice, she hissed, "What the hell were you doing yesterday?"

Harry lit his cigarette, took a long drag on it, and said through a plume of smoke, "Fuck off."

Lucinda's body seemed to vibrate with anger. "I'm not afraid of you, Blake. Swear yourself blue in the face, smoke yourself to death, I don't care. It doesn't impress me. And I'm not leaving till you talk to me."

"I got nothing to say to you, Snow White."

"I want to know why you were spying on me yesterday!"

"You better lay off the drugs, hon. You're getting paranoid."

"Paranoid? You mean, that motorcycle was just a figment of my imagination?"

The false sweetness in her voice set off an alarm in Ioki's head, but he had no time to react. Her hand shot out and grabbed his right arm, a few inches above the elbow, exactly where the bullet had grazed him, and she squeezed with all her strength. Ioki gave an involuntary hiss of pain that brought a tight, triumphant smile to Lucinda's face.

"Then I guess that doesn't hurt!"

Ioki caught her wrist with his free hand and tightened his grip, till he felt her bones give beneath his fingers. She gasped in surprise, her hand opening reflexively. He pulled her hand away from his arm but did not let go of her immediately.

"That wasn't very nice," he informed her, softly. "And it sure wasn't smart."

"Let go of me!"

"Why? So you can dig your fingernails into me again?" Lucinda tried to wrench free of his grip, but only succeeded in inflicting more pain on herself. "Pays to stay fit."

"You bitch!" she sobbed, her helplessness only feeding her rage.

Ioki promptly let go of her and slouched back on his bench, taking another drag on his cigarette. "I'm not the one shooting guns at people."

"If you were minding your own, damned business, no one would've been shooting at you!"

His eyebrows rose into the fringe of his bangs in an expression of wounded innocence. "I was minding my own business."

"How is following my boyfriend your business?!"

He laughed. "Don't worry, hon. He's not my type."

Lucinda ground her teeth and raised her balled fists threateningly. Harry thought he saw a wisp of smoke coming out of her ears, but it may have just been the drifting cloud from his cigarette. He wondered, silently, why it was taking the faculty so long to notice that he had actually lit the blasted thing. He'd counted on them to break up this little tete-a-tete by now, but they were lying down on the job, today, and leaving him without his expected backup.

Lucinda mastered her emotions enough to demand, in a furious undertone, "Stop playing games with me! Tell me the truth!"

Still no sign of a teacher in the quad. With an inward shrug, Harry resigned himself to the inevitable and began spinning the flimsy tale he and Doug had concocted yesterday. "You want the truth? Okay. Dougie and I wanted to meet your connection."

"My what?"

"Your connection. Your dealer." When she just blinked at him, baffled, he said, with exaggerated slowness, "Your drug dealer."

"My...my drug..." She blinked again, then the import of his words hit her, and she was filled with an entirely different kind of emotion. "You think I'm a junkie?!" A relieved, amazed laugh escaped her lips. "You're out of your mind!"

"You're not the first person to notice."

"Do I look like a junkie?"

Ioki shrugged. "What's a junkie look like?"

"You," she answered bluntly.

"Only the honest ones." He raked her with a look of withering contempt and added, brutally, "You look exactly like a junkie, from where I'm sitting. Rich little girl who won't play with her nice friends. Sits all alone, reading her books, saving her money for her favorite pusher, hanging out with her ratty boyfriend from the wrong side of town, and shooting God knows what into the veins between her toes, so the needle marks won't show in gym glass." A very unpleasant smile spread over his face. "Me, I'm an honest junkie. But I've had lotsa practice pickin' out the dishonest ones. I spotted you the first day. Said to Dougie, 'Keep an eye on Walsh. She's gonna introduce us to our new supplier.' After all," the evil smile widened a notch, "we're new in town. We need to make the right...friends."

Lucinda stared at him, intently, for an uncomfortably long moment. At first, she seemed to weigh his words carefully. Then her eyes grew hard and angry again, her face tightened, and the fear returned to lurk just under the skin. "You're lying," she snapped, suddenly.

"I never lie," Harry assured her. "Only nice people have to lie."

"You know very well I wasn't buying drugs, yesterday! You saw me pass those pap..." She bit off her words, realizing a second too late that she had said more than she had intended. She gnawed her lip, feeling her cheeks grow hot with combined frustration and embarrassment.

Ioki leaned forward and very deliberately stubbed out his cigarette on the bench. This conversation had just taken an interesting turn, and he didn't want it interrupted by an irate teacher. When the butt was ground to shreds under one stiletto-heeled pump, he leaned back again and blew a large bubble at Lucinda.

In a calm, almost friendly tone, he said, "Yeah, I saw 'em."

She shuddered, as he resumed chomping on his wad of gum. "That's incredibly disgusting."

"You trying to change the subject?"

"No." Her jaw hardened stubbornly. "I told you, I'm not afraid of you."

"Why should you be? I'm just a classmate who wants a favor."

She shook her head, still staring intently at him with a gaze that seemed to strip the layers of paint from his face. "I don't think so. You and your...your sister, you're not students at all. You don't fool me. I know who sent you, so just go back and tell him it isn't going to work!"

"Tell who?" Ioki asked.

"Just tell him!" She spun on her heel and marched toward the building, calling back over her shoulder, "A couple of bloodhounds in bad make-up aren't going to stop me! Nothing is going to stop me!!"

Ioki watched her go, a thoughtful frown tugging at the corners of his mouth, till she disappeared into the building. As he turned back around to settle onto the bench, he noticed Penhall standing quietly by the fence. How long had he been waiting there, Harry wondered. And why hadn't he given a shout, to get his attention? Harry suddenly felt very tired and not at all happy with this day's work. Between stealing school files, manhandling Lucinda Walsh both physically and mentally and getting Ellen mixed up in his elaborate schemes, he had done nothing at all to feel proud of. Stifling a sigh, he pushed himself to his feet and moved slowly across the quad toward the fence.

Doug met him with a loopy grin and a jovial shout. "Hey, Beautiful! How's it goin'?"

Harry turned around to check behind him for stragglers. For once, no one trailed at his four-inch heels. "Save it for the tourists, 'kay?"

"What's up?"

"I just had a really weird conversation with Lucinda."

"Yeah? Weird how?"

Harry relayed as much of his conversation as he could remember to Doug and saw his eyes widen in reaction.

When he finished, Doug gave a low whistle and said, "Much as I hate to admit it, it looks like Daddy Spencer is on the right track."

"Maybe. But something about that message she gave me doesn't fit. D'you suppose it was meant for Phillips?"

"Who else?"

"I don't know." Ioki scowled down at the ground. "I get the feeling we're missing something, and I hate when that happens."

"Whatever it is, we'll find it."

"Anything in Lucinda's file that will help?"

"Nothin' worth writin' home to the Bureau about, but it's a place to start. I got an address." Penhall pulled a rumpled square of paper from his jacket pocket and unfolded it into a full sheet, covered with his scrawl. "One of those big, Victorian mansions in the old part of town. I'm gonna check it out this afternoon."

"Cool. What else?"

"The house is owned by some corporation, called Merritt Industries, that Phillips says is a front. Nothing but a name on the letterhead. He hasn't traced it back to the real owners yet. The same company pays her tuition and owns the pink slip on the limo that drops her off at school every day."

"The real Family touch, huh?"

"Yeah. Just one, big, happy holding company."

"So, maybe Phillips is right, and Lucinda Walsh doesn't exist."

Penhall eyed him sharply. "What's cookin' in your pretty head, Harriet Babe?"

"She told me she wasn't afraid of me, but she's lying. That girl is scared, Doug. Really and truly scared. And if we give her a chance, she's gonna run."

"How do you figure?"

"She didn't buy our cover story."

"Well, it was pretty thin, but what're you gonna do, when you're caught red-handed with your badge hangin' out?"

"Maybe, if she knew we were cops..."

"Don't go there." After a beat, he cocked a knowing eyebrow at Ioki and asked, "She gettin' to ya, Babe?"

"I don't like scaring kids."

"You think she's scared now, wait till she sees you without the wig."

His bantering tone brought a grin to Harry's face and dispelled much of the gloom that clung to him. Putting up one black-clawed hand to pat his mop of hair into place, he mused, "Probably scare the pants off her."

"Don't you just wish."

"Oh, please! Do you really think I could have a thing for a girl named Fantasia? C'mon. A guy's gotta have some standards!"

