Seasons of Change - Book 8 - Season of Fear - Book 1 of Seasons of Fear

Jane's latest student, Mina/Benjamin, while resisting Jane Thompson's program, is about to be tossed into more than anyone could have ever imagined when an evil from Darla's past threatens to extinguish them all.

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Seasons of Change
Book 8 - Season of Fear
Seasons of Fear
Book 1

by Ediolon90 (Eido)

Copyright © 1999,2012 Ediolon90 (Eido)
All Rights Reserved.

 


 
Tigger's Note:Based on the characters and situations presented in "Seasons of Change" by Joel Lawrence, Copyright 1989.~Tigger

Reader Caution: Season of Fear, Web of Fear, and Season of Remembrance, written by Eidolon90, represent a different view of the universe of Miss Jane Thompson. It's darker than my own view, but are still compelling, thought-provoking stories. However, readers are cautioned that there is a particularly bloody and violent scene in Season of Fear that requires "Aunt Jane" to react in ways that have not occurred in the other stories. Her reactions are not always consistent with my own view of Jane, but hopefully she'll never face an equivalent level of stress in my stories, either.

The second Seasons Story by this author, Web of Fear, is the source of some of the characters in the Remembrance story. Sadly, the story is lost to a series of hard drive crashes and web-site/BBS-demises. It was a very good story. However, Eidolon90 does have the notes he had written it by, and through Sephrena's efforts, has agreed to possibly rewrite it sometime. ~Tigger

Admin Note: Eidolon90 has give Tigger permission to host his stories within Tigger's Story Arc of Aunt Jane. His permission was also written to myself pertaining to this and is duly noted. All credit to the three books of "Season Fear Series" by Eidolon90 belong solely to Eidolon90 (Eido).

Based on the characters and situations presented in "Seasons of Change" by Joel Lawrence, Copyright 1989, and further expanded upon with Joel Lawrence's permission by Tigger ~Sephrena

Author's Note: It has become my habit, if writing a note after 5 or 6 stories can be called a habit, to put an afterword at the end of the story. I like to talk about the things I write and also the things I read.

The first time I 'ran into' Jane Thompson, I hated her. I don't remember which story it was or who wrote it. I just remember not even finishing the story. My loss, I guess. Later, I would try again, and I discovered a character deserving much more than just blind, reactionary loathing. I liked her. She was human.

For a character in a piece of fiction to seem human is a real achievement, in my opinion. I found that I wanted to build add to her character, add to the whole milieu of Seasons stories and basically add to Jane Thompson's humanity. 'Season of Fear' is my shot at that. I know it lacks some of what faithful readers of tg fiction have come to expect and I won't go into detail on what I see as the shortcomings of the work. I hope I have accomplished what I set out to do and that the Seasons will continue to come and go in their eternal dance. ~Eido
 


 
 
Chapter 1: Prelude with Jasmine - In Which We Learn How the School Came to be Nearly Empty
 
Jane watched her soon to be former student walk to the train. It pained her to see his carriage, his back ramrod straight and jaws tightly clenched. The hand that was not tightly wrapped in the strap of his duffel bag was a fist at his side. Jane did not think it a coincidence that he had chosen to depart wearing neatly creased khaki pants, a crisp shirt of the color for which the drab in olive drab had been invented and perfectly polished black shoes. The duffel bag contained similar clothes, bought because his sudden growth spurt rendered the clothes he arrived in unfit for his return to masculine attire. Without a backward glance, James, and she could not help still thinking of him as Jasmine, boarded the train.

At Jane's side, Darryl could not decide which of the two to watch more closely. Finally he decided to watch Jane, since she might need his help when they returned home. Darryl, he had come as Darryl today in a last effort to get James to yield even slightly, sighed quietly. He could see the wetness of incipient tears in Jane's eyes. How many times in the past two or so years had Darryl provided what comfort he could to his guardian, teacher and trusted friend, Jane Thompson?

"He'll be fine, Aunt Jane. I know that this isn't the ending you envisioned, but he'll go far in life and he'll owe it, at least in part, to you."

Jane smiled at her young ward, the young man who had inextricably knitted himself into her household, her school and her life. "I'm going to miss you when it is finally time for you to leave the nest, Darryl." Jane smiled again, though her smile could not hide the solitary tear that slipped past her careful guard. This thought brought a moment of unease to the young man.

"I'll still be able to help somehow, even when I can't be the emergency big sister anymore. And, you know, it's not like I'm going to outgrow all my clothes in two months, the way James did."

