Council let out early the next night. That was always a pleasure, to be able to get in and out of a meeting in seventeen minutes by the council chambers clock, with so little happening that she didn't even have to bother writing up the meeting in the evening. If she managed to get two grafs out of the story, she'd be padding it.
She'd already written up the story of the fight, just a single graf in the police report – it didn't even mention her name, or Jason's, although she pretty well suspected that Jason's last comment was all over town. In fact, she'd heard one of the cops say the same thing . . . she was damn lucky, she knew, and Gil had given her quite a lecture about it. If she hadn't been able to take out her two by surprise, it could have turned out a hell of a lot different.
But that was last night, an eternity ago. Now, she had an evening mostly to herself, and she hadn't had one in a while. She tried to call Wendy, but Miss Carter was not available, according to Jeeves. Might as well check her personal e-mail, then maybe make some moves on Dragonslayer – it had been a while, and she still wasn't playing Mithrian the way the character should be played. She just didn't have enough time in her busy life anymore; if it hadn't been for some epic battles with Cassiopeia, she'd given thought to retiring the character. Cassiopeia, currently in fourth place, had given her a real hosing the last time they'd tangled, and Mithrian had slipped to nineteenth. Well, hell, Cassiopeia had a heck of a lot more time for Dragonslayer than she did, and that made a difference. But, if she retired the character, she'd miss the chat room, and all the bull that went on there, and she'd miss the electronic friends she'd had for years, so she hung in there and played Mithrian when she got a chance.
E-mail was pretty much junk. Several pieces of spam, which she deleted without opening. But there was one, from "firstname.lastname@example.org." That was pretty rare; something serious; only the administrator had real names and e-mail addresses. Wondering a little, she opened the e-mail. It was brief. "Administrative announcement on Dragonslayer Main Chat at 2100 EST. Maximum player participation requested."
What the hell? Someone must have screwed up big time, cheated big time. At least, that was what happened the last time there had been an Admin chat session. It had all turned into a big yelling match, one that echoed for months – and, it had been over a year ago. She was darn tempted to skip it, but then, it might be important. If it turned into a backstabbing session like the last one had, she could always log off . . .
There were a lot of Dragonslayers on the Chat room at 2057, when Brenda logged on – a huge list of names, players she'd tangled with in the game, players she'd had as friends, as enemies, in the chat room and in the game. For a long time, these had been her only real friends.
[MITHRIAN JOINS GROUP]
[MANGA JOINS GROUP]
[CADENCE JOINS GROUP]
Strange. With this many people online, you'd expect the chat room to be nothing but pure babble, but not much was happening. A couple more players joined the chat session in the next few seconds, but still, there was nothing. Probably everybody's waiting for the bomb to go off . . .
[CASSIOPIEA JOINS GROUP]
Well, Wendy must be awake by now. That's a little strange, she doesn't get into the chat room much, unless it's real slow – she doesn't type fast enough to keep up with the discussion in a big group. She's probably wondering what's going on, too. After this is over with, maybe I'll call her up and find something to talk about. Maybe this, but whatever it is, I hope it isn't more Dragonslayer politics. That usually sucks; it gets as infantile and as bad as the basketball and cheerleader mess . . .
[ADMIN] It's now 2100 EST. Administrative rules in effect for announcement. Messages will not be accepted unless player is authorized by administrator. This session has been called at the request of Falconswing.
[FALCONSWING] Relax. I have nothing important regarding the game. I only want to tell my fellow Dragonslayers that there's a world beyond this game. In the real world, Mithrian saved my ass last night. I went to the aid of a kid who was getting beaten up bad by three guys. I was over my head, but Mithrian evened the odds. Mithrian fights dirty, and I'm damn glad of it. Admin, please authorize Mithrian.
Well, she'd often thought Jason Bailey must be Falconswing, but that proved it.
Oh, cripe, what do I say now? Think fast.
[MITHRIAN] Falconswing gives me too much credit. He fights dirty in real life, too. I just did what I could. What he did was the ballsiest thing I've ever seen in my life. I'm not much on the Bible, but I seem to remember it saying something like greater love has no man than to be willing to lay down his life for a friend. It was talking about what Falconswing did.
[FALCONSWING] The same goes for you. You could have run away from trouble, but you ran toward it.
Oh, this could get maudlin. In fact, it already is. But then, Dragonslayers are probably about the only friends Jason had before I came along, and Harold, and Gil, and the rest. It probably hit him a little hard.
