Rose got up early and took a shower. She got dressed, then went to ask the guys what they wanted for breakfast. She had her hand on Steve's doorknob when she remembered that he wasn't at home. She sighed, no longer hungry. When was she going to remember that they weren't there? She'd gone from house to house with Xenith every day for the past four days, and she still woke up each morning thinking that Steve and Stevie were safe in their rooms. She sifted through her CD's, found her loudest, fastest compilation of Journey music and turned it up as loud as she could stand it. Then she busied herself by tidying up the house before Xenith arrived for their daily rounds. It was sheer luck that she was anywhere near the phone when it rang, or she never would have heard it. She fumbled for the remote and turned the music down. "Hello?" she asked.
"Rose? This is Leonard, down at the vet."
"Len, hi! How's Snippet?"
"She's doing all right, considering," Len said. Rose smiled. Coming from him, that meant Snippet was great. "As I told you before, she has a hairline fracture and a bad concussion," he continued. "But she's a strong dog and she's doing much better already. I think she'll be fine."
Rose sighed with relief. The last time she'd spoken to Len he'd told her that Snippet had been hit so hard, he wasn't sure if she would make it. "That's great, Len!" she said excitedly. "Thank you! It's the best news I've had all week."
"Still no luck finding the boys?"
"Not so far. The police still haven't contacted me and the survey hasn't turned up anything conclusive yet."
"That's too bad, Rose," he said sympathetically. "I know how fond you are of them."
"I'll find them," she said.
"I'm sure you will. Look, I'd like to keep Snippet here one more night, just to keep an eye on her. But you can visit any time."
"Thanks, Len. I'll be there today."
"All right. Goodbye, Rose."
"Bye." They hung up, and Rose turned up the music again. This time she sang along.
Rose continued to tidy up. Eventually, she realized that she'd gotten quite a lot done. She looked at the clock. Where was Xenith? She was supposed to have been there twenty minutes ago and she was hardly ever late. Rose shrugged and took a bag of trash to the compactor outside. When she came back in, Xenith was sitting in the living room bopping her head to the music. Rose jumped about a foot. "When did you get here?" she cried. Xenith looked at her and shrugged helplessly, miming that she couldn't hear. Rose turned the radio down. "When did you get here?" she asked again.
"Just now," she said. "I came in when you took the trash out."
"God, girl, don't you knock?"
"I did," Xenith replied. "I knocked for 20 minutes, but Steve must have drowned me out."
Rose grinned sheepishly. "Oh. He was kinda loud, huh?" Xenith nodded. "That's beside the point," Rose said suddenly. "I still think your real goal here is to keep sneaking up on me until you finally give me a heart attack."
Xenith laughed. "I can't help it if I'm stealthy." She looked around. "Looks nice."
"Are you ready to go?"
"I am," Rose said. "But I need to make a stop first. Do you mind?"
"Of course not."
Fifteen minutes later, Rose and Xenith were standing in one of the visiting areas, waiting for Snippet to be brought in. Len came in, followed by a nurse holding a small, clear pet carrier. Rose gasped when she saw Snippet. The dog's head was heavily wrapped in bandages and she was lying quietly, even though Rose knew she hated being in pet carriers. The nurse set the carrier down on the table and opened the door. Snippet stood up and walked out, which encouraged Rose a little bit. "Hi, baby," Rose said softly. "Miss me?" She petted Snippet with one hand while letting her sniff the other. When Snippet knew who she was, she seemed to perk up considerably. She wagged her tail and licked Rose's hand excitedly. Rose giggled and forced herself to endure the tickling.
"She's so cute!" Xenith said.
"That's what I said when the boys gave her to me."
"She's much better now than she was," Len said. "She wouldn't eat. Hardly responded to anybody. It was really touch and go, Rose. I don't ever want to meet the kind of sick person who could do something like that to a harmless dog."
"I think you mean they don't want to meet you," Rose teased. She didn't really want to think about what a close shave Snippet had had.
Len chuckled. "You know me too well, Rose." Rose petted Snippet and talked to her until Len decided it was probably best to let her get some rest. "You can probably take her home tomorrow," he said. "I'll call and let you know for sure."
"Okay, Len. Thanks again." He waved and walked out, followed by the nurse holding Snippet. Rose looked after them, thinking about how she'd like to see the people who'd done this stretched out on a rack. Then she thought about something Len had said. She turned to Xenith suddenly. "We're doing this the wrong way."