Jane smiled again, with real humor in her eyes. Darryl had a lion's heart even if he would never have a lion's stature. She shook her head with wry humor.

"As long as I've been doing this and I still get complacent. Even after you and Michael and Kenneth, boys still arrive with their own special surprises for me. Almost sixty young men now, and James is the first whose body decided to sprout five inches and thirty pounds in two months." She chuckled, and Darryl could see the healing process start in his beloved Aunt Jane. Darryl wished he could tell her everything he now knew about James, but a promise was a promise and someday, hopefully soon, James would tell her himself. They walked to her car, shoulders close, each pondering how they had come to this day.

"You're what?" Jasmine barely whispered, she could hardly think, her mind spun in confusion.

"I am, or at least was, a student here like yourself. Sent to Jane Thompson as an alternative to juvie hall. I was a bigger hellraiser than you were, in fact, and this was my punishment and rehabilitation," the young man spoke confidently and quietly, the product of months of hard work by both himself and the staff of Jane's school. "My name is Mark and I'll be returning to the real world soon, and someday soon you will be big sister to a new student here." Mark studied Jasmine's face, her lips quivered and her eyes watered, but something was subtly amiss in her expression.

"And Darla? Is she an imposter too? No, never mind, of course she is. No one in their right mind would put a 'girl' like that around two guys like us, right?"

Confusion threatened to overwhelm Mark. Jasmine should be happy, not angry. Her best friend had earned his release and she would follow soon.

"Jasmine, I don't..."

"DON'T CALL ME THAT! You LIED to me! You lied to me and you pretended to be my friend and you helped trap me into this." Jasmine shouted at her companion, raising her arms to point at the pale blue sun dress she wore today, but her motion was too sudden and her adolescent growth spurt too recent for the dress. A seam ripped with loud complaint. "Son of a BITCH!" Jasmine shouted. With that, she bolted for the house, kicking her sandals off in the process and reveling in the momentary freedom that accompanied her flight from Marla's revelation.

Mark sat in stunned silence, aware that something had gone terribly wrong, but uncertain exactly what. Finally, he stood and walked back to the mansion, dreading the upcoming conversation with Aunt Jane.

And that, Jane reflected, had been the beginning of the end for Jasmine/James. He resolutely refused to speak to Mark or Darla after that, so great was his outrage at having been taken in by their femininity and at their complicity in Jane's training program. After that, Jasmine simply quit. Whether her decision resulted from her big sister's perfidy or whether it came from some renewed masculine confidence aroused by his sudden growth, Jane never found out, but she would never forget the conversation.

"I must say, Jasmine, I am profoundly disappointed at your pathetically juvenile behavior. Your truculent attitude toward Marla and now toward Darla signifies a lapse that can only extend your stay here, if you are even allowed to remain here at all. I have developed serious doubts about my original estimation of your progress into greater sensitivity and refinement.

"Only the intervention of your mother prevents me from bundling you off as-is to the school of your father's choice. I understand he cannot decide whether you should spend the remainder of the summer in a 'boot camp' or whether you should get an early start at your new school."

Jane finally paused to get Jasmine's reaction. The girl- boy did not move from her uncomfortable pose in the chair Jane reserved for these interviews. She held her head high and her back straight. Her gaze remained level and focussed on some distant point through Jane's entire diatribe. Jane would have laughed at the caricature created by the combination of bearing and attire had she not realized that such laughter would place Jasmine forever beyond her reach. To punish Jasmine for her intractable behavior, Jane had arranged a shopping trip to Betty Franson's Style Shoppe, where, after hours of measurement taking and sessions of modeling, four identical sets of clothes had been purchased for Jasmine. Jane had raved over what an adorable figure Jasmine made in the little navy blue party dresses and patent Mary Jane's. And since Jasmine so disliked wearing stockings she received several pairs of white tights, the kind any six-year-old girl would wear. Ten days in those dresses had not changed Jasmine's attitude and now here she sat, considering Jane's ultimatum.

"I think I would prefer the boot camp, but whatever my father decides will be fine with me," Jasmine said, eyes unwavering. Finally she relented, but only slightly. "Ms. Thompson, I'm through here, and we both know it. Whatever it is you need me to be, it's not going to happen now. And to be blunt, I would prefer the honesty of boot camp to the mind games that you employ." A faint hint of a smile played across Jasmine's face, giving Jane hope. "Besides, in two more weeks, I'll have outgrown these dresses."

Jane repressed the desire to lick her lips and reflected on the changes that she had made to the program after Michael's attempted suicide and Kenneth's brief, unwarranted, tenure. In short, Jane listened.

