Soft darkness. Cotton batting around her mind, no sense of a body, no sense of time.
Her sense of smell came back first. Dank dirt and wet masonry. Blood. Ozone and scorched meat. Gunpowder. Then came sound, or the memory of it. An electrical crackling. The pounding of a hammer on a nail. The pounding of a hammer on a nail.
Soft words soothed her then, and the darkness came back.
The comforting sensory deprivation finally faded into weight and mass. And aches.
She tried to hide, but finally she cataloged her injuries.
At the moment, her head was the worst, localized at the base of her skull. Her left thigh was next, closely followed by the endless throb of her right shoulder. She couldn't find her right hand, oddly enough. She flexed her right fingers to see if she could find them.
Something exploded at the end of her arm, but it couldn't possibly be her hand. Surely there weren't enough nerves in one hand to feel something so overwhelming that it went beyond pain.
She couldn't breathe, but she opened her mouth, and her eyes, to gasp.
Movement, and someone taking her left hand. "Easy, love."
She caught her breath. "Oh. God."
"I know. It'll be all right."
Robert scooted forward in his chair. She stared at him, befuddled, then she looked around the room as much as she could without annoying her head.
A hospital room, small, sparsely furnished. A TV sat in a place of prominence on a table beyond the foot of the bed. Everything was state of the art, but no effort had been made to appeal to a patient's taste in decor. A sign above the TV advised that all outgoing calls had to be cleared.
Robert let her look for quite a while, watching her for signs to her mental state. Did she remember? Was she awake enough to deal with what had happened?
Finally her eyes went to her right hand. He saw her lips moving and realized she was counting her fingers. Heavy padding bandaged the back and palm of the hand. Tears started in her eyes, and he squeezed her good hand.
"You're going to be all right," he promised. "Nothing permanent was done. You're just going to be very sore for a while."
Ann closed her eyes for several minutes. Slowly she sneaked up on her memories, sorting truth from imagined nightmares.
"How did you find me?" she finally whispered.
"William Gold told us."
"Did I hear Control's voice?"
"Yes, you did. It was an officially sanctioned agency raid. I had all the help I needed."
"We found you. We got you out. That's all you need to know."
Ann blinked at the far wall. "Gorbag was going to shoot me. Someone shot him instead. Then you were there. Did you?…"
The forbidding tone was there, as well as satisfaction, and guilt for the satisfaction.
She looked at him. "And Angmar?"
"Dead," Robert said briefly. "Mickey got him."
"And I'm alive." She smiled. "Good. I hope it was slow."
Robert didn't answer, and he didn't hold her mood against her. People recovering from torture were rarely generous.
She was trying to reconstruct everything. "How far behind me were you? If I could have delayed them, would you have gotten there in time?"
Robert sighed. "I was probably less than a minute behind."
"Damn." A nagging memory cleared, and her stomach tightened. "At the Gold house, there was a man. He grabbed me."
Robert flinched slightly.
She remembered the sounds. "I hit him with the chuks. Is he…" He didn't answer. She looked at him and saw her answer in his eyes. "He's dead," she said flatly. "I killed him." She examined her soul uneasily. "Aren't I supposed to feel bad about it?"
Robert tried to put into words the justification of self-defense against horrifying odds and the things that happen in battle. He was interrupted by a gentle tap, then the opening of the door.
Control peeked in. He smiled when he saw Ann. "Good, you're awake. May I come in?"
Ann started to gesture graciously with her right hand, but her shoulder and hand twinged in grim warning. "Please," she whispered instead, hating the tears forced out.
Control sat across the bed from Robert, solemn empathy on his face. "I cannot tell you how sorry I am that this happened, Ann. All I can say is that it was not in vain. The Black Riders are dead, and we have you to thank for it."
Ann only nodded wearily and stared at her toes.
Control glanced at Robert worriedly. Robert shrugged faintly. "I have news from Jonah," Control continued. "The computers were tough, but he broke them this morning. Every Federal agency is clamoring for a copy. And speaking of Federal agencies, I have news from Treasury as well." He reached under his jacket for a legal sized envelope.
Robert reached for it. Ann barely noticed. Robert put on his glasses and scanned the close set legal type. "Excellent," he smiled.
"Hm?" Ann muttered.