"Let's go back to my place. We need more research."
Rose walked quickly out of the office, leaving Xenith to follow. They got into the car and Rose drove quickly home. "Got your computer?"
"Of course." Xenith took her briefcase out of Rose's back seat and followed her into the house.
Rose turned on her own laptop, which she'd taken to leaving in the living room all the time now. "We're going at this the wrong way," she said again.
"What do you mean?" Xenith asked, turning on her computer.
"We've been looking for regular Joes. Cops and soldiers who've retired or whatever. But regular people didn't almost kill my dog for no good reason. We need to be looking for criminals."
"But Rose, we are looking for criminals," Xenith said. Rose could tell she was trying to be tactful and not say "Duh."
"Right," Rose said. "But we're looking as if this has been their first offense. People don't just start their criminal careers by setting up major, unstoppable crime rings. There should be some kind of warning. Excessive use of violence, dishonorable discharge, bad marks on the permanent record. Something that shows a tendency to do bad things before this got started."
"Got it," Xenith said, smiling. "You taking the Army again?" she asked.
"Yup," Rose said, her fingers already moving on the keyboard. After about an hour of searching, Rose found something. "Hey," she said. "Look at this!"
"What did you find?" Xenith asked.
"Colonel Richard Stanley. He was the head engineer in the Artificial Intelligence Research Department. He was dishonorably discharged six years ago for... Wow."
"What?" Xenith asked eagerly. "What did he do?"
"He, um..." Rose read further down the page. "Wow."
"Sorry," Rose said, realizing she was keeping Xenith in suspense. "He tried to steal a bunch of Army dolls."
"You're kidding!" Xenith said.
"Nope. He and forty other men armed themselves with those heavy-duty control rods and tried to steal a whole line of them. Apparently Stanley had been on the team that was working to improving their combat skills."
"What was he going to do with them, I wonder?"
"Who knows," Rose said. "Probably try to take over the city or something else equally melodramatic. It says that Colonel Stanley and thirty of the forty men involved were released with dishonorable discharges."
"Are you serious? After trying to rob the army and start a revolt, all they got was a dishonorable discharge?"
Rose nodded, finding it hard to believe herself. "Apparently Stanley was pretty well respected in the service before this happened. It says here that only ten of the men had been identified as having hurt anyone, so they were the only ones court-martialed. They're still in prison."
"But the others are free, roaming around the country as we speak!"
"You got it," Rose said. "They got a wrap on the hand and a paper that says 'naughty soldier,' and that was it. These are our guys, Xenith! They have to be!"
"But how does this tie in with Journey?"
"Let me see if I can find out." Rose searched some more newspaper articles. "Aha!"
"After the trials, Colonel Stanley retired to a house in Van Nuys with his wife and seventeen year old daughter, Angelica. We've got him! There's no way this isn't the guy! I mean, you were this close to robbing the Army, right? Can't be a big deal to rob a few hobbyist's dolls to feed your daughter's obsession."
"What about the weapons?" Xenith asked. "The Army would have confiscated them."
"He was an engineer with the Army's A.I.D. He had to have used them for his research. He probably has an armory somewhere with tons of those control rods!"
"And he's got thirty ex-soldiers that were willing to follow him into some crazy plot to take over the city," Xenith added. "They got kicked out of the army for him. I'm willing to bet that they're still loyal."
Rose and Xenith smiled broadly at each other. "We've got him, Xenith," Rose said. "Won't be long now."
For the next thirty minutes or so, they tried to find out as much as they could about where Colonel Stanley lived. They couldn't get an actual address, but from the various reports and follow-up stories, they narrowed it down to a neighborhood. "I think that's as close as we're going to get," Xenith said.
"Got your doorbell finger ready?" Rose asked. Xenith nodded. "Good. We'll work out what to say on the way."
Rose drove them to the Van Nuys neighborhood Colonel Stanley was supposed to have moved to and they started ringing doorbells. Most of the people they asked didn't know who Colonel Stanley was. Rose knew better than to feel disappointed so early, however. She was pretty sure the people at the end of her own block didn't know who she was either. Eventually, they came to the houses of people who knew the Colonel. Most of them seemed to think he was a good person.
"Perfect gentleman, no matter what the papers said," one elderly lady told them.
"Is he a dedicated father?"
"Oh, yes! Loved his daughter to pieces!"
"Thank you very much. This will really help with our research." Rose and Xenith got back into the car that evening feeling great. "It's definitely them," Rose said.