"You always say that, but I never see any evidence of it."

Ioki cast a long-suffering look at the heavens and groaned, "What'd I do to deserve this?"

"Lied to the INS?" Doug suggested, archly.

"You're starting to piss me off, Doug."

Penhall laughed out loud. "Anything to make you happy, Beautiful!"

"Then get the hell outta here and do some real police work." Doug executed a clumsy bow that set Harry off laughing. When he caught his breath, he said, "Tell Phillips to put his goons on alert. There's no way of knowing when Lucinda will make her move."

"Check." Doug turned toward the Harley parked at the curb but paused halfway across the sidewalk to ask, "Are you and Tommy gonna be okay here without backup?"

"Yeah. Now that Lucinda's on to us, we don't have to pretend any more. We can just sit around and stare at her."

Doug chuckled as he climbed onto his bike. "I admire your subtlety, Iok. Catch ya later. Don't break a nail!" With that, he gunned the engine, pushed away from the curb, and slid neatly into the flow of traffic.

*** *** ***

"So, what exactly are we looking for, here?" Hoffs asked, as she grimaced at the various heaps of paperwork on the table.

"Who the hell knows?" Hanson grumbled.

Ioki examined the sheet of paper on the top of his own stack, shifted it to the 'discard' pile, and said, "Anything with the names Lucinda Walsh, Fantasia Wellington, or Merritt Industries on it."

"What about the kid with the gun?"

"We don't know his name."

"Oh, yes we do!" Doug Penhall came bouncing into the room, wearing a self-satisfied grin and brandishing a large envelope.

Hanson took one look at the envelope, recognizing it as standard Police Records issue, and groaned aloud. "Not more paperwork!"

"Cheer up, Tommy. You're gonna love this." Penhall plunked down in an empty chair, still grinning like a Cheshire cat. "I have, right here in my hot little hands, the DMV records on our gray Chevy." He looked around the circle of unsmiling faces, waiting for the inevitable explosion of congratulations. When none came, his face fell ludicrously. "The name of our shooter, guys! Lucinda's dim-bulb boyfriend!"

"So, what is it?" Ioki prompted.

With a resigned sigh, Penhall opened the envelope and pulled out a thin stack of printouts. "The car is registered to a Clifford Donahue, Sr, born August 12th, 1951."

Ioki eyed his colleague doubtfully. "1951? You gotta have something better than that."

"Of course I do!" Doug now looked positively wounded. "Harriet, Babe, Love of my life, have I ever let you down?"

"Will you quit with the Romeo routine and tell us what you found out?" Tom demanded.

"Clifford Senior has a son, oddly enough, named Clifford Junior. Junior is seventeen years old and a student at Lincoln High."

Hoffs whistled appreciatively. "Definitely the wrong side of the tracks."

"Definitely. Cliff Sr. doesn't own a gun, and there's no record of Cliff Jr. buying one, but that doesn't really tell us much. Any halfway decent delinquent can get his hands on a gun, these days."

"Is Junior a delinquent?" she asked.

Doug shook his head. "If he is, he's strictly small-time, with no record. But we've got a name and an address. We can put the little savage away for shooting at a cop."

"No we can't," Harry said, glumly. "We can arrest him for shooting at a girl who was stupid enough to chase him into that tunnel, but not at a cop."

"Either way, he won't escape the long arm of The Law!" Doug assured him.

"How'd you get this information, anyway?"

"Ah! Once again, you underestimate your Better Half!" He tapped his temple with one fingertip, the gloating grin back on his face. "While you were inside the Federal Building, hiding from Uncle Sam, I was writing down the kid's license number...just in case!"

Harry broke out in a wide, delighted smile and patted Doug's arm with one black-clawed hand. "Nice work, Dougie. Very nice."

"Thanks, Doll." Before Ioki knew what was coming, Penhall caught his hand and dropped a flourishing kiss on the backs of his fingers. "I live for a kind word from your gorgeous lips."

"Eewww!" three voices exclaimed, in unison, as Ioki snatched his hand away.

"Nobody appreciates me," Penhall mourned. "I risk life and limb to get vital information, and..."

"You risk life and limb?!" Ioki exclaimed in outrage. "Since when?!"

Hanson shot Penhall a harassed look and muttered, "Now you've done it. Why'd you have to get him started?"

"Sorry, man. I forgot."

"I think we outta just amputate his arm, and get it over with. God knows, to hear him talk, it's gonna turn gangrenous and fall off anyway."

"I think Blowfish has a pair of bolt cutters upstairs. Want me to check?"

Ioki looked from one to the other and opened his mouth to deliver some blistering retort, but Hoffs cut in on them before the battle could escalate out of control.

"Children!" She rapped a knuckle on the table for attention. "Can we save the surgery for recess and get back to business?"

"Okay, okay..." the men mumbled, as each reluctantly turned back to the heaps of paper on the table.

They had worked for nearly half an hour, in the sleepy silence of mind-numbing boredom, when Ioki suddenly glanced up at Penhall and asked, "Did you check out the house?"

"Yup." The others all dropped the pages in their hands and turned curious eyes on Penhall. "It's quite a house. Great big Victorian thing on a walled estate."

"And?" Hanson prompted.

"And nothin'. Can't get in without a warrant, and can't see squat from the street."

Tom shot a sideways glance at his partner. "You're not gonna to tell me you stayed out on the street."

"We-e-e-ll...maybe I kinda...hopped over the wall for a quick look."

"Doug!" Judy looked genuinely shocked. "You didn't have a warrant!"

"Didn't need one. Didn't get caught." Penhall thought for a moment, then frowned. "Didn't see anything, either. The place looks empty. I saw a couple of servants, and some of those big dudes in black suits, like the ones who drive Lucinda to school every morning, but they stayed in the back. The rooms on the ground floor were mostly empty."

"No people?" Hanson asked.

"No furniture, even. I'm tellin' ya, it doesn't look like anyone lives there."

"Maybe it's another front, like the company that owns it," Ioki suggested. "Maybe Lucinda doesn't live there at all."

Penhall shrugged. "I hung around till the limo brought her home. She went inside and didn't come out again, that I saw. We could ask Daddy Spencer if she spends the night there."

Hanson and Ioki exchanged a hard look and both shook their heads at the same moment.

"Let's keep Phillips out of this," Hanson said. "That's why we went to all that trouble to get into her file. We don't want Phillips looking over our shoulders and second-guessing us."

"It's bad enough having to report to him every day," Ioki added, sullenly.

"You really gotta do something about that rebellious streak," Penhall remarked. "If you're not careful, you're gonna get grounded for the next ten years."

"Shut up and read," Ioki retorted.

They turned back to the onerous task of sifting through a mountain of paperwork. It was Hoffs who finally unearthed the form in question. She flicked her eyes over yet another piece of paper, barely registering what it said, then suddenly sat up straight and crowed,

"I got it!"

The three men immediately lurched to their feet and scurried around the table to peer over her shoulder, shouting a deafening series of questions.

"Quiet! Everybody just be quiet!" When the din calmed enough to allow her to make herself heard, she continued, "It's a name change application. She wants to change the name attached to her Social Security number, from Lucinda Walsh to Maryann Taylor. Maryann Taylor?"

They all stared at each other blankly.

"Why Maryann Taylor?" Penhall asked.

"Why not?" Hanson said. "What I'd like to know is, why is the original name on the form Lucinda Walsh, if Lucinda Walsh doesn't exist?"

"And why is she changing her name, at all?" Ioki added.

Hoffs shrugged. "So she can get other official documents, under another name? A passport, maybe?

"Yeah, but how many aliases does she need?"

"None of this makes much sense," Hoffs said to her partner. "If her father has the connections to create the Lucinda Walsh identity, he could certainly create another one for her, without her having to send her boyfriend to the Federal Building."

The sound of a familiar step on the wooden floor brought all of them around in their chairs. For once, they were relieved to see Spencer Phillips enter the room.

Hanson waved prettily to catch his attention and called, "Oh, Daddy Spencer! May we have a moment of your time?"

"Stop calling me that," Phillips snarled, as he strode over to the table.

Hanson dropped the attitude and stated, bluntly, "We found the form, but we don't get it."

"Why doesn't that surprise me?"