"The legal counsel at Treasury has advised and the Deputy Secretary has concurred that the warrant for the party known as Red Sonja should be vacated. This is an official statement of the cancellation of the warrant." He patted her hand. "They can't touch you now."
She forced herself to closer attention. "Really?"
"Well," Control temporized, "it's still an unsolved case, but without a warrant to keep the file active, it'll be buried until something happens to attract attention – which is unlikely. Treasury is going to have much bigger fish to fry."
Ann contemplated a world without the nagging fear. "They pushed it through quickly," was all she could think to say.
Control snorted. "I know. I thought it would take weeks. Three days is a miracle, but they're very happy over there."
"Three – days?"
Control glanced at a subdued Robert and nodded slowly. "Ah. Well, old girl, I guess I'll bite the bullet. You've been out for three days, ever since we pulled you out of there. Don't worry, you didn't miss anything interesting."
"My family. What do I tell…"
Robert took possession of her left hand again. "Your mother called yesterday to see if you wanted to do lunch soon. I called her to relay a message from you that you were very busy at work. She muttered something about you being just like your father. Nate left a message about your grandmother negotiating with some distant cousins, that can be dealt with by a phone call. Suzy, on the other hand, is suspicious and wants to see you."
Weary tears escaped. "So what new lies do I tell my most precious friend?"
"We'll think of something, love." Robert knew her lassitude was the remnant of shock, but he also knew that complete emotional exhaustion and depleted courage frequently led to the speaking of truths without regard for fallout.
"And how do we explain away the mess I'm in? I'm supposed to go wedding dress shopping in two weeks."
"Darling, in two weeks the worst will be long past you." He reached up to touch her face gently, drawing her eyes to him. "I've been hurt this badly myself. I know what you're going through."
"You have?" she whispered in horror.
He nodded. "I'll tell you later. For now, rest and get well." He glanced up at the entrance of a nurse pushing a cart.
"Hello, Ms. Marshall," she said with a cheerfulness that didn't spill too far into saccharine. "I'm glad to see you're awake, but you must feel like hell."
"For starters," Ann muttered.
Robert studied the nurse carefully but relaxed when he saw the military insignia and small badges that denoted field service. The woman would know how to deal with battle fatigue.
The nurse glanced with pointed apology at Robert. "It's time to change her dressings. I'm afraid I have to ask you to leave."
"I want him to stay," Ann protested.
"No, you don't, dear." The nurse's smile was sympathetic. "You'd much rather it was just me to watch."
Robert bristled at the insinuation of more suffering for Ann, but Control stood. "I've got more to tell you anyway, Robert. Come on." He nodded to the nurse as he escorted Robert out.
They walked down a hallway to a window that looked out over several streets to the Harbor.
"She will be all right," Control said, watching a cruise ship maneuver the Narrows.
"I know," Robert sighed. "I just wonder if she'll ever forgive me."
"Getting her involved in this. I swore nothing would happen to her." He glanced at the man next to him and pointedly said nothing about the failure of other people's promises.
Control didn't comment either. "A few more things you'll want to know. You remember the punk with blue hair on the Council?"
"Vaguely. What about him?"
"Special Agent Frederick D'Amato of the FBI."
"And he let that happen?"
"He says he kept it from being worse. He'd spent three years getting into place. Besides, Lady Shelob was saving Ann from as much as she could."
"And who was she working for?"
"Herself. She's willing to go state's evidence."
"I'm sure she is." Robert glared at the view outside. "This means the FBI know Ann is Red Sonja. Treasury has cut her loose just in time for the FBI to pick her up."
Control turned his back on the view and leaned against the wall. "Odd thing about that. It seems all references to Red Sonja have disappeared from both the Agency and FBI computers. And the paper files seem to have gotten shredded by mistake." He smiled at Robert's blank incomprehension. "Jonah's way of saying he's sorry."
"But the paper files…"
"Well, I wanted to hand deliver the Rider files myself, just to be sure, and I thought a glance at the FBI archives would be useful…" He shrugged.
"She's in the Rider files though."
Control sobered. "Yes, she was. Robert, if you hadn't gotten involved with this, and thereby brought her into it, you'd have been dealing with them anyway. Jonah cross-referenced all the Sonja data. Four names survived the sorting, and Ann's had a star by it. All they were doing was gathering as much evidence as they could before they grabbed their suspect. One of the women filed a police report last October saying she was being watched."