"Perhaps you are right, Jasmine. Please return to your room, I must think about what is best for all of us. I will have Marie bring your dinner." Jasmine left, turning on her heel and practically marching from the room, concentrating on shedding as many feminine gestures and habits as she could.

Darryl stared out the window, wishing he could do more for Jane and wondering how long James would hold him to his promise. Darryl could not understand how James could be so heartless in the face of Jane's care and affection for her young charge. Of course Darryl could not know that, in the seemingly distant future, the occasional card or note from James would alleviate the ghosts of today's pain. Even if Darryl had known what the future held for James and his relationship to Jane, it certainly did not help the pain she felt now. Darryl was hardly aware of the pain he felt himself. The silence with which James had treated him since his discovery had cut deeply and had only been broken once.

"Darryl. Darryl, wake up."

"Hunh, what? Oh, Aunt Jane...Aunt Jane?! What the hell are you doing in here?"

"Hush, you little menace, everyone else is still asleep. Get up so I'll know you're really awake."

"You were calling me Darryl, Aunt Jane," the boy noted quietly.

"Yes, Darryl. I need Darryl to run some errands for me today and to try to mend fences with James."

"James?"

"He's going home soon, or wherever it is he goes from here." Jane shuddered. Imagining one of her students in the testosterone soaked environment that James willingly sought nearly made her sick. "But he's outgrown all his male clothes. I need you to go to one of those superstores that's open at this hour and get him some things. I have a list right here." Jane pressed the paper into his hand. "Get a move on, Darryl. I want him in something besides a dress when Sandy and Caro do the tear down."

"Right away, bwana," Darryl replied as he hustled out of bed and straight into the bathroom for a quick shower. A short while later, Darryl was hauling James' bags down from the attic while Marie painstakingly removed all traces of makeup and nail polish from the boy. James felt oddly tense and out of place in a pair of gray sweats and white cotton jockey briefs. The black ankle top Reeboks on his feet were the only familiar touch, being similar to the shoes he had worn to aerobics class.

I'd like to get out of boot camp and kick that bitch's ass, he thought. The viciousness of the thought startled him. It was precisely those kinds of thoughts and the actions they preceded that got him sent here in the first place and that was a mistake he had resolved not to repeat.

"Thank you, Ms. Marie," he said when she pronounced him fit to be seen in public as a male. Darryl handed him a baseball cap to hide his long, wavy, honey blonde tresses under and they both went to the car that Jane had just pulled around. Once again she had imposed upon the proprietors of the Marisha Chalet to open early and tend to one of her students. She had, of course, warned them to expect a pair of young boys with her today and that Jasmine's tear down was to be the most thorough they had ever performed.

Jane watched the two boys walk out to her car. Darryl had a grace combining the best features of his masculinity and femininity. When dressed as a boy, Darryl's movements were flowing and almost feline in economy and composure. Jane searched in vain for a slight hint of James' feminine side in his bearing. Without remorse James bent to the total eradication of Jasmine and all her influences in him. Jane knew it was probably necessary, considering the boy's future plans, but she greeted the end of Jasmine with tight lipped pain and the faint fear that James would miss something, thereby bringing down the wrath and ridicule of his future classmates.

"Good morning, James," Carolyn said with reserve. She too was nervous about this young man, especially in light of her own recent experiences with Jane's students. Jane nodded to Carolyn to proceed, trying to reassure them all that everything was as it should be.

Carolyn reached for James' chin, but then paused, "May I?" she asked quietly. James could only nod his assent, fearing that the anger he still felt toward these conspirators in Jane's torment of him would spill out.

"Well, someone did a good job of getting you cleaned up. I assume Marie? Yes, she even got your eyelashes clean. We'll have to do something about your eyebrows though, they are a bit too fine for a young man like yourself."

"Just shave them off," James requested firmly. Carolyn twitched, startled by his request, but James continued. "If you put something on them to make them look fuller, someone is probably going to notice, but if they aren't there at all, people will just look at my face and try to put their finger on just what is wrong with me. If they do notice, I'd rather it be for no eyebrows than for a disguised girl's eyebrows."

"Suit yourself," Carolyn said after seeing Jane's nod. Carolyn nervously wiped her hands on her jeans before accomplishing the deed. Swallowing loudly when she finished, Carolyn held out her hand to the boy, who took it automatically and shook it firmly. "Good luck, James."