The dry note in his voice made Ioki grind his teeth dangerously, but both Hoffs and Hanson stepped in to forestall an explosion. Hoffs shoved the form into his hands, while Hanson hurried to explain, "It's in the name of Lucinda Walsh, which doesn't make any kind of sense. And have you ever heard of Maryann Taylor? Or Clifford Donahue?"

Phillips glanced up from the paper. "Donahue? Who's that?"

"The kid with the gun."

"Never heard of him, but I'll have my men pick him up."

"Not yet!" Ioki protested, bringing all eyes to him. He stared back at them like they were overlooking the obvious. "We don't want to spook Lucinda."

The glare Phillips fixed on him would have curdled fresh milk, but after a moment's thought, he had to admit that Ioki had a point. "You think she's ready to make her move?"

"I think she's so scared, she'll go whether or not she's ready. But if her boyfriend gets arrested, she'll know we're cops. Then who knows where she'll take us."

"Not to her father, that's for sure." Phillips chewed the situation over for another minute, then asked, "You think she's scared enough to run now? Tonight or tomorrow?" Ioki nodded. "Then this won't do her any good, whatever it means." He tossed the name change application down on the table. "It takes weeks to process these things. All right. We'll hold off on arresting the boy till Lucinda makes her move. If she runs tonight, my men will follow her. If she makes it to school tomorrow, she's your problem."

"And if she doesn't run at all?" Hanson asked.

"Then I'll expedite her name change application. See if I can encourage her a little by giving her that new identity she wants so badly." As he turned toward Fuller's office, he paused to burn the young officers with one more killing glare. "And you pack of idiots better remember one thing. If you lose Lucinda Walsh, you're going to lose your badges, your freedom, and some vital body parts, as well. Understood?"

He stalked away, without waiting for a response. All four cops watched him go in silence, but as the office door swung shut behind him, Penhall muttered, "What a guy."

Hanson quirked a half smile at his sister. "Kinda makes you wish you'd been exposed on a hillside at birth, doesn't he?"

 

*** *** ***

The long, black limousine deposited Lucinda Walsh in front of the school at precisely 8:20, as it did every morning. An over-sized, over-muscled goon in a black suit helped her out of the vehicle and watched her stately progress up the front steps. She did not spare a glance for either the goon or the two girls who stood, chatting, just outside the door. Theresa Blake broke off her conversation with Alison to watch Lucinda enter the building, then she shifted her curious gaze to the limousine.

The car waited at the curb, the goon still standing beside it, until the double doors had shut behind Lucinda. Then the man resumed his seat, and the vehicle pulled smoothly into the lane of traffic. As it moved around the corner, out of sight, Theresa shot one expressionless glance at the scruffy figure lounging against a motorcycle, in the parking lot across the street. He lifted his hand in a mocking wave, bringing a snort of disgust from Theresa. She turned abruptly away and entered the school, without acknowledging his salute.

Inside the front doors, Harriet Blake lounged against a row of lockers and followed Lucinda's progress with bored eyes. Like Theresa, she made no effort to hide her interest in the Walsh girl's activities, and once Lucinda had moved a step or two beyond her vantagepoint, Harriet pushed away from the wall and sauntered down the corridor behind her. Several students had noticed the direction of Harriet's open stare, and they could not resist whispering behind their hands at the odd prospect of That Blake Witch trailing snotty Lucinda Walsh through the building. Ellen Halverstock also noticed and, her curiosity piqued, promptly joined the cavalcade. By the time Lucinda reached her destination, she had Harriet, Theresa and Ellen all shadowing her with varying degrees of subtlety.

She halted at the door to the Director's office and looked around, nervously. Her face hardened when she saw the Blake sisters leaning against the lockers just a few yards away. All three girls stared silently at each other for a moment, while Ellen watched them from her hiding place in the doorway of the supply room and wondered what her friends were up to.

Lucinda broke the stalemate by whirling away and pushing the door open. "Miss Apgar," they heard her ask, "was a letter messengered here for me, this morning?"

Then the door swung shut behind her, cutting off the rest of the conversation. Theresa and Harriet moved over to peer through the window, but they could see little through the textured glass.

Less than three minutes after entering the office, Lucinda strode out again. She favored her tormentors with one sour glance, then headed back toward the front doors, knowing that they were close on her heels. Tom and Harry followed her back to the entrance, but they halted just inside the double doors. From here, they had a clear view of Lucinda, as she sat down on the cement stairs and pulled a legal-sized envelope from her purse. She did not open the envelope, just sat, staring at the road and tapping it against her fingertips in a gesture of impatience. The men exchanged a questioning glance.

"What d'you think?" Tom asked. "Is this the move we've been waiting for?"

Harry blew a contemplative bubble, his eyes still on the girl outside. "She knows we're following her."

"True."

"And she knows we aren't students."

"Also true."

"So I guess our cover's about as blown as it can get."

"You have a point, there, Sis."

Harry shifted his gaze from Lucinda to Tom and broke out in a wide grin. "What've we got to lose?"

"Not a blessed thing. Come on."

Hanson pushed through the doors and bounded down the first couple of stairs. He plunked down on the step beside Lucinda, while Ioki sat on her other side.

"Hello, Lucinda," the two men chirped in unison.

"Whatcha doin'?" Tom added.

Lucinda glared at them, appalled by their cheek, but before she could come up with a suitably scathing retort, a cab pulled into sight. She leapt to her feet and took the stairs two at a time, leaving the two officers staring at each other, blinking in surprise.

"Yoicks!" Tom shouted, as he jumped up.

Harry was only a step behind him, and they reached the curb on Lucinda's heels. She frantically signaled for the cabby's attention. At the same moment that the cab slowed and angled toward them, Ioki spotted Penhall in the mini-mart parking lot.

Giving a piercing whistle, he shouted, "C'mon, Dougie!!"

Penhall sprinted across the street, crossing in front of the parked cab just as Lucinda piled into the back seat. Penhall screeched to a halt, his hands braced on the hood of the car, and grinned baitingly through the windshield at the annoyed cab driver. Hanson took advantage of Penhall's delaying tactic to run around to the far side of the vehicle.

"Good work, Doug. You make a hell of a road block." He hopped into the back seat on Lucinda's left, effectively blocking her exit from the car.

Harry scrunched into the seat on her right. "You weren't gonna leave without us, were you?"

"What are you doing?!" she shouted.

"Going where you're going," Tom informed her, pleasantly.

"Where are we going?" Harry wondered aloud.

"Leave me alone! Get out!"

At this point, Penhall decided that it was time to get in the vehicle, himself. But when he circled the nose of the cab to reach the passenger door, he found Ellen Halverstock there ahead of him. She clutched at his arm, refusing to let him sidestep her.

"I'm coming with you," she insisted.

"Get outta my way, kid."

"No! I won't let you go without me!"

With her body in between him and the car door, the best he could do was to shove her in ahead of him. She scrambled into the front seat, her face wreathed in smiles, and settled down happily between Penhall and the bemused cab driver. All three occupants of the rear seat broke off their chatter to stare at Ellen in surprise.

After a befuddled moment, Hanson demanded, "What'd you bring her for?"

Penhall shrugged helplessly. "She didn't give me much of a choice."

"Hi, Harriet," Ellen beamed.

Ioki rolled his eyes and groaned, "Oh, great!"

"Can we please get out of here?!" Lucinda shrieked, her frustration at full boil.

Penhall smiled apologetically at the cab driver and flashed his badge. "Take the lady where ever she wants to go."

Ellen fixed a wide-eyed stare on the badge. "You're a police officer?" she asked, in an awed whisper. Her enormous eyes moved to the two women flanking Lucinda. "You're all police officers?"

"'Fraid so, kid," Tom answered.

"Does this mean I ain't gonna get paid?" the cabby asked, in a thick New York accent.

Doug looked highly offended at that suggestion. "Course you're gonna get paid! We're cops! We don't rip people off!"

"Yeah, right. Who's got the money?"

The three officers exchanged sheepish looks, bringing another groan from Lucinda, but Ellen piped in, cheerfully, "I have plenty of money. I'll pay you."

Shooting a glance at Lucinda in the rearview mirror, the cabby promptly asked, "Where to?"

"The airport."

"The airport!" Harry gave an excited bounce. "We're going to the airport! I love airports," he confided to Lucinda.

"But we don't have tickets," Tom reminded him. "What if the plane is full? What if we didn't pack the right clothes? We could end up in Switzerland with nothing but our bikinis. I think we need a little more information, here."