He let Robert digest it for a moment. "She'd have just disappeared off the street, and then how would you have found her? And before you start berating yourself for causing her danger just by your presence, imagine what would have happened if she'd been grabbed and you were nowhere around?"
Robert could, all too well. Faced with that kind of inevitability, Fate had decided to give Ann as powerful backup as could be managed.
He looked up from his unhappy thoughts as Control handed him three computer disks. "What this?"
"All the information on Red Sonja that Jonah could pull out of their database. He restructured their data to hide the missing bits. You have there the only evidence of Red Sonja and Ann's connection. Some revealing stuff, says Jonah."
Robert stared at the disks and briefly wondered what he'd learn about his fiancée if he looked at the information. But then he pried the plastic shells apart, extracted the discs inside, and proceeded to crumple and mutilate them.
"Was there anything else?" he asked as he worked.
Control's approving smile faded. "One more thing. The body in her van."
"Good Lord, what?"
"The autopsy showed that he may have died before the fire started. Crushed larynx and trachea. The lab says the injury is consistent with a blow to the throat, probably a blunt instrument."
"Like a fist or nunchuks," Robert finished grimly.
Control nodded. "No charges are going to be filed. The police figure Angmar was responsible, since it was his felony they were running. The guards they've been interrogating have been careful to blame as much as possible on him. Are you going to tell her?"
Robert shook his head. "She's having a hard enough time dealing with the one she knows about."
"It's good to know she'll fight if cornered." Control smiled at him faintly. "Something you might want to keep in mind."
Robert smiled just as faintly. "I already knew she was a fighter. She just has to see it as a virtue, not a failing."
"It's a failing to not go gentle into that good night?"
"Nice girls don't break people's skulls."
Control snorted. "Nice girls don't have to."
"Don't say that where she can hear you."
"Oh, dear. Well, if it's any comfort to her, tell her I'm glad she's got more than enough backbone to stand up to you." He grinned at Robert's glare. "She'll need it."
"You're a great comfort."
Among the medications Ann had been given was a strong sedative. When she finally woke again, she was cranky at the drug fog around her mind, but she didn't hurt quite so badly. She didn't feel good, but she felt justified in contemplating the word "better."
The TV was on very quietly, showing the World Wrestling Federation semi-finals.
"What the hell?" she murmured.
Mickey, sitting quietly in a corner, jumped and punched the off button on the remote. "You're awake."
Ann peered at him uncertainly. "Hello. Where's Robert?"
"He got hauled off to a debriefing. Kicking and screaming, I might add. We thought you should have company if you woke up." He slid the chair closer to the bed. "Is there anything I can get for you?"
"The past few days so I can make sure none of this happens?"
"Sorry, no can do." He rested his chin on the bed rail and looked at her gravely. "You did good."
"I did dumb. I should never have gone out there."
"If you hadn't, the Golds would be dead. Angmar had a gun on William when Mrs. Gold called you. If she couldn't get you out there, he was going to shoot the boy. He wouldn't have left her as a witness."
"Still… Robert told me to stay put."
Mickey shrugged. "Sometimes you just have to say 'What the hell.'"
Ann grimaced. She looked around the room more closely and realized that there weren't any items touting the hospital and its programs. "What hospital is this?"
"It's not. It's the Company medical facility for the northeast. People get brought here who would cause too much talk in ERs." He patted her hand. "The staff is mostly military, they've seen it all."
"The nurse was very nice. Are we in New York?"
"Lower Manhattan. I shouldn't say more than that. You're a civilian with a lot of esoteric access, but you're still a civilian."
Mickey thought a few moments. Control had pulled a lot of strings to get Ann the same treatment as an agent who had run afoul of bad guys, but the staff was acting like she was entitled. Mickey figured if Control was going to give her access, she might as well use it.
"How much have you talked to anybody about what they did to you?" he asked levelly.
"Excuse me?" Ann blinked at him, then looked away uncertainly. "I don't think Robert wants to know, and I don't want to tell him."
"Would you be willing to talk to a stranger, someone whose opinions you don't care about?"
"I'll be OK."