"Has to be," Xenith said. "But I wonder why people keep talking about him in the past tense. He was a great guy. He was a dedicated father. Not is."
"Maybe they don't see him that much anymore," Rose speculated. "He's probably too busy looking around for other people's dolls to give to her!"
"Maybe," Xenith said. She shrugged. "Too late to ask now. I guess we'll find out tomorrow."
"Yeah. We should go back and get some rest. Let's try to get back before the traffic hits." Rose drove them back, laughing at herself for thinking for an instant that she would escape traffic. When they finally made it home, she was frustrated, tired and had a personal vendetta against at least thirteen drivers who'd cut her off that night.
"Wow," Xenith said as she got out of the car. "I didn't know that many curse words existed."
Rose took a bow. "I aim for diversity," she said.
Xenith laughed. "See you tomorrow."
"Okay." She waved and Xenith pulled off. Rose got out her key and headed for the door. When she opened it, she heard a rustling behind her. She turned her head just in time to catch a glimpse of the man before he shoved her roughly into the house.
Rose whirled to face the intruder, swinging her purse at his head as she did. The man dodged and smacked Rose hard in the face. While she was still reeling from the blow, he grabbed her by the collar and pushed her up against the wall. "Stop asking about the Colonel's daughter," the man growled.
"Fuck you," Rose snapped. Probably not the wisest choice of words, she thought in retrospect. The man grabbed her hair and slammed her head against the wall. He let her go and she sank to the floor. Her last thought before she lost consciousness was, Hm. Must be on the right track.
Life went on, such as it was. Stevie had lost count of the days. They were all pretty much the same. Play a concert for the Bitch, "entertain" her, play games with each other and try not to think about the horrible pain that lay just below the surface of their smiles. Stevie and Steve talked about escaping, but only to each other. The others usually clammed up when they tried to bring it up, so they'd given up discussing it with them. Then it happened. The last straw.
It happened in the evening. Two guards came in, which meant it was time for the Bitch's entertainment. "Perry '79," one of the guards said. Stevie's stomach churned. Who would it be this time? What would she tell them to do? As horrible as the nights of "entertainment" had been so far, nothing had prepared him for what the guard said next. "Perry '96."
Stevie gasped and looked at Steve in horror. He should have known it was coming. According to the laws of probability, it was inevitable. But it didn't matter. He wasn't ready. Apparently, neither was Steve. "What?" he cried.
"Get up, Perry '96."
"No! I won't do it!"
The guard opened the cell door and aimed his control rod at Steve. "Get. Up."
"Fuck. You. Sir."
"Steve!" Stevie cried.
The guard fired on Steve. Steve gritted his teeth and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, they were shining with fury. "I won't."
The guard aimed again. "If you force me to strike again you won't be of any use tonight and the Mistress will be displeased," he said. "In fact, she might have consider a more docile replacement."
"No! " Stevie cried, panicked. "Steve, please."
Steve looked at Stevie and signed. "I can't! I won't do this to you! "
"You can't let them kill you! We'll get out of here, but I can't get out without you. "
Steve looked stricken. "I can't. You know what it's like. How... how can I do that to you? "
"I love you, Steve, " Stevie said, understanding now what was bothering him. "Believe me. When this is over, it'll be her I hate. Not you. "
Steve looked at him for a few more seconds, obviously struggling with himself. Then he nodded once. He glared at the mystified guard, shoved past him and headed for the door. Stevie's guard hurriedly opened his cell. He glanced at the others before leaving. They looked incredibly sad for him. For both of them. "Out!" the guard snapped. Stevie left and they both trotted to catch up to the other two. Stevie and Steve changed clothes and followed the guards to the ballroom without speaking. The Mistress entered, smiling as she always did. They bowed, and when they were instructed to do so, they began.
It was awful. More awful than any night he'd yet spent "entertaining" her this way. Stevie had been forced to do any number of private and degrading things with other dolls for The Mistress' pleasure. He'd even seen Steve naked and in the throes of ecstasy before now. Heaven knew they'd double teamed Rose enough times. But this was different. This wasn't a pleasing experience they were sharing with a woman they both loved and cared for. It was a show. A show that an evil, sadistic woman was forcing him to put on. With Steve. His best friend. He looked into Steve's eyes and knew that the same thoughts were probably running through his mind.
"I'm sorry, Stevie, " he said.