He deftly nipped the envelope from Lucinda's fingers, bringing a yelp of protest from her. She made one abortive attempt to retrieve the letter, but he easily evaded her grasping hand. Settling back in the seat again, her arms crossed petulantly and a pout on her lips, she grumbled,

"This is just great. My whole life is at stake, and I've got the Keystone Cops sharing my cab."

Harry scowled over at Tom. "She sounds an awful lot like Daddy Spencer. You don't suppose...?"

"Not a chance. You're the only skeleton in Daddy's closet." Tom held up the envelope, making a production out of studying it. "Courier Express. Must be important!" He flipped it open. "Let's have a look at this...plane ticket? It's a plane ticket!"

"Of course it's a plane ticket, you moron," Lucinda snapped, her patience at an end. "I told you I was going to the airport!"

Penhall cocked an eyebrow at his partner and chided, "You gotta give her that."

"Tahiti," Hanson read from the ticket. "Is that where your father is hiding out?"

Lucinda looked genuinely confused at his suggestion. "Of course not. What would he be doing in Tahiti?"

"Looking for a place with no extradition treaty, maybe?"

"My father is in Washington, where he belongs. And if he were in Tahiti, that's the last place I'd be going!"

"He's not in Washington, anymore," Ioki interjected. "He escaped."

"Escaped? What are you talking about?"

Hanson threw her a disgusted look. "Give us a break, huh? We know who your father is, and now we know where he is. It's only a matter of time till we catch him."

"Everybody knows where my father is! He's front page news!" She jabbed a finger at the ticket Hanson still held. "Why do you think I'm running off to Tahiti?"

She stared at the circle of intent faces confronting her, feeling her frustration rise afresh. "Look at the damned ticket! Look at it!" Tom's eyes shifted to the document in question, and a frown creased his forehead. "I don't know who the hell you think I am, but that's my real name. Right there on the ticket."

"L. Weintraub?"

"That's right. Laura Weintraub."

"Who's Lucinda Walsh?"

"Nobody. That's the fake identity my father manufactured for me, when I came to live here."

"Then why were you..." Ioki's question faded out, and he fixed a befuddled frown on the girl beside him. "I'm confused. Who's Maryann Taylor?"

"And Fantasia Wellington?" Hanson added.

"What about Merritt Industries?" Penhall reminded them.

"While we're at it," Harry almost shouted, "who's Clifford Donahue, and why'd he shoot at me?"

That one Lucinda could answer, succinctly enough. "Cliff is my boyfriend, and he shot at you because he thought my father had sent you to follow him."

"Your father!!" all three men chorused.

"Of course, my father! Who do you think I'm running away from?!"

"Us," Tom answered.

"Besides you, Einstein. You think I'm going to all this trouble for a vacation in Tahiti?"

"Noooo..." Tom shot a doubtful look at his colleagues. He could feel the ground turning to liquid beneath his feet, as Lucinda's words spun them farther and farther into the Twilight Zone. "I think...I think we're in trouble. Again."

Both Lucinda and Ellen straightened up in their seats and turned shocked eyes on him. That last sentence had been spoken in his normal voice, with no trace of Theresa's dulcet tones to soften it. Ellen found her own voice first, exclaiming in a choked whisper,

"You're not Theresa!"

Tom couldn't help grinning at this cryptic remark, but Lucinda showed no signs of appreciating the humor of the moment. With a guttural snarl of rage, she reached up to snatch the wig from Tom's head. The sight of his heavily made-up face and slicked back hair brought giggles from Ellen and a broad grin from Penhall.

"Busted!"

Tom struck his most tragic pose. "There goes my career on the night club circuit."

At that point, the full implications of the situation dawned on Ellen. She turned eyes the size of dinner plates on Ioki and asked "Are you a man, too?"

"Depends on who you ask," Penhall answered, helpfully.

"Shut up, Doug," Harry snapped, in his normal voice.

Ellen's eyes got impossibly bigger, and her cheeks flamed crimson. "Oh! All this time... And your name's not even Harriet, is it?"

"Ack! I should hope not!"

"What...what is it?" she asked, tentatively.

Ioki grinned at her and blew an enormous bubble with his gum. "Harry Truman Ioki."

Her mouth made a soundless 'O' of astonishment, which slowly turned to a mischievous smile. "Can I see you without your wig?"

He shook his head, firmly. "Sorry, kid. Not till I wash off the lipstick and lose the heels."

His words seemed to recall Tom to a sense of his own condition. Grabbing his sadly abused wig from Lucinda, he pulled it on and tried to smooth the rumpled strands. Then he turned to his erstwhile sister and asked, anxiously, "How does that look?"

"Okay. Here, let me..."

When Ioki reached across Lucinda, to adjust his colleague's wig, she gave an infuriated shriek and shoved him back into his seat. "Holy shit! You guys really are the Keystone Cops!"

"Y'know," Penhall mused, "you sure do swear a lot, for such a nice girl. Didn't your daddy teach you any better'n that?"

"You don't want to know what my daddy taught me!" she answered, caustically.

"Like how to blow up an airliner?" Hanson suggested.

"What?!"

"Isn't that his specialty?"

The baffled horror in her gaze was too genuine to be missed. "You're out of your mind!"

The young officer stared consideringly at her, for a long, silent moment. Finally, he sighed in acceptance. "You really don't know what I'm talking about, do you?"

"No."

"Then you really aren't Fantasia Wellington... and we really are screwed."

"Fantasia Wellington?" Horror and confusion slowly gave way to understanding. An impish smile spread over Lucinda's face. "You thought I was Fanny Wellington?"

The three men nodded, and she broke out in a relieved laugh. "That's rich! I guess you guys have never seen a picture of Fanny, huh? She's about five feet tall, shaped like a dumpling, with those stupid, Shirley Temple sausage curls all over her head. And she's got the IQ of a sea cucumber."

"Well, that wouldn't be you," Penhall pointed out, needlessly.

Hanson threw his hands up in frustration. "If you're not Fantasia Wellington, why are you trying to sneak out of school to see your father?"

"See my father?! Haven't you been listening to a word I said?! I'm trying to get away from my father! Geez! Talk about stupid!"

"Umm, guys?" Ellen ventured. When Harry turned to look questioningly at her, she gave a nervous smile and continued, "I...I think I know who Lucinda's...I mean, Laura's dad is."

A series of blank stares met her statement.

"Samuel Weintraub."

"Samuel Weintraub?" Ioki's eyebrows disappeared into his bangs. "As in, Senator Samuel Weintraub?"

"Yeah. I remember he said something about his daughter, Laura, when he was on "60 Minutes"."

A grimace of distaste crossed Lucinda's face. "That's my daddy. The Senate's answer to PeeWee Herman. He used to be only a statewide embarrassment. Now he humiliates me on a national scale!"

"So, that's why you live here, under an assumed name," Tom said.

"That was my father's idea, to keep me out of the public eye, when the first of his sordid little scandals hit the press. He got me the works driver's license, Social Security card, academic records all under the name of Lucinda Walsh."

"And Merritt Industries?"

"That's his off-shore holding company."

"Money laundering?"

"Nah. Daddy's not interested in ripping off the American public, just in boinking the female half of it. He uses MI to buy houses for his mistresses and pay all his private bodyguards..."

"The dudes with no necks," Penhall interjected.

"Right. Oh, he's got a few under-the-table deals going, just to keep the cash flow liquid, but he's strictly small-time. His real strong suit is dipping his wick where it'll do the most damage."

Ellen blushed, and Harry shot a warning look at Lucinda. "Hey. There are ladies present."

"Spare me, Elvira."

Ellen gazed worshipfully at Ioki.

"Why Maryann Taylor?" Hanson asked quickly, before they could get sidetracked.

"Just a name I picked out. I figured I'd confuse the trail as much as possible, by changing my fake name to an even faker one. Then get a passport, stash some cash, and eventually make a run for it." Her face darkened with resentment. "Then you guys pulled your Three Stooges act and messed me up, but good."

"Why'd you buy the ticket under your real name?"

"Lucinda doesn't have a passport."

"You could've waited till your new name got processed," Ioki pointed out.

"Not when I thought you guys were working for my father! For all I knew, my dad was headed here from Washington, right this minute, to drag me back there where he could keep an eye on me. Well, forget that shit! In less than three months, I turn eighteen and I get control of my trust fund. Until then, this girl's going AWOL."

"Why? Why not wait it out?"