He took her hand. "No, Annie, you won't. Nobody goes through this without getting messed up so hard they need a little help getting back."
She studied him uneasily, but all she saw was caring concern. How many times had he unburdened himself to her? And he knew that she didn't want to have someone she knew aware of what had happened to her.
"Who did you have in mind?"
"There’s a shrink here, Dr. Castle. She's had big, tough commandos blubber on her, and she doesn't blink."
Something in his voice told her not to comment. "Isn't she busy?"
"Not that busy." He smiled. "Besides, you're tough, I don't think she'll need to make that much room in her schedule."
Ann looked at the ceiling thoughtfully. "Somebody I can tell everything to."
"No need to lie to Dr. Castle. She doesn't care." He saw the faint tears and understood them.
She saw his empathy but couldn't bear to deal with it. "How bad is Frieda hurt?"
"Who the hell is Frieda?"
"Frieda the van."
Mickey grimaced. "You had to ask."
Ann knew her concern was ludicrous, but she couldn't help it. "That bad?" she asked faintly. "I thought I heard her axle snap, and they shot up the engine, but VWs are tough."
No way on God's green earth was he going to say anything about the corpse in the driver's seat. The rest was bad enough. "Annie, they torched her."
"What?" she whispered. Her first car, her longtime friend…
Mickey remembered how he'd wanted to cry when he saw the wreck his brother had made of the Chevy Mickey had bought all by himself. "They set her on fire. She's gone."
He held her hand as she cried.
Robert blinked and sat up quickly. This wasn't his bed. What room was this? He glared suspiciously at the dark figure standing in the partly open doorway, a bright hallway behind her. A nurse? Oh, a nurse. More to the point, an Agency nurse with military credentials who knew better than to sneak up on sleeping soldiers.
"What is it, nurse?" He fumbled for his glasses and peered at his watch. 2 A.M.? "What's wrong?"
"Nothing really. But it's Miss Marshall."
"What?" he demanded. He'd been camping out in spare rooms since they brought Ann here and sneaking home for quick changes of clothes. He slipped on his shoes and was ready to go.
"She's not sleeping," the nurse said apologetically. "I don't think she's taking her medication. I went by her room on my rounds and heard her crying, but when I peeked in she pretended to be asleep. I don't like tattling on her, but I thought you should know. She's not going to get well if she won't sleep."
"Blasted stubborn woman. Thank you, nurse."
He paused when he got to Ann's door. After her horrors, she deserved the privacy to cry in. He loathed hovering himself.
He heard her faintly through the door. It wasn't the exhausted crying of pain and fear. This was the low whimpering moan of despair and desolation. The first could be soothed with reassurances and patience. But the kind of heartbroken loss Robert heard would take stronger measures.
The crying stopped when he knocked on the door; he opened it anyway and slipped inside.
"What's wrong, love?" he asked quietly. He left the room dark, letting the shadows hide her and her grief.
"You're here," came Ann's faint reply. "What are you doing here so late?"
He found his way to the end of the bed. "I've only been off this floor four times in the past three days, and even then for no more than a couple of hours at a time. I promised I wouldn't leave you. That's one promise I should be able to keep," he added with no little bitterness. He reached down to find her right foot. "Now, what's wrong?"
Ann sniffed but couldn't speak for several minutes. If she spoke of it, she knew the grief would overwhelm her.
"Is it the man at the Golds?" Robert asked carefully. He remembered everyone he had killed, but none clearer than the first one. He'd been sick with guilt for days.
"Not really," she sighed. "Do you hate me for being a coldblooded bitch?"
"Oh, my love…" He did what he'd been longing to for ages. He climbed onto the bed on her less-damaged left side and put his arms around her as much as he could. She bit off a gasp of pain but huddled against him thankfully. "I could never hate you."
"You grieve over every one," she whispered anxiously. "But I barely remember to be sorry."
"You are not as hard-hearted as you fear. If you really didn't care, you wouldn't even be thinking of him."
"I wonder if there was another way. Maybe I could have just hurt him instead of…"
"You had half-seconds to act. Perhaps wounding would have been enough, perhaps not. You went for the sure thing."
"But how did I know to decide that way? Sensei has told us about appropriate levels of force, but he's never told us when it's the right choice to kill." The word left her lips unwillingly.