"So am I. "
When it was over, they bowed to the Mistress again and went back to their cells. The dolls gave them more space than they usually did, unable to imagine what it had been like for them that night. Stevie stood near the wall, looking at Steve through the bars. He was shaking and drenched with sweat. They both were. Stevie had told Steve that it would be the Mistress he hated when it was over. When he saw the look in Steve's eyes he knew that it was true. His eyes spoke of unbearable pain and guilt. Pain and guilt so deep that even their unspoken language couldn't express it fully. Stevie saw it and he knew. He knew that he hated the Mistress with a passion he'd never felt for anything before. And he knew that he would kill her for putting that look into Steve's eyes.
"I've had it."
Everyone looked at Steve. It was the first time he'd spoken since last night. "What are you saying?" Nathan asked.
"I'm saying we're leaving."
"Oh, really?" Neal asked. "You and what army?"
"Us," Steve answered simply. "There are twenty of us here."
"But there are thirty of them," George said. "They have weapons and we don't. They're free, we're in cages. Need I say more?"
"I have an idea about that," Steve said.
"Look, we know you're upset about last night," Jonathan said. "But it's no reason to go crazy."
"Don't talk to me about last night," Steve snapped. "And it's not just that. It's everything. How long are you guys gonna sit around and let her do this to you?"
"Let her?" Ray cried. "What the hell choice do we have? You think people haven't tried to escape?"
"You've seen for yourself what happens to the people who try to get out," Gregg said. "They die."
"Not this time," Steve said.
"Famous last words," said Macca.
"I don't know about the rest of you," Jimi said. "But I'm alive, and I intend to stay that way." There was a chorus of agreement.
"Alive?" Stevie cried. "Catering to the whims of a sick, twisted bitch is not what I call living! I'd rather be dead than continue living like this."
"If you try to escape, you'll get your wish," Ray said.
"Not if we all do it together," Steve said. The others shook their heads, clearly not buying it. "Don't you guys get it?" Steve cried. "We can do this!"
"It's you who's not getting it," Lightning said. "If you try to leave, you will die. D-I-E, die."
"Dammit, not if we work together! They outnumber us by ten, but they're humans! We're stronger than they are!" Steve could still see that they weren't convinced. He threw his hands up in a gesture of frustration. "You may be content to live here and be entertainment for that sadistic bitch from hell, but I'm not!"
"Well that's your affair, isn't it, " Neal snapped. "Stop trying to drag the rest of us into your suicide attempt!"
"Open your eyes!" Steve shouted. "You guys might be surviving right now, but how long do you really think that's going to last?"
"You're the one who needs to open his eyes!" Stephen shouted. "You think you can just come in here and call everyone a coward just because we're not insane enough to want to risk getting killed?"
"I'm not calling anyone a coward," Steve said. "I know you have your reasons for not trying to get out before now. But one of these days, somebody's going to slip. Somebody's going to forget themselves and sing when they're not supposed to. Somebody's going to flub a line in one of her fucking concerts. What happens then? What happens when she decides she's bored with '83's and she wants to trade you all in for '81's? I don't know about you, but I will not sit here and wait for her to decide it's time to hack me up in front of some other poor slob!"
Steve had more to say, but the outer doors had opened, and his argument was cut short. Eight guards lined up outside the cells. Great, Steve thought. Show time.
Rose woke up with a pounding headache and a ringing in her ears. She sat on the floor where she had fallen, letting things come into place slowly. After a few moments, she realized the ringing wasn't in her ears. It was the telephone. She stood up, careful not to move too fast, and picked up the phone. "Hello?"
"Rose! Are you all right?"
Rose winced. "Little louder, Xenith," she said groggily. "The Australians didn't hear you."
"Sorry," Xenith said more softly. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. One of the Colonel's friends came by last night and gave me the mother of all headaches, though."
"One was at my house, too. They must have followed us from Van Nuys."
"Must have," Rose agreed. "Are you all right?"
"Fine. Bastard got a lick in before I could get out my pepper spray, but otherwise no harm done."
"Good. Did he say anything to you?" she asked.
"He told me to stop asking about the Colonel's daughter," Xenith replied. "Interesting, since we weren't actually asking about her."
"I thought so, too," Rose said.
"So," Xenith asked cheerfully. "What are you doing today?"
"Going to Van Nuys to ask about the Colonel's daughter, of course. Coming with?"
Two hours later, Rose and Xenith were sitting comfortably in the living room of yet another retired gentleman. The neighborhood seemed to be full of them. "Care for some coffee? Tea?"