"Do you have any idea what... No, you don't. You can't. You'll just have to trust me when I say that life is going to get very, very unpleasant for the Weintraubs in the next couple of months."

"The Senate Committee?" Ellen asked.

"Yeah. They're going to figure out which rock to turn over, any time now, and I don't plan to be on the same continent with him when they do. I've had enough of "Scandal" Weintraub and his overactive libido!"

Tom shot a look at Harry and shook his head, sadly. "Kinda makes you appreciate Daddy Spencer, huh?"

"I wouldn't go that far."

"So, what do we do, guys? Haul her in as a runaway? Or make sure she gets on that plane to Tahiti in one piece?"

Doug sighed dramatically. "All that paperwork..."

"And nobody's reported her as a runaway yet," Harry reminded him.

"Then I guess we go to the airport!"

"Good," the cab driver piped in, "'cause we're here." He pulled up to the curb, behind a line of other cabs. "And you weirdoes owe me fifteen bucks!"

Ellen quickly paid him and scrambled out of the cab to join the others on the sidewalk. Lucinda seemed to be resisting their offer of an escort, and their voices were rising to a cacophonous level. Ellen listened for a moment, then tugged on Harry's sleeve.

"Excuse me, guys?" They broke off their argument and turned to face her. "Don't you think you'd better use your other voices? The high ones? You are still wearing dresses and...stuff."

Tom and Harry grinned foolishly at each other. "Right," Tom said, briskly, "falsettos it is. Ellen, you wait here for us. We'll take Lu...Laura to the gate, get her checked in, and be back in a few minutes."

"Hey, wait a minute! I'm coming with you!"

"Sorry, kid, but this is Police business. No place for a civilian."

"It's an airport!" The adamant set to Tom's chin warned that she would get nowhere with him, so she turned pleading eyes on her mentor and wheedled, "Harriet?"

"He's right. You'll be safer here."

In the face of Harriet's defection, the fight drained out of her. She hung her head and refused to watch as the group moved off toward the entrance. Her dejected pout stayed in place until they had moved inside the building. Then, abandoning both her woebegone face and her docile attitude, she scurried up to the glass doors. The constant stream of people pouring into the terminal kept the automatic doors open, allowing her to see the four figures making their way through the crowd. When she determined that they were far enough away not to notice her, she joined the in-bound flood.

Lucinda led her motley escort through the main terminal, toward the metal detectors and the gates. As they crossed in front of the banks of ticket counters, they did not notice the squad of no-necked goons in dark suits and glasses that filtered out of the crowd to follow them. Ellen spotted them easily, so badly did they stick out in the colorful crowd, but she was too far away from the others to warn them.

The group reached the end of the counter, leaving much of the crowd behind them. They continued walking, toward the point where the main luggage conveyor belt cut through the wall and disappeared into the nether regions of the airport. The goons drew closer.

Suddenly, a blur of movement to his left caught Hanson's eye. He whirled to meet the unexpected threat, only to take a fist the size and texture of a cured ham in his face. Then his head exploded, and the lights went out.

*** *** ***

Penhall muttered a curse and batted ineffectually at the shoe jammed into the back of his head. All he got for his trouble was another sharp nudge from that wickedly pointed toe. The curse turned to a groan. He could feel his head resting on someone's limb an arm, to judge by the size and his shoulder pressing into the cold, gritty metal of the floor, but he could see nothing in the total darkness. The air smelled close and musty, telling him that he and his semi-conscious cellmates were shut into some fairly confined space.

"Oh, man!" he groaned, "I wanna go home!"

"Doug?" Hanson's voice sounded thick and sleepy. "You okay?"

"No, I'm not okay. I'm getting' kicked and poked and squashed, and there's not enough air in here! Lemme out!"

"Hang on." Penhall felt the arm beneath his head shift, then Tom demanded, grumpily, "Are you the one lying on me?"

"Yeah. Sorry." He struggled to sit up, but a deadweight across his midriff pinned him to the floor. "Hey, Ioki."

"What?" Harry's disgruntled voice asked.

"Get off me, man. You weigh a ton."

"I can't. Somebody's on my leg."

"That'd be me," Tom informed him. "Let's all try to sit up at once, and see what happens."

The resultant round of thrashing and cursing lasted for more than a minute. Finally, Tom shouted for them all to hold still. "We're not getting anywhere, guys."

Harry made a futile attempt to pull his hand out from under Doug's shoulder blade, without leaving most of his skin on the floor, and groused, "This is ridiculous. It's like playing Twister by Braille."

Tom chuckled. "Really? You have experience in this area?"

"Will both of you please shut up?" Doug insisted, his voice sharp with panic. "I want out of here. Right now!"

"Relax," Tom soothed. "Gimme a minute to th..."

"I said, right now!" Penhall heaved his body upward, fear lending him an unusual strength, and tossed the two smaller men aside with childish ease. "Get me out! Now!"

Tom and Harry fetched up against the walls of their prison, shaken but unhurt. They both got their feet under them and scrambled over to where Penhall lay, still thrashing, in the middle of the tiny space.

"Doug! Calm down, man!" Tom threw himself across Penhall and pinned him to the floor. "Calm down!"

"Get me outta here!! Get me out!!"

"Any ideas, Harry?" Tom asked, breathlessly. Doug was both bigger and stronger than he was, and it took everything he had to restrain the other man enough to prevent him from hurting himself.

"Just a minute."

Tom could hear Harry moving around in the darkness but could not tell what he was doing, with Doug bellowing in his ears.

"Here it is," Harry muttered, followed by a pause that felt endless to Tom's overstretched nerves. Finally, he heard the scraping of a striker on flint, and a small tongue of flame illuminated Harriet's garishly painted face.

"Look, Doug! Light!" Tom urged. He felt Doug's body go limp beneath his.

"Where are we?" Penhall gasped.

"I dunno." Ioki played the meager light around the space, looking for something that might identify their location. "Some kinda shipping container, I think."

Hanson pushed himself to his knees and twisted around to gaze at the dimly lit walls. "Yeah. Like the things they put baggage in, before they load it on a plane."

Penhall took a shaking breath and asked, plaintively, "Can I...can I hold the lighter?"

"Harry needs it, if he's gonna find a way outta here."

Ioki didn't waste his breath arguing with Hanson. It was obvious to the meanest intelligence that Penhall would be no help, whatsoever, and that Hanson needed to stay close to him to keep his panic in check. That left Ioki to engineer their escape.

Harry turned the flame up on the lighter, as high as it would go, and made a quick circuit of the container. He located the only door in one long wall. It was locked tight and did not budge when he threw his weight against it. He could see the heavy latch that held it in place, but the mechanism was hidden under a steel plate, which was screwed into the side of the container.

He stared helplessly at it for a moment, then turned to smile wanly at his colleagues. "Anybody got some plastic explosives?"

To Hanson and Ioki's surprise, Penhall answered him. "I have my gun. You wanna shoot our way out?"

"Not a good idea."

"Why not? C'mon, Harry. I need some fresh air."

"Doug, we don't know what's on the other side of the door. What if the bullet goes through and hits somebody on the outside?"

"What if it doesn't," Tom added, dryly, "and it ricochets around in here?"

Harry pulled a grimace. "Either way, we're in deep..."

A sudden creak from the door hinges interrupted him, and a stab of light made all three men cringe and cover their eyes.

"Hi, guys!"

When they could see again, they found Ellen Halverstock standing in the open door of the container, grinning happily. A ragged cheer went up from the prisoners, and they scrambled for the opening. Penhall tumbled out first, with Hanson right on his heels.

"You're a peach, kid!" Penhall crowed.

"The best," Ioki concurred. He paused, the moment his feet hit the pavement, to catch Ellen's head between his hands and plant a kiss on her cheek. The resultant print of his screaming magenta lips on her face made him grin with embarrassment. "Oops. Forgot about the lipstick. Here, let me wipe that off."

Ellen blushed furiously, scrubbing at her face with the sleeve of her sweater. "S'okay. You guys all right?"

"We're fine, now." Hanson glanced around, noting that they were in a massive hangar of sorts, full of containers, carts piled high with luggage, and criss-crossing conveyor belts. A huge set of cargo doors opened onto the tarmac surrounding the terminals. "How'd you find us?"

"I saw the whole thing."

"What happened? Where are we?"