"You've been learning how to judge a situation. Under stress, your mind reacted the way it had been taught. You knew what was at stake. So did he. If they'd known what you're capable of, you'd never have come so close to getting away clean."
"Close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades."
He kissed her cheek. "Survival does not worry about niceties. The law of the jungle has only one punishment." He heard her thoughtfulness and remembered her tears. "What were you crying about?"
The sudden reminded triggered an unguarded whimper. "My… my hand."
Robert smothered a brutal curse. He'd had many vicious human beasts at his mercy, but none he wished to torment more than the man known as Gorbag. Death was sometimes so damnedably anticlimactic. "It's going to be all right, love."
She took a shaky breath. "And now the truth, please. It's ruined, isn't it. I'm not going to be able to work or play the piano or – or…" The grief took her as she contemplated her life as a cripple.
"What? Oh, Ann, no, no." He waited for the tears to ease a little. "We agreed never to lie to each other, didn't we?"
"An omission in someone's perceived best interest is not a lie."
"True. Then I won't omit anything. I saw the X-rays and MRI scans and I made them explain it all to me. Starting with the top, you'll have headaches and possibly blurry vision for a few more days, but the skull was only cracked, not broken. If you haven't forgotten about it in a week, we worry.
"Your shoulder will be finicky for quite a while, but there are exercises to strengthen and support the damaged muscles and tendons. With care, you shouldn't have any further problems. And by the way, I've lot count of the number of times my shoulders have gone out on me."
He tightened his hold on her as she tensed. "There are no bones broken in your hand, but there is a torn muscle in the palm. One tendon was split and three ligaments were nicked. One nerve bundle was shocked and possibly pinched, but physical therapy will take care of that. In short, my brave darling, there is no permanent debilitating damage." He kissed her forehead. "The prognosis I forced out of the doctors says you'll have full function back by the wedding."
Ann stared, then broke into tears again. Robert held her and considered a few grateful tears of his own.
He eventually talked her into taking her pain medication, after reassuring her that he'd told the doctors about the hallucinations she got and that they'd prescribed one of the myriad exotic drugs only available to shadowy government agencies. And he stayed with her, nestling her against his side and supporting all the parts that hurt.
They kept her for one more night. Ann spent the time doing misdirection over the phone with her family and her office. Suzy pressed for a lunch appointment, and Ann had to formulate a convincing lie quickly. Lying to her all-but-sister upset her, and Robert found reason to be elsewhere as she sat and brooded. When he returned to her room, he found a woman whom he almost recognized just leaving. She stopped and studied him a moment, a wise smile on her face.
"And who do you talk to when the going gets rough, Mr. McCall?" she asked in a rich alto voice.
"Dr. Castle!" Robert shook her hand, slightly puzzled. "But what are you doing here?"
"I was told there was someone who could use an informed neutral ear. My informant was correct."
"How is she?" he asked worriedly. He'd unburdened himself several times to the non-judgemental ear of Eileen Castle and he trusted her.
Dr. Castle glanced thoughtfully at the closed door of Ann's room. "Too strong for her own good. Much like you. I worry about people who don't know something's wrong until the rotting floor falls out from underneath them." She patted his shoulder. "But the lady in there sees the holes and sees the path to the solid structure she needs to stand on."
Robert made an effort to catch up to her taste for metaphors. "What is that structure?"
He signed. "Even after I dragged her into this?"
Dr. Castle smiled. "Still afraid to trust, hm? She loves you. She trusts you to have good reasons for what you do." Her smiled turned to a chuckle. "She even understands your urge to play Don Quixote."
"She never said all that," he protested, uneasy with the clarity of the psychiatrist's vision.
"She didn't have to. Her faith in you told me that."
"I keep betraying that faith."
"No, you keep depending on her faith to help in difficult situations. Would you be happier if she decided to agree with you that she's been shamefully used?" She patted his shoulder. "Don't look at me like that, you're not a convincing martyr. Go give her a hug, she's probably done crying by now."
Robert glared at her and hurried into Ann's room. Dr. Castle chuckled and went on her way.