[MITHRIAN] Falconswing, you and I have had many great battles on Dragonslayer, and I hope we have many more. We have been deadly enemies on the game most of that time. But, in real life, I'm ready to stand back to back with you and take on the world, any time you need it. Electronic friends are fine, and we both have many here, but we need real friends, too. I'm proud to call you a friend.
[FALCONSWING] Same here. It's good to have one. Thank you again, and thank you, Dragonslayers for listening. Admin, I have nothing more, unless Mithrian wants to say something.
[MITHRIAN] No. Let's knock this off and slay some dragons!
[ADMIN] Thank you. Admin rules off.
The screen erupted with messages, too many to read, but Brenda wasn't reading them. Falconswing – no, Jason – might not know it yet, but he'd killed some dragons of his own last night. Probably she had, too. She thought about getting the phone book, looking up Jason's number, and talking with him about it . . . but, no. He'd said what he had to say, and in front of people who were important to him; if there were any more to be said, she'd be seeing him at Spearfish Lake Appliance tomorrow night. Falconswing may be a pain in the butt, but Jason Bailey, well, he was something else . . .
Wait a potlicking minute! How did Falconswing/Jason talk the Administrator into calling an Admin session to make that personal announcement? Admin sessions were supposed to be for business, and that wasn't, so how had he got around that rule . . . unless Jason was the Admin? It'd sure answer the one question that had dogged her from last fall, how he'd managed to crack Mithrian's identity. He'd have to have two computers, side by side, logged on separately . . . well, maybe not, the Admin could doctor things, maybe run two windows . . . you little snot, I've got to have a little talk with Cassiopeia. Falconswing, if I can talk her into it, we're going to run a number on you like you've never dreamed . . . but then, the way she's playing, maybe you and I ought to get together and run a number on her . . .
"Are those really handcuffs you have on?" the somewhat-confused-looking blonde in the bikini said.
Behind her dark sunglasses, Brenda rolled her eyes. At least the blonde couldn't see it. The whole idea of this trip had been to get people to ask stupid questions, so she and Carole could give stupid answers, but that one was so stupid it was hard to come up with a good one . . . and it was probably the most common one they heard. "They're actually medical braces," she smiled. "They keep our arms from falling off."
"You're like, kidding, right?" The blonde said with a confused expression on her face.
Carole let her sunglasses slide down her nose so she could look over them and look the blonde straight in eye. "Afraid not," she said in a serious, professional tone. "We both have quasi-ortho-pnuemothoratic vascular disorder. It equalizes the stress on our arms, so we can't rotate them back far enough to get dislodged."
"Huh?" the blonde said, looking even more confused. She was a looker; wearing an extremely skimpy string bikini. There were a lot of good-looking women running around this beach. In truth, Brenda and Carole weren't much better than about average – but none of those babes were catching more attention than they were.
Brenda managed to keep a straight face, although inside she was breaking up. In her wildest dreams, a year ago, down at Riverside Community College, she would never have imagined herself as a good-looking babe in a thong bikini, lying in a lounge chair at a pretty good Florida resort hotel while people's eyes bugged out at the handcuffs she was wearing. "You might want to step back a little," she said, just as serious as Carole had been. "It's pretty contagious."
The blonde wasn't quite buying it, but Brenda could see her involuntarily take a step or two backwards, never taking her eyes off of them. "Uh, like, do you have to wear them all the time?"
Good, she's taken the bait, Brenda grinned to herself, keeping a serious expression. "Oh, of course," Carole said, also just as serious as could be. "Did you get a good look at these braces?" She picked her hands up out of her lap, and held them out toward the blonde.
"Uh, not really," the blonde said, cringing a little at the thought.
"Notice anything different?" Brenda prodded.
"Uh, no," the blonde said, a little dubiously.
"No locks," Carole said. "There's no way to unlock them."
The keyhole dust covers on the Soliels weren't obvious; even Brenda had missed them the first time she'd given Carole's handcuffs a close examination, and Carole wasn't giving this gal a close look.
The blonde's eyes got huge, and her jaw dropped. "You mean, you can't take them off?" she said with a gasp.
"No," Brenda said. "Once they're on, they're on to stay."
"There's no way you can get them off?" the blonde repeated, just to make sure she got it right.
"No way," Carole told her. "They're made of tool-quality titanium. They'd just chew up a hacksaw blade."
Brenda shook her head, and turned to look at Carole, lying in the sun in her bikini. She could see that Carole was having just as much difficulty as she was from breaking out in laughter. "I don't know," she said thoughtfully. "I suppose a welder could get them off with a cutting torch."
Carole shook her head. "I don't think I want to be the one to try that," she said, sounding just a touch dubious. She turned to the blonde and said, "Hey, look, believe me, you don't want to catch this."