"No thank you, Mr. Bell," Rose said.
"Okay." The man sat down. "Where'd you say you were from again?"
"Neighborhood Research," Rose said.
"We're surveying neighborhoods that house one or more individuals that have been dishonorably discharged from the service," Xenith said.
"Oh. Guess you want to know about Colonel Stanley."
"Anything you could tell us about how he and his family interact with the neighbors would really help."
"Well, I can tell you about how they used to interact. They aren't here anymore."
"Oh, no?" Rose asked, trying not to look as crestfallen as she felt.
"No. Colonel Stanley and his wife died in a car accident about three years ago. Poor Angelica moved away after that. Must have been heartbreaking for her after all they'd done for her."
Rose glanced at Xenith. Three years. Couldn't be a coincidence. "Can you tell us more about Angelica," Xenith asked.
Mr. Bell smiled. "Prettiest girl you ever did see! I always said the man who married her would be the luckiest man alive."
"What was she like?" Rose asked.
"She was a sweet girl. Always smiling that beautiful smile of hers."
"Did she like music?" asked Xenith.
"Loved it! Strange, though, she was never in to the stuff most kids her age were. Always listening to some old group. What were they called? Voyage? Something like that. I never was one for rock and roll." Rose stole another glance at Xenith. Bingo!
"Tell me, Mr. Bell," Rose said, thinking she should at least make an attempt to ask questions that had to do with their "research." "When Angelica was here, did her music ever disturb the neighbors?"
"Oh, no! She liked to turn it up loud, but she was such a sweet, pretty thing nobody minded. Everyone in the neighborhood was so happy when she recovered from the accident."
"You mean she was in the car when her parents died?" Xenith asked.
"No, no," Mr. Bell said. "This was a little over four years ago. Angelica was hit by a car right out there." He pointed. "She was riding her bike and the car just came out of nowhere! Must have threw her about 10 feet."
Rose winced. "My God."
"But you say she survived?" Xenith asked.
"Sure did. Doctors said she wouldn't," Mr. Bell said. "She was in a coma and they said she'd never come out of it. But Rich wouldn't accept that. He had a whole room set up just for her in his basement. Some army friends of his did him a few favors and got her out of the hospital. Took her home and he and Margaret - Mrs. Stanley - nursed her back to health themselves. Hardly saw them for a whole year, except when Margaret came out to get groceries. Rich's army buddies would come by now and then. Visiting, I guess. And he had two close friends that stayed with him the whole time. After a year Angelica was on her feet, good as new. That's why I figure she had to leave when her parents died. Couldn't stand bein' alone in the house with all those memories."
Rose sat quietly for a moment, thinking about what Mr. Bell had said. Angelica had moved away three years ago, and the robberies had started. The "army buddies" had to be the soldiers that had been discharged along with Colonel Stanley. Maybe they did what Angelica wanted in honor of her father. The two close friends? Rose thought they were probably the ones who'd attacked them the night before, though she couldn't think why. Whatever the case, they had to find out where Angelica was now. "Do you have any idea where Angelica might have gone?"
"Why do you want to know that?" he asked, suddenly suspicious. "She wasn't discharged from the army."
"We'd like to ask her about her father," Xenith said. "She may know if he felt any pressure from the neighbors because of his military record."
"Oh." He seemed satisfied. "Well, Rich used to talk a lot about a safe house he and his army friends had in the New Forest. He used to talk about stocking it up with enough food to feed all his buddies. Apparently they were really close and he was thinking of taking the family out there with them and living off the land. I never thought he was serious about it, but if he was Angelica might have gone there."
"Did he ever say where in New Forest the house was?" Xenith asked.
Mr. Bell shook his head. "Sorry."
Rose sighed. "It's all right," she said. "Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Bell. You've been really helpful." Mr. Bell showed them to the door and they went back to the car. "Dammit!" Rose exclaimed when they'd shut the doors. "We're right back where we started!"
"Not exactly," Xenith said, looking upset despite her hopeful tone. "We know for sure that it's Angelica now. She must have gone to that house. It would be perfect for her. No one around to hear or see anything that's going on. And no one knows where it is."
"Exactly," Rose said, frustratedly. "No one knows where it is! Least of all us."
"There's got to be a way to find out," Xenith said. "People don't just build houses with no one knowing about it. Let's go back and do some more research."
Rose sighed. "Back to the drawing board."