Two days later, Ann talked Robert into driving her to a junkyard in Queens. She was slowly mobile, with the help of a cane – a carved product of a Tibetan monastery which Robert produced from his back room – and her head had stopped hurting. Her right arm was in a sling, though, and there were a few bruises still lurking in the corners of her face. She hadn't explained why she'd actually gone to the trouble of cosmetics, but when she was finished, one would have to look closely to see the damage.
"Why are we here?" Robert repeated patiently as they drove through the rusty gate of the junkyard. Piles of cars leaned precariously to either side of the narrow driveway that led deeper into the post-Apocalyptic landscape. New snow dusted the fenders and bent edges of the wrecks, lending a peaceful, yet melancholy air of abandonment to the scene.
Ann sighed deeply. "I've come to pay my final respects to an old friend."
Robert slowed and would have turned the car around if there had been room. "Ann, that's morbid."
"Why do you think I didn't tell you before now? Sweetheart, I got her the year I graduated high school. She should have had an honorable demise, not some sordid end in a vacant lot."
He looked at her pointedly. "It's only a car."
"Not to me. Just ahead, near the crusher."
Robert blinked when he saw Mickey's van and Suzy's Lexus. Suzy, Mickey, and Ming Chao Tsu, Ann's roommate from college and long-time friend, waited by the cars.
"What is it, a wake?" he asked in disbelief.
"In a word. Robert, if you just want to drop me off, I can get a ride back with Suzy and Chao Tsu."
"Don't be absurd."
Suzy, already edgy because of the occasion, peered worriedly as Robert supported Ann out of the car. "My God in Heaven, Ann, what happened to you!"
Ann hobbled over, careful of the uneven dirt. "There was this visiting black belt at the dojo. I thought I could take him. He was not impressed by my arrogance." Robert was careful not to react to the tale.
"And your sensei lets those things happen?"
Ann chuckled. "Sensei Rayburn sees no reason to protect his students from the consequences of their actions."
Chao Tsu shook her head. "You should have gone with one of the avoidance schools not a pummeling one."
"You lead a hell of a life, sis," Suzy sighed. "Was this before or after Frieda was stolen?"
Ann's smile barely faltered. "After."
Robert went over to Mickey. "What are you doing here?"
"I've never been invited to a car funeral before," Mickey grinned. "Seek out new experiences to stay young."
A weatherbeaten man in an equally weatherbeaten coat hobbled over, stiff with cold. "Women and their cars," he grumbled at Robert. "They give 'em silly names and cry all over them when they get bashed. Can I get on with my work now?"
"Um, well – Ann? The gentleman would like to get on with his work."
Ann looked stricken, but she nodded.
"Poor Frieda," Chao Tsu sighed. "She was so wonderful at football games."
"And road trips to concerts," Suzy agreed. "Ah, the days of our youth."
Ann nodded and dug a handkerchief out of her jeans pocket.
"Women," muttered the junk man. He looked towards a big crane and let out a piercing whistle. The crane revved up with a roar, lifted a huge clawed pincer, and turned towards an anonymous pile of scrap.
Suzy put her arm carefully around Ann's waist. "That last spring break before we graduated, when we drove down to Ocean City."
"Yeah. Why didn't we take your car?"
"Because we could sleep in Frieda. Besides, my cars kept dying."
"That's right – Oh, god."
The pincer dropped and grabbed something with a crunch. Slowly it winched up, the burnt-out, chopped up wreck of Frieda in its jaws.
"Oh, the poor old thing," Chao Tsu said. "Did they catch the people who did it?"
"Yes," Ann said in an even voice. "They got theirs."
"Good," Suzy said.
Mickey sighed in sympathy and caught Robert's jaundiced eye on him. "What?"
Ann stared with teary eyes as Frieda was borne through the air towards the crusher. "They cut her open," she said softly. "Why did they cut her open?"
"The firemen had to make sure no one was trapped inside," Robert said quickly.
Chao Tsu looked puzzled. "It's not that big a car – "
The crash of Frieda being dropped into the crusher caught everyone's attention.
"I can't," Suzy said, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, Annie, I can't watch this."
"That's OK, love, you came."
"You have a weird taste in rituals, but I love you. Chao Tsu, do you mind if we go?"
"Not in the least," Chao Tsu said with alacrity. She kissed Ann on the cheek. "Come to dinner soon," she said quickly, then hurried after Suzy to the car. The crunch of tires was drowned out by the firing of the big engines powering the crusher.