Brenda threw her head back, and took a deep breath "Aaaa . . . aaaa . . ." she went, as if getting set to touch off the earth mother of all sneezes. Through her sunglasses, she could see a look of abject fear cross the blonde's face as she set off on a dead run down the sidewalk. She couldn't hold it in any longer; she erupted, not in a sneeze, but in a scream of laughter, the tears running down her face, with Carole doing the same thing next to her.
The blonde was hardly the first one to take the bait, or even the thirty-first; but it was one of the better responses. Brenda and Carole weren't playing to a script, but just coming up with things as they happened to think of them. Sometimes it was more fun to try to figure out which way the other was going and throw back a line that was going to be hard to top. It had all been improv, right from the line about their arms falling off . . . "That was one of the better ones," Brenda said, when she finally managed to quit laughing long enough catch her breath. She'd never laughed as much in her life.
"No doubt about it, she was running for the mouthwash," Carole snickered.
"I think I can do about one more turn, and then I'm going to have to get in the shade," Brenda said seriously. It was more for the sake of the Soliels than it was for sunburn. Both she and Carole had spent a fair chunk of time on the tanning beds at the Women's Fitness Center, just getting ready for this weekend, and they were wearing a lot of sun protection, but that wasn't the problem. Just like the Soliels got uncomfortably cold at the winter festival a month before, they got uncomfortably warm when sitting out in the sunlight, so they had to limit their time in the sun. Fortunately, there was a nice beach umbrella only a few feet away.
Brenda sat up, put the chain of the handcuffs behind her ankles, and sort of twisted and rolled onto her belly, to wind up face down, the Soliels behind her. The side that had been facing the sun now felt uncomfortably warm, going on hot, up against the bare skin of her butt. There was nothing to protect her skin from the heat there; she was wearing a colorful thong bikini so daring that she'd never even have thought of wearing anything like it where there was a ghost of a chance of anyone she knew seeing her. The bikini didn't have enough material to make an honest handkerchief; with Carole leading the way, they'd both bought their bikinis the day they arrived. She would have never dreamed that she could be so brazen.
My God, she thought, it wouldn't be as bad to go out to the West Turtle Lake Club, the nudist camp where she knew Mike used to go to play volleyball sometimes. From what she could make out from the Reporter's Handbook, most junior reporters made it out there sooner or later. Maybe this summer . . .
"Excuse me, ladies," a man said politely.
"Yes?" Carole smiled, as Brenda turned to look at the new target. A guy, about their age, not bad looking, wearing a swimsuit, standing there with a good looking brunette at his side, both with, well, funny-looking expressions on their faces.
"Uh, I don't want to be nosy, but what are you two doing here wearing handcuffs?"
"Oh, we're fugitives from justice," Carole said.
"What?" the guy said.
"We're on the run," Brenda said, a pleading tone in her voice. "Don't tell the cops about us, please."
"Yes," Carole said sadly. "They'd only take us back if we got caught."
The guy shook his head, just about sure his leg was getting pulled. "What did you do?"
"Overtime parking," Brenda said glumly.
"They were getting set to haul us to jail," Carole explained. "But we managed to get away. Damn, we worked so hard for this vacation. We didn't want to have to spend it on a chain gang."
"They arrested you and put you in handcuffs for a parking ticket?" the brunette said. She was buying it, maybe, but the guy was still unimpressed.
"They're a real bitch about it where we come from," Brenda whined. "I mean, ten lousy minutes! It isn't fair!"
"Come on, you two," the guy smiled. "You're just putting me on. What are the two of you doing here wearing handcuffs?"
"Well, all right, you win" Carole grinned. "We're on vacation."
"It's the only way they'd let us come, and it's nice to have a change of scenery," Brenda smiled. "It's so nice to spend some time on the beach."
"The only way who would let you come?" the guy said, wondering if his leg was being pulled again. "Your husbands, or boyfriends or something?"
"No," Carole grinned. "The place where we stay. They have a very good transition program, and like to let people get out around normal people once in a while."
The guy didn't seem to be getting it, so Brenda added a nudge. "It's sorta like conjugal visits in some other places."
"You mean, from jail?" the woman frowned.
"Oh, no, no, no. Not that," Carole smiled. "We were found not guilty by reason of insanity."
"It's really a very nice place," Brenda added. "The neat part, is that we don't have to have jobs or anything. We get to read a lot, watch a lot of TV. I think it worked out very well."
"Oh, yes," Carole grinned. "The food is wonderful, there's a really good exercise program, and let me tell you, some of the guys there . . . wow!"