"In the main baggage warehouse, I think. Some of those big guys in black suits grabbed Lucinda and knocked you on the head. Then they dumped you on the conveyor belt. Some of 'em came in here, with you, and some of 'em took Lucinda into the terminal." Ellen giggled. "I jumped on the conveyor belt, to follow you. You shoulda seen the way people stared at me! By the time I got here, the guys in suits were headed out the door, back into the airport, so I figured you were somewhere in this warehouse. Then I just had to find you."

Tom looked at her admiringly. "You really are a peach, you know that?"

She lifted her chin defiantly and said, "I bet you're sorry you told me to wait outside, huh?"

"Actually, it worked out perfectly."

Ellen just sniffed.

"So, what's our next move?" Penhall demanded.

"Rescue Lucinda. You sure they took her into the terminal?" Ellen nodded. "Then let's go find 'em!"

"Uh...any idea how?"

"Well, they sure aren't escorting her to Tahiti. Where else would they go?"

"How about Washington DC?" Ioki suggested.

Hanson thought about that for a moment, then grinned and nodded. "Home to Daddy. I vote for Washington."

 

The ragged group hurried through the airport, scanning the various electronic displays for gate numbers. It took them only a few minutes, and a quick conversation with a ticket agent who quickly succumbed to the Penhall charm, to determine which flight Lucinda and her bodyguards were taking. Then they hit a snag when they reached the Security gate, and Penhall tried to take his gun through the metal detectors.

After precious minutes of wrangling with airport security, he managed to convince them that he and his colleagues were, in fact, police officers. The guards let them through the checkpoint, very reluctantly, but saddled them with a handful of their own uniformed men as back-up. When they finally found themselves on the other side of the barrier, Hanson checked his watch and grimaced.

"The flight will start boarding any minute. We'd better haul ass."

Penhall and Ioki both nodded agreement and started running down the corridor on Hanson's heels. After about three steps, Ioki muttered a savage curse and stopped to kick off his shoes. When he bent to pick them up, Penhall shouted, "Just leave the damned things!"

With a shrug, Ioki took off after his fellow officers, leaving his stiletto-heeled pumps standing, forlornly, in the middle of the floor. Ellen Halverstock used her long legs to advantage, keeping pace with the cops but staying back where she wouldn't interfere. And the airport security guards puffed along in their wake, sweating heavily in their polyester uniforms.

They followed the long, curving terminal past gate after gate, till the airport guards had nearly all dropped to a staggering walk, and even the healthy, young men were starting to breathe heavily. Finally, they saw their destination just ahead. They all spotted the four goons at the same moment, looming above the crowd of more normally proportioned travelers, and they screeched to an abrupt halt. Hanson grabbed each of the other officers by an arm and dragged them over to the wall, where a bank of pay phones gave them minimal cover.

"Only four," he gasped. "They lost a couple, somewhere."

"Only four? In case you hadn't notice," Penhall hissed, "one of those guys is worth two of us. And three of Ioki."

Harry smirked at him and whispered, "Very funny."

"No offense, pal, but that guy's neck is bigger around than your waist."

"We're not gonna wrestle 'em, Doug," Hanson cut in. "We're gonna take 'em out, quickly and quietly, using the element of surprise."

Harry chuckled softly, and both of his friends turned to see him brandishing his gun the rather large and very wicked automatic that he'd been cleaning just a few days before. "Surprise...and superior firepower," he informed them.

"Where'd that come from?" Penhall demanded.

"You didn't think I was walking around unarmed, did you? One bullet hole per case that's my limit."

"Yes, but..." Hanson swept his colleague's meagerly clad form with skeptical eyes, noting that Ioki had lost his purse, as well as his shoes, by this point in their adventure. "...where have you been keeping it?"

"You don't wanna know. So," he smiled brightly at the others, "what's the plan?"

"The plan is to take out the bad guys without shooting up the crowd. You gunslingers think you can handle that?"

Harry looked genuinely affronted by Tom's caustic tone. "Of course. In fact, you'd better take this." He handed Tom the gun and flashed another smile at him. "Just point it at somebody and say 'Stick 'em up!'"

"Right. Ellen, you stay here and keep your head down."

Ellen's eyes moved to the enormous goons and widened in alarm. "You don't have to tell me twice."

Tom gave a nod and motioned for the others to follow him. The three men faded into the crowd, moving silently toward the massed passengers waiting to board the plane. As luck would have it, the goons had drawn Lucinda away from the main crowd, allowing the three cops to move a bit more freely without fear of injuring a civilian in the melee. They drifted around behind the four goons, who were all facing the jetway, but not before Hanson caught Lucinda's eye and gave her a quick thumbs-up. She reached up to scratch her nose, flipping him off in the process, then turned away to watch the other passengers move through the gate.

When nothing stood between them and their quarry but a few yards of air, the young men exploded into action. Penhall reached his goon first, slamming his shoulder into the bigger man's back. The goon staggered to his knees, allowing Penhall to lock an arm around his throat and grind the barrel of his gun into his spine. "Freeze, man, or I'm gonna hurt you!"

At the same instant, Lucinda whirled around, picking up momentum, and nailed the nearest guard in the head with her sizable purse. Before he could recover, Hanson buried a knee in his groin, sending him to the ground. The cop spun immediately to face the third goon, his automatic raised to point at the surprised man's nose. "Stick 'em up," he suggested in a conversational tone.

Ioki reached his opponent, just as Hanson had goon number two doubled over on the floor. With his nice running start, he executed a picture-perfect flying kick, catching the goon in the center of his broad chest and sending him sprawling several feet across the carpet. Even as his feet left the floor, Ioki heard the ominous sound of fabric tearing, but discipline and years of training dictated that he finish with the bad guys before he investigate the source of that ghastly noise.

Rebounding from the jarring impact with the goon's chest, he rolled to his feet and turned to check on the condition of his target. The man could only twitch and groan pathetically. A quick survey of the scene showed that all four of the bodyguards were disabled or restrained, and the airport security guards had arrived with artillery and handcuffs. The situation was entirely under control.

Hanson smiled around the group in smug satisfaction. "Score one for the good guys."

"It's about time!" Penhall grumped. "Seems like we've been takin' it on the chin with this one."

He turned to find Ioki, to offer his congratulations on the ease with which the other officer had reduced his allotted goon to road kill, but Ioki was paying no attention to the conversation. He stood with his back to a large trashcan, both hands behind him, wearing an expression of abject dismay. Penhall frowned in sudden concern and trotted over to his colleague.

"What's wrong, Iok?"

Harry shot him a miserable look. "I don't want to know."

"Turn around." Ioki shook his head frantically. "Okay, if that's how you're gonna be about it..." Penhall grabbed his arm and spun him around, while Ioki craned his neck to peer over his own shoulder. Doug's burst of raucous laughter made him blush so furiously that it even showed through his heavy make-up. "Oh, man! You're death on a mini-skirt, Babe!"

The look Harry gave him said, 'I'll never forgive you for this!' so clearly, that it set Doug off laughing again. Giving Ioki a pat on the back, Penhall turned him around again and parked him with his back to the trashcan. Then he sauntered over to the only goon that had not yet been handcuffed the one Ioki had flattened. The man barely reacted when Penhall stripped off his suit jacket and carried it back over to Ioki.

"Here ya go. Don't want any of these tourists getting a thrill they don't deserve."

"You're a pig, Doug." Harry accepted the jacket and put it on. The goon was at least eighteen inches taller than the small officer, and maybe two hundred pounds heavier, so the jacket made a very respectable dress - much more respectable than the one he'd been wearing up to this point - once he rolled up the sleeves to free his hands. After twisting around to inspect his new and improved hemline, he amended, "But a thoughtful pig."

"Anything for you, Beautiful."

Doug looped an arm around Harry's neck, and the two men strolled back over to where Tom stood, conferring with the security guards. Tom greeted them with the reminder that they still had to get Lucinda to her plane. They trooped away from the scene of the skirmish, leaving the goons to be trussed and carted off by airport security, and picked up Ellen as they headed down the corridor. She fell into step beside Harry, while Tom and Doug flanked Lucinda.

The weird cavalcade drew countless stares, as they made their way down the entire length of the terminal, toward the international gates. All three men were filthy from their incarceration in the shipping container. Hanson's wig was tangled and badly askew, his make-up smeared, and his clothing pulled every which way. Ioki padded along in his ripped fishnet stockings, with his gun shoved into the pocket of his purloined jacket, so that it knocked against his knee with every step. Beside them, Penhall looked positively well-groomed, and the two girls seemed woefully out of place. They made it to the proper gate, unmolested if not unnoticed, and arrived in time for Lucinda to say a quick goodbye before boarding.