"Ann, let's go," Robert said, putting a hand on her good shoulder. "This does you no good."
"No," was all she could manage without crying. She couldn't let a faithful friend die alone, and she didn't want to hear the tsk in Robert's voice if she explained.
But she couldn't help making a small sound of protest as the huge pistons closed on Frieda and the metal began to shriek.
"God," Mickey suddenly muttered, hunching his shoulders. "This is weirding me out. So when are you going to go car shopping, Annie?"
She blinked, distracted from Frieda's death throes. "I don't know. God, I've never gone car shopping before. I don't know where to start."
"Get an old Buick battlecruiser or something, a tank for traffic in the Apple."
"Those gas hogs?"
"You can afford it."
"That's not the point. Maybe a Honda or a Nissan."
Mickey snorted. "McCall's Jag sitting next to a Honda in your garage. The Dark Lady would die of shame."
Ann looked at Robert in surprise. "The Dark Lady?"
Robert glared theatrically at Mickey. "I do not call her that."
"But he calls her 'her', you'll notice." The crusher changed gears as the remains were compressed into a block. Mickey flinched. "I'm bugging out. Thanks for inviting me, or whatever Miss Manners would advise for the occasion." He stuck his hands in his coat pockets and hurried to his van, but not before giving Robert a conspiratorial wink. Robert smiled faintly back, grateful for Mickey's lightening of the mood.
With a thump and clatter, the crusher returned to rest. Another crane, this one with a big electromagnet dangling from its arm, swung into position.
"You haven't arranged to take the block home, have you?" Robert asked sarcastically.
"No," Ann replied, sullen because she'd thought of it. She sighed heavily as the magnet dropped, then rose with an anonymous block of metal that was the remains of the van Ann had hoped to nurse to a million miles. "Let's go."
Ann paused before getting into the car. "Why would they cut her open? Couldn't they see she was empty?"
Robert blessed the sunglasses he'd put on against the afternoon sun. "She was still burning when we got there. We didn't know what was inside."
His flat tone made Ann look at him closely. She suddenly thought of how he must have been feeling that day. "You thought I was inside, didn't you."
He looked out over the wasteland of wrecks and didn't answer.
"I'm sorry, beloved," she said softly.
Robert concentrated on the twisted frame of a Packard until he regained his composure. "The people whose fault it was have paid," he said tonelessly. He pushed her lightly into the car, and she obeyed.
In a blatant changing of the subject, he glanced at the roll of paper Ann had tossed into the backseat. "Now, what is that for?"
"Oh, yes. Do you mind stopping by Nibble & Byte?"
"Not at all." His puzzlement increased when she picked up his car phone and wrestled a slip of paper out of a left-hand pocket. He wanted to offer to dial the number for her, but knew his own prickly pride when incapacitated by injuries.
"Dr. Ramashadran, please," she finally said into the phone. "Thank you."
"What are you doing?" Robert asked.
"Tying up loose ends. Dr. Ramashadran?" She locked her lips. "This is Red Sonja."
Robert clearly heard the scientist's squeak of disbelief.
"Yes, I really am. No, I'm not going to answer questions. Just go to Nibble & Byte in an hour." She hung up without further ceremony. "He deserves to know."
"I was going to tell him."
Ann fingered the roll of paper. "I want him to see this."
Renee was tending bar again at Nibble & Byte. She looked uneasy when she saw Robert and glanced around the barroom. The crowd looked the same as before, but the Riders' corner booth was packed with young people who looked anxious and whispered to each other. Renee kept a nervous eye on that corner as Ann strode across the room to the bulletin board.
Ann leaned her cane against the bar and moved a couple of index cards to make a large clear spot on the wall. She glared down at her useless right hand. "Sweetheart, would you tack up this poster, please?"
Robert obeyed, then stepped back to study the poster.
At the climax of the battle for Minas Tirith, the Witch-King of Angmar was brought down by Eowyn of Rohan and Merry the Hobbit. The poster Ann had hung showed the fallen Nazgul, bowed on the ground before Eowyn, her broken arm held close but her sword raised high preparatory to beheading her foe.