"What was it you were found not guilty of?" the brunette frowned.
"Murder," Brenda said conversationally. "I don't think we really did it, though. At least I don't remember it. He deserved it, though."
"Who deserved it?"
"Our boyfriend," Carole explained. "We figured out he was two-timing us. But, I don't think we did it, either. It was a frame-up."
"It sure was," Brenda added. "I mean, where would we get double-bitted axes?"
By now, the brunette's eyes were huge, her jaw was hanging slack. The guy wasn't sure anymore that he was being put on . . . but if he wasn't . . .
"Of course it was a frame-up," Carole said to Brenda. "God, we wouldn't have done anything that bad. Do you remember the pictures at the trial?"
"Yeah," Brenda grinned. "That was gross. Especially that one of his head. I mean, cut his arms off, that's one thing, but his head? If we did do it, maybe we overdid it a little."
"Could be," Carole said with a shrug. "Oh, well, it doesn't matter, now. If this weekend goes all right, they ought to be turning us loose pretty soon, and we can find a new boyfriend."
"Yeah, that'll be fun," Brenda agreed. "It's going to take some looking, though."
"Maybe it won't be that bad," Carole said. She pulled down her sunglasses, and gave the guy a careful eyeing, apparently liking what she saw. "I mean, this guy here, he'd do just fine," she purred, and turned to him. "Where do you live, anyway?"
"But, I already have a girlfriend," he replied, uncertainly.
"Oh, no problem," Brenda snorted "We can take care of her."
The brunette grabbed his arm and yanked – hard. Whether they were putting on an act or not, she wasn't about to take the risk that the two girls in handcuffs might really be crazed axe murderers . . . with her their next target. They were last seen moving very quickly up the beach.
"You know," Carole grinned thoughtfully as the laughter died down. "We really ought to back off a bit. We're going to have the hotel seriously pissed at us if we keep running off customers like that."
"I suppose you're right," Brenda agreed. "We really did have to work at that one." The position she was in was really rather uncomfortable, and she decided she didn't like it. Not without a little difficulty, she rolled back over, got her hands in front of her again, and stood up. It was time to get the Soliels out of the sun for a while, anyway; they were getting uncomfortably warm. "I think it's time for some shade," she told Carole.
"Yeah, me too," Carole sighed. "Sure has been nice to be out in the sun, though. I've had about all the winter I could take."
The two picked up their bags – one of which had a remote microphone dangling outside, with a tape recorder running inside, and moved to two chaise lounges a few feet away. It was cool in the shade, almost too cool, but maybe that would give the hot metal a chance to cool off.
There was a man and a woman in the next two chaise lounges. The woman was perhaps Carole's age, the man apparently in his mid-thirties. Both of them had huge grins on their faces. "I swear, you two are about as full of pure shit as anyone I've ever met," he laughed. "You've had us in hysterics."
"It's been hard to try and keep a straight face," the woman added. She had black hair and a dark skin; she'd spent a lot of time in the sun. "That last one . . . oh, that poor girl."
"You've been listening to us, then?" Carole grinned.
The man laughed. "When we first saw you, we thought it was a bet or a dare or something. Then, we thought for a while it was a Candid Camera gag, or something like that, but after we heard all the different excuses you two had, we pretty well figured why you two were wearing handcuffs."
"What do you think it is?" Brenda grinned.
"You're just a couple of gals who like to have a little fun, so you came down here, put on handcuffs, and have been pulling people's legs ever since."
"Well, you're right on part of it," Carole grinned. "It has been fun, hasn't it?"
"Oh, yes," Brenda grinned, rolling on her side to face the couple. "I can't remember having such concentrated fun in my life. You get such weird reactions from people."
"I'll bet," the woman said. "I almost hate to ask this, but what part didn't we get right, if you came down here to pull people's legs?"
"You're not going to believe this," Carole said. "But we were wearing the handcuffs when we came."
"You came here wearing handcuffs?" the man frowned. "You can't take them off?"
"That's right," Brenda grinned. "The keys are at home."
"So you've been wearing handcuffs all weekend?" the woman asked, a little quizzically.
"Oh, it's no big deal when you get used to it," Carole smiled. "We've had the opportunity for that."
The man cocked his head. "You mean to tell me you've been wearing handcuffs longer than just this weekend?"
"Oh, yes," Brenda laughed. "It's been two months for me, now."
The woman's eyes grew wide. "You mean you've been wearing handcuffs for two months? Every day, all day and all night?"
"The first week or ten days, it was pretty uncomfortable," Brenda said. "But, I got over it. Now, I hardly notice them."