She so far forgot her wounded dignity as to favor each of the men with a warm hug. Even the despised Ellen earned a smile and a handshake. As they watched her go down the jetway, they all heaved a sigh of relief, but they could not fully relax until the plane rolled away from the terminal. Finally, it taxied out of sight, and they knew that Lucinda or Laura, or Maryann, or whoever she would turn out to be, in the end was no longer their problem.

Hanson turned away from the view of the runway and smiled tiredly at his colleagues. He absently scratched his head, pulling his wig even father off kilter. "Are we done, guys?"

"We're done," Penhall stated, emphatically. "Let's go home."

Once more, they trooped off through the terminal, but this time, there was no urgency in their steps. In fact, they all felt remarkably weary, considering that it was barely ten o'clock in the morning. Only Ellen seemed in her usual spirits. She moved into her favorite spot, at Harry's side, and this time slipped a tentative hand through his arm. He didn't seem to object, so she smiled happily and almost skipped along the corridor, in her excess of good humor.

"You know," she confided to Harry, "this was an amazing day. The most fun I've ever had."

"Yeah?" He blew an enormous bubbled with his omnipresent gum, and popped it, making her laugh.

"Yeah. Hey, Harriet..."

"Why do you keep calling me that?"

"'Cause I can't think of you as anybody else, when you're wearing that wig. You're not gonna smoke another cigarette, while you've got that gum in your mouth, are you?" Harry shook his head. "Have you given up smoking?"

"Sort of." He grinned impishly at her and explained, "I lost my cigarettes when I lost my purse."

"You lost your purse? Then where were you keeping that gun?"

"None of your business, kid!"

She giggled and fell quiet for a moment. Then she said, "I really mean it. I've never, ever had so much fun, in my whole life. I wish today didn't have to end."

Harry grinned again and reached up to wipe at the smear of magenta still visible on her cheek. "I hope you still feel that way, after you pay for the taxi ride home."

*** *** ***

The mood in the Chapel was one of relief tinged with exhaustion. The three officers were collected around Hanson's desk, where he sat staring uselessly at a heap of paperwork, his heavily mascaraed eyes blinking sleepily. After more than a week of wishing they could discard their female clothing, the two young men now found the task of getting clean and groomed too monumental to be faced, just yet. As a result, Hanson still wore the remains of his detested costume. He had changed into a pair of comfortable blue jeans, a flannel shirt hanging open over a T-shirt, and a pair of white cotton socks, but he had not taken the time to shower or wash his face. One pearl earring (the other one was lost somewhere in the airport) still graced his ear, and the traces of his make-up still smeared his face.

Ioki had done no better. Unlike Hanson, he had taken the time to comb his hair and wipe off most of his war paint, but he had not made it to his locker to change his clothes. He sat at one end of Tom's desk, wearing nothing but a long silk shirt over his battered stockings, having thrown the mangled remains of his skirt in the trash and hung the goon's jacket over a chair to get the wrinkles out of it. He was so engrossed in the problem of removing his fingernails that he didn't even notice the state of his clothing.

Penhall, who was seated across the desk from him, did notice and couldn't resist needling him about it. "You been spendin' too much time as a girl, Iok."

"Hmm?" Ioki glanced up, a distracted frown on his face. "What did you say?"

"I said, you're getting way too comfortable in those clothes. It's not nice to tease ol' Dougie like that."

Hanson yawned and mumbled, "Give it a rest, Doug. The case is over."

"About friggin' time, too."

"Couldn't have put it better myself." Tom caught sight of Harry, who was pulling furiously on one of his black talons. He frowned. "What're you doing?"

"Trying to get this thing off!"

"You're gonna take half your finger with it."

"They don't come off!"

"Quit pulling so hard."

"No, you don't understand. They don't come off!!" He tugged at the nail again, turning panicked eyes on his colleague. "I think she welded them on!"

The timely arrival of Judy Hoffs at the top of the stairs rescued Hanson from the need to come up with a suitable response.

"Hi, guys!" she sang out, cheerfully. "I hear you solved the mystery of Lucinda Walsh!"

"Says who?" Penhall said, in a sour tone.

"Says Captain Fuller and Agent Phillips."

"Phillips?" All three men swung around to stare expectantly at her. "You've seen Phillips?" Hanson asked.

"I was here when Fuller got your call. And I saw your dear Daddy Spencer slink outta here, with his regulation tail between his legs."

"Oh, man!" Doug sighed, "I wish I'd been here for that!"

"No, you don't. Trust me."

"Is he coming back to ream us out?" Harry asked, uneasily.

Judy laughed. "I doubt it. By the time he left, he'd figured out just how foolish this whole thing makes him look, and he was only too anxious to get away before you guys showed up."

"Huh." Tom propped his elbows on the desk and rubbed his eyes, forgetting about the mascara for a moment. When he lowered his hands, black smudges circled his eyes like bruises. "I wonder what'll happen to him, when the press hears about Wellington's escape."

"He still has time. But he won't have much hide left on him, if Weintraub finds out his undercover agents helped Laura get away."

Harry turned his attention back to his nails, muttering, "Great. Another one who wants to string us up."

"Have a little faith in the captain," Judy said. "He'll make sure Weintraub knows who to blame."

Tom shook his head. "No, Harry's right. We're kinda at the bottom of the food chain, in this scenario."

"You're a pessimistic pair, today! I would've thought you'd be feeling good, with the case closed and Laura safely on her way to paradise."

"We are." Hanson's flat, weary tone belied his words. "We've just had enough of guys in bad suits throwing their weight around. Somehow, they always land on us."

Harry examined his nails, his expression softening from sour to thoughtful. "Of course, we did make Phillips look like an idiot."

"There is that." Tom broke out in a rueful grin. "And we got a couple of collars. Not the ones we wanted no internationally famous terrorists but a collar is a collar."

The round of murmured agreement from the other officers was interrupted by the sound of someone clearing his throat behind them. They all turned to find Captain Fuller standing at the top of the stairs. He offered an apologetic smile to the row of tired, hopeful faces confronting him, as he moved over to the desk. "Sorry, guys, but there is no collar."

"What?" four voices chorused.

"The Donahue boy is claiming Self Defense. He didn't know you were cops, and when you chased him into the undercrossing, he was afraid for his life. The D.A. isn't even contesting it, since the kid's a minor and a first time offender. The judge cut him loose."

"Figures. What about the no-necks?" Penhall asked.

"It seems "Scandal" Weintraub still has a bit of clout left in him." Fuller shrugged uncomfortably and shifted his gaze away from their outraged expressions. "He contacted the Governor. The Governor contacted the Mayor, who contacted the Chief of Police. You can guess the rest."

Hanson groaned and dropped his head into his hands, while Penhall muttered a curse.

Ioki gave a growl of frustration. "I don't believe this! We spent more than a week in these stupid clothes, made total asses of ourselves, scared the daylights out of some poor High School girl, got locked in a baggage container, started a brawl in an airport, and pissed off a U.S. Senator...did I leave anything out?"

"Got shot at," Penhall reminded him.

"And groped by a dirty, old man," Hanson added.

"Yeah. All that stuff. And what do we have to show for it?" A series of grumbles from the other two answered him. "Nothing! Absolutely nothing! Not even a dumb kid with a .38 Special or a few goons with no necks!"

Fuller eyed him curiously, seeming more amused by his outburst than angered. "Just what do you want me to do about it, Ioki?"

Harry crooked his fingers threateningly and hissed, "Give us five minutes alone with Spencer Phillips, before I lose the nails!"

"Sorry." A glimmer of laughter shone in Fuller's eyes. "As much as I'd like to witness that meeting, I can't let you guys shred your careers, along with Phillips' flesh."

"What I'm gonna do to him won't show."

"Simmer down, Harry. You guys should be grateful you got out of this in one piece."

"Sort of."

Fuller grinned and headed for his office, but he stopped halfway across the room and turned back to remark, "Hanson, wash your face. You look like a barfly who's been crying in her beer all night. And Ioki, put some clothes on. What's the matter with you two, anyway? Don't you have any self respect?"

"Self respect?" Harry said, bitterly, as the office door shut behind the captain. "I left my self respect stuck up on that fence."