A small card hung at the bottom of the poster. "On February 20th, Angmar of the Black Riders was killed, the Inner Council was arrested, and all their databases and computers seized by Federal authorities. By the hand of Red Sonja, in the name of Conan."
Ann gazed at the sign for a few moments, fighting tears. "I couldn't save you, Conan. But I avenged you." She nodded and turned to the bar. She only winced a little as she settled on a stool.
Renee came up slowly, one eye on the people gathering in front of the poster. "Can I help you?"
"Virgin eggnog," Ann said, also watching the crowd.
"Cider, please, Renee," Robert said.
Renee scurried away. One of the people at the poster ran to the table in the corner and gasped out the news, inciting a dash back. Disbelieving curses rose, then they turned to stare at Ann. She stared back easily, confident in both her stature as a legend and in the man at her side, who was currently paying for the drinks while reading the room.
"They won't cause trouble, will they?" he asked quietly as he handed her the eggnog.
"These are the small fry. They don't know how, and they don't dare. But we ought to go before they start asking questions." She took several deep, satisfying pulls at her eggnog, the last drink she'd safely be able to drink in this bar, where she'd used to meet Conan.
"Too late," Robert said, watching the door.
"He came early."
Dr. Ramashadran hadn't bothered to button his coat. Some of the students called greetings, but he acknowledged them distractedly. The crowd around the poster caught his attention, and the people melted away as he hurried over.
He stared at the poster for a long minute. He wiped his eyes roughly and turned to look around the bar. He stiffened when he saw Robert, then his eyes fell on the woman at his side.
The bar went a little quieter as Ramashadran walked slowly over. He studied Ann carefully, frowning at the cane and sling. Ann watched him as closely as he stopped next to her.
Ramashadran licked his lips. "Are you – "
Robert shifted in warning.
" – the woman who called me?"
Ramashadran glanced at Robert then back. "You took them out yourself?"
"I had a great deal of help."
Old anger burned in his eyes. "They're really finished? You made them pay for Albert?"
"They're finished. The men who killed him are dead."
Ramashadran's shoulders sagged as he sighed. "I shouldn't be pleased by that. Will you tell me about it?"
Ann shifted uncomfortably as her leg twinged. "No. I prefer not to talk about it."
The scientist studied her injuries and frowned. But he didn't ask.
"But I can still get in!" a young man in the corner booth said, gesturing at his laptop. "The board's still up."
"Of course it is, you idiot," Robert muttered. "Why go hunt for people if they'll come to you?"
"You said you weren't with the Feds," Ramashadran said.
Ramashadran studied the corner booth narrowly. "Not that I mind. I look forward to seeing them pay." He blinked rapidly. "I loved him like a son. He was so brilliant, and he loved the work so." He paused a moment, the looked at Ann. "Than you," he said softly.
Ann looked away. "I owed it to him. They only got him because he was protecting me."
"I'd like to know whatever you're willing to tell me."
She thought a moment, then shook her head. "Conan and Sonja are dead. This was her swan song." She smiled at Robert. "No more grand assaults on impregnable fortresses. Those days are done." She sniffed and began gathering her belongings. "Remember your friend Albert. Conan and Sonja are only names in legends now. That's how it should be."
Robert helped her settle her coat as Ramashadran stood in quiet thought. Ann settled her balance and shifted her bag for trim. The painkiller was wearing off, and it was an hour before she could take another. Now that she was no longer a participant in heroic epics, she wanted to retreat to the safety and comfort of her home and nurse her wounds.
"So, it's over," Ramashadran said.
"It's over," Ann agreed.
"What about the people who will inevitably replace them?"
"That's someone else's crusade." But she glanced uncertainly at Robert, her expert on crusades and destined battles.
He gave her a reassuring smile. "You've done your bit. Dr. Ramashadran, good-bye."
The scientist shook the offered hand, but he seemed reluctant to let them go. "You remember him the way I do," he said to Ann.
"True. And I think it's time we both started putting him behind us." She looked at Robert and headed towards the door.
Ramashadran watched them go and let the past go with them.
But first he gestured to the still-nervous Renee. "A round of drinks for everyone legal to drink," he said clearly, catching the room's attention. "A toast, to the memory of Conan and Red Sonja and to the confusion of the Black Riders."
He smiled smugly at the dismay of the people in the corner booth and was pleased so many people cheered.