"You two have been so full of shit, I don't know whether to believe you or not," the man frowned. "How in hell could you get on an airliner wearing handcuffs?"
"It takes a little bit of doing," Carole explained. "We wound up having to get letters certifying that we're wearing handcuffs as part of a psychological research project, but if you plan ahead of time and the security people know what's coming off, it's not really a big deal."
"That must be a real goofball psychological research project," the man said, shaking his head.
"Sometimes they get weird," Carole smiled. "It's not as crazy as some I've heard of. This is a fairly straight forward project in adaptation to long-term stress. The handcuffs just put a little different spin on it is all."
"I think you're still pulling our legs," the man said, shaking his head again. "I mean, who would be crazy enough to want to wear handcuffs for two months?"
"Oh, two months isn't any big deal," Brenda laughed. "I mean, I know someone who's been wearing them for close to six years."
"Six years!" the woman exclaimed, jaw dropping. "Now I know you're joking."
"Well, it's not six years, yet," Carole grinned. "It will be in May, though. She's right, you do get used to it."
The light dawned in the woman's face: "You mean you're telling me that you've worn handcuffs for almost six years?" she gasped.
Carole shrugged. "Well, it is a long-term research project."
"Come on," the man said, shaking his head, with a grin on his face. "Now I know you're full of shit to the eyeballs. That's as fake a story as you've been laying on other people."
"You want to know the really strange part?" a familiar sounding voice said from behind them. "Truth is stranger than fiction."
Brenda rolled a little, to look over her shoulder, and gasped at what she saw: Randy and Nicole standing behind her, big grins on their faces. "Randy!" she stammered, her face turning red at being caught by the two, wearing a thong bikini that barely covered anything. "What are you doing here?"
"We came down to surf while Nicole's on break," he explained. "But the surf is pretty flat, so we decided to quit staying in a tent and see how the other half lived. We were walking down the beach when we heard some gal having hysterics about how two women axe murderers in handcuffs were out to get her, so we figured you two had to be around somewhere."
"You mean, it's true?" the woman said, incredulous at the revelation.
"Well, not about the axe murders," Randy laughed. "Although Brenda here did a job on a guy's mouth a week ago that's going to make some orthodontist very rich."
"I didn't hit him that hard," Brenda protested, regaining her composure a little.
"Yeah," Randy smirked. "But do you know how much orthodontists charge? Maybe not very rich, but a new Beemer, for sure." He turned his attention to Brenda and dropped his voice a little. "You still handling it OK?" he asked.
"No problems," Brenda told him. "Not after we had that after-action the next night." There hadn't been any nightmares . . . but she sure hadn't been able to get any sleep, either.
The man was shaking his head. "I find that as hard to believe as anything these two have been saying all afternoon. How could she break someone's head wearing handcuffs?"
"Well, it's true, as far as it goes," Randy grinned. "The truth is she took out two guys. She just gave the other one a pretty good concussion."
"That can't be true," the man snorted. "How did you know this, anyway? Were you there?"
"No," Randy admitted. "But I teach martial arts to both these maniacs."
"Uh, miss," the women said, looking at Nicole, who was standing there watching the exchange with a big grin on her face. "Is he pulling our legs, too?"
"It's like he said," Nicole grinned. "Truth is stranger than fiction."
The guy shook his head. "I still think you're full of it. You're all full of it."
"No, the proof is right there in front of you," Randy smiled. "I know you've been listening to these two, but have you watched them?"
"I've been seeing them, and it would have been hard to miss watching them," the guy said.
"Then you haven't been watching them and seeing," Randy said enigmatically. "Maybe because of the martial arts, I'm seeing motion better. I can show you what I mean. Brenda, would you pick up one of your sandals? It's lying right next to the lounge."
"Sure," she said, rolling onto one side and reaching down with both hands for a sandal.
"Now toss it to me," Randy said. It was an easy throw, even with the cumbersome handcuffs. Randy reached out with one hand, grabbed it in midair, and tossed it back. Brenda reached out with both hands to catch it. "OK, thanks," he said, and turned to the older couple. "Did you see what I saw?"
"I don't get what you're driving at," the woman said.
"Easy," Randy grinned. "She rolled and reached down with both hands to pick the sandal up. You or I would have just reached down to get it. When she caught the sandal, she reached for it with both hands. One hand didn't jerk the other; her body knows that both hands have to do the job. You don't pick up those kinds of reflexes overnight. It takes time. Carole is a little smoother yet, but she's had more practice. If the cuffs ever come off either of these two, their bodies will have to learn how to use their hands independently again."