"And I left mine in the girl's bathroom."

Hoffs turned a surprised look on him. "What were you doing in the girl's bathroom? A little extra-curricular research?"

Hanson gave a humorless grunt of laughter. "Crying all over Miss Apgar's polyester blouse. It was an Oscar-winning performance, according to Ellen, but not one of my finer moments."

A series of bantering remarks met his words, but Tom ignored them. A thought was trying desperately to make its way through the exhaustion and frustration that clouded his brain, and he was doing his best to encourage it. An expression of dawning delight spread gradually over his face, wiping away the last traces of gloom.

Suddenly, he snapped his fingers and called, "Wait a minute!" to silence the chatter around the desk. "I've got an idea!"

"What kind of idea?" Ioki asked, skeptically.

"An idea of how we can salvage something from this disaster." Before the others could bog him down with a mass of questions, Tom jumped to his feet and grabbed Harry's arm. "Come on, Iokage. We're gonna get us a collar! But first, we ditch the Blake sisters for good!"

Harry looked up at him, wistfully, and asked, "You mean, real clothes? Jeans and T-shirts and..." he breathed the last word reverently, "...boots?"

"That's exactly what I mean. We get to be boys again!"

Harry bounced out of his chair and made as if to follow Tom to the locker room, but a sudden, horrible realization brought him to an abrupt halt. Holding up his hands, he moaned, "How am I gonna get these off?!"

Judy chuckled at his look of dismay. "No problem. All it takes is a little acetone."

"Acetone?" Tom moved back over to Harry and lifted one of his hands to examine the nails. "Isn't that stuff seriously toxic?"

"What d'you mean, 'toxic'?" Harry demanded.

"It eats your liver, or something like that."

Harry turned nervously to his smiling partner. "Is that true?"

"As far as I know."

Ioki stared down at the black scimitars that decorated his fingertips, then shifted his eyes to his own feet and the torn fishnet stockings he still wore. No one interrupted his moment of sober thought, and it was into a respectful silence that he finally said, swallowing audibly, "Liver damage is a small price to pay."

*** *** ***

The blue Mustang pulled up in front of the Raeburn Academy, and the doors popped open. Two men climbed out of the vehicle, pausing to adjust their clothing and sweep the front of the building with cool, serious eyes that masked their wariness. They were impeccably dressed, each by his own standards, their hair clean and combed, their faces innocent of the least trace of make-up. And each bristled with a kind of self-conscious masculinity, as if just being this close to the building challenged his right to wear pants.

After a long moment, in which neither of them moved or spoke, Hanson tore his eyes away from the watching windows of the school and turned them on Ioki. They exchanged a speaking look, squaring their shoulders and lifting their chins in unison.

"This is it, Iokage," Hanson said, firmly. "Time to walk like boys."

Shoulder to shoulder, they strode up the front steps and pulled open the double doors. The hallway inside was crowded with chattering girls, and the men realized that they had timed their arrival to coincide with the end of a period. The sight of all that fluttering femininity made them hesitate in the doorway, till the doors swung shut and swatted them both on the backside, making them hop awkwardly over the jamb.

Luckily for their lacerated pride, no one seemed to notice their undignified entrance, but they had not taken more than three steps along the corridor before a host of startled eyes turned on them. A sudden silence gripped the crowd, broken only by a few whispered questions and giggles. As he ran the gauntlet of all those staring, speculative eyes, Hanson reflected that under any other circumstances, he'd relish this kind of attention from a building full of young women. But all he could focus on, at the moment, was his dread that one of them would recognize Theresa Blake in their swaggering, testosterone-laden, aggressively male visitor.

They could see the door to the Director's office ahead. It seemed they would, miraculously, make it inside undiscovered.

Then they heard a horribly familiar voice call, breathlessly, "You came back!" and a gangly figure in an ill-fitting dress broke free of the crowd. Hanson and Ioki stopped dead, their eyes meeting in a brief, panicked glance, before Ellen Halverstock plowed up to them, her childish face aglow with welcome. She cast a shy smile at Tom, as she stepped around him to slip one hand through Harry's arm.

It took every ounce of Tom's self control not to groan aloud. "Hi, kid," he managed to choke out, in a suffocated voice.

Ellen turned a worshipful look on Harry that made him flush uncomfortably. "I just knew you'd come back. And I knew you'd look even better without that wig. It's amazing," her shining gaze included Tom, as well, "if I hadn't seen Theresa without her wig before, I'd never have known it was you. Do you think they know?"

Harry looked around at the girls, all staring so intently at them. "They do, now."

"Did I mess you up? I'm sorry!"

The deep remorse in her voice made Harry laugh. "Forget it." His embarrassment was rapidly fading, as the humor of the situation dawned on him.

"I'll just tell them you're my...my cousin! They'll believe that!"

"Think so?" Ioki started moving again, drawing Hanson and Ellen down the hallway with him under the collective eyes of the school.

"Sure! They'd never believe any boy would be caught dead walking next to me, who wasn't a relative." She said this with a complete lack of bitterness or self-consciousness that made both men look sharply at her.

Hanson couldn't resist saying, "Give it another ten years, kid. You'll put 'em all to shame."

Ellen giggled again and shook her head. "You don't have to butter me up to get me to help you, Theresa."

"Tom."

"Tom," she repeated, obediently. "I won't... blow your cover. Is that the right way to say it?"

Harry grinned at her. "Yeah. But he wasn't buttering you up."

She rolled her eyes, while the color in her cheeks deepened impossibly. "You guys!"

They reached the office door, and all three stopped just outside. Ellen turned so that she could see both of the officers without letting go of Harry's arm. They smiled at her with genuine affection in their eyes.

"Time to get to work," Harry said.

"How come you're here?" she asked.

"Can't tell you that." Tom affected a grimly official stance and frowned heavily at her. "Police business."

"Neat! You gonna arrest somebody?" When neither cop answered her, she heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Will I..." her eyes drifted over to Harry, "will I see you again?"

Ioki shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe the Blake sisters will come out of retirement, one of these days." Then he met Hanson's eyes, and they chorused, "NOT!"

She did not smile at their banter. Her mouth drooped pathetically. "I'm gonna miss you guys."

"No, you're not. Theresa was a bitch and Harriet was a..." Ioki glanced over at Hanson, a question in his eyes. "What was Harriet?"

"A wicked, selfish, hateful little slut."

"Oh, right."

"They were my friends," Ellen whispered.

"You can make better friends than that," Tom assured her.

Harry gently disengaged her hand from his arm, then brushed her cheek lightly, where the traces of his lipstick were still visible. "Remember, kid, you're a peach. If anyone tells you different, just do what Harriet would do!"

"What's that?"

"Snap your gum and say something rude. If that doesn't work," he grinned impishly at her, "kick the shit out of 'em!"

Tom grabbed his arm to pull him toward the office door, growling, "Get in here! Geez, Iokage, what's the matter with you?"

"What? What'd I say?"

"I swear, I can't take you anywhere!"

Ellen watched them disappear into the office, a wistful look in her eyes. When the door snapped shut behind them, she squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and turned to confront the mob of curious girls staring at her. A storm of conjecture broke around her, but she managed a nice blend of Theresa's aplomb and Harriet's indifference, as she swept regally past her fellow students, never deigning to acknowledge them, much less answer their questions.

Inside the office, Miss Apgar looked up to find two young men standing on the other side of the counter, regarding her unsmilingly. She took a moment to absorb their appearance, and a niggling suspicion that she knew them from somewhere started to grow in the back of her mind. Two men one a few inches taller than the other, both with youthful faces and the bodies of athletes. A man with classic, almost feminine features and soft, brown eyes. Another with distinctly Asian features and immaculately tailored, stylish clothing on his compact frame.

Miss Apgar's eyes narrowed, as a brief vision flashed before her eyes a vision of auburn hair, black fingernails, pearls, and screaming magenta lipstick. No. It was impossible. She gave herself a mental shake and rose from her desk to approach the counter.

"Can I help you, Gentlemen?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Hanson answered, in a soft, serious voice. He flipped open his badge. "My name is Tom Hanson."

Ioki followed suit, holding his badge up for her inspection. "And I'm H.T. Ioki."

"We're Police Officers."

Miss Apgar's hand crept up to her throat. The eyes she lifted to their faces were full of dreadful understanding. "Oh my Lord..."

"We'd like to talk to you about Mr. Langston."

FINIS

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