"Thank you, Mrs. Beale," he replied with a small smile, then walked over to where Sandy waited. Jane walked with him, pausing to reassure Carolyn with a friendly hand on her shoulder.

"Well, I'm sorry to see that Jasmine couldn't hack it. You made a real looker, kid," Sandy just could not resist getting in a few more digs.

"Sandy..." Jane intoned threateningly.

"It's okay, Ms. Thompson," James said, looking Sandy squarely in the eye, "she can't help the way she is. Maybe if you have no other students for a while, you could spare Darryl to come over and give her some lessons in charm and deportment." As he spoke, James' gaze transformed from benign to venomous. Sandy looked as though she had been sucker punched in the gut.

"James!" Jane said sternly, but Sandy interrupted her.

"No Jane, I deserved that one." She spun James in the chair so that they were both facing Jane. Placing her hands lightly on his shoulders she said, "I guess considering as much as he's grown lately, I'm getting off lightly." James saw it as a signal, an opening to bury the hatchet with Sandy, but his anger with her was still too raw.

"Where else am I going to get a crewcut at this hour of the morning?" he finally said.

"A c-c-crewcut?" Sandy spluttered, pain suddenly forgotten. "Like hell I will..."

"Sandy." Jane intoned for a second time.

"Besides, it will spare you having to get this ridiculous color out of my hair," James said reasonably.

"Ridiculous? It's a lovely color, even for a boy. Why, the right style and you'll have to use a stick to keep the girls off of you. Hell, you could leave it long and they'd still be all over you." James recognized Sandy's outrage as professional and not personal. He caught her gesticulating hand with his own and squeezed lightly.

"Sandy," he said gently, "where I'm going, there aren't any girls. Please make it a crewcut."

With a deep breath, Sandy relented, though she nearly cried when she saw the pile of shorn hair at her feet.

By the time they were done in the salon, the mall was open. Jane watched, remembering again with small amazement, the way James shopped. With brutal efficiency he selected blue jeans, khakis, a small selection of shirts and a supply of socks and underwear.

Back home, Jane directed Marie and Darryl to see to the redecoration of James' room, since it would be a week before he left for home or wherever. James, however, pre- empted her again by announcing that he would prefer to sleep outside for the next week and that he would need only some blankets and Jane's permission to build a small fire as needed. A slightly heated argument ensued before James finally explained that it was not mistrust of Jane that prompted his decision, but a desire to completely divorce himself from the Jane's School experience before heading for his next destination.

Eventually they compromised. James would camp out for a week, but take showers at least daily in his former bathroom and he would take at least two meals a day with Jane, Marie and Darryl. That was the end of the matter, except that he still had not said one word to Darryl.

Three days after the tear down, James caught up with Darryl near the stables. James admired Darryl's composure. Had their situations been reversed, he might have run like hell.

"Darryl," James paused, uncertain of how to continue, "I have something I want you to know, but only if you can keep it a secret. I will only tell you if you promise me that no one else will here it, especially not Ms. Thompson."

Darryl studied James for a moment. "As long as you're not about to reveal your grand scheme for destroying Aunt Jane and all her associates." Darryl looked up calmly at James' startled expression. "You see, I've heard all that before."

"No, no ...I mean, I wouldn't, I'm not planning any such thing Darryl. Do I have your word?"

"Yes, I promise," with that, Darryl extended his hand and James shook it.

"I had to tell someone before I burst, but I don't want to talk to Ms. Thompson or Ms. Marie about it. To be honest, I'm still pretty pissed at you too, but I'm getting over that." James paused, but Darryl gave no reaction. James continued, "I know you wouldn't be here if you hadn't had your own problems. I'm not trying to get sympathy from anyone here. Someday, maybe, I'll thank Ms. Thompson for straightening me out, even though she probably doesn't think her 'technique' has been a huge success. I'm not afraid anymore, Darryl." This last came out in a quick stream of words that took Darryl by surprise.

"What?" he finally asked.

"I'm not afraid anymore. All my life, I've been afraid. Afraid that I would fail my parents. Afraid that I would fail my father or not measure up to his expectations. When they split, I was afraid of having to choose between them, his way or her way...As I got older, I was afraid of everything new, afraid I'd show weakness or afraid I'd screw something up. But now," James shrugged, "I feel excitement at the prospect of being challenged. If I blow it, well, at least I tried without fear."

"Why are you telling me this?"

James paused for a long minute before answering. "Because it was this place and what you people did to me that chipped away the fear. Maybe I've used my allotment of pure terror for my lifetime," James smiled, "or maybe the things that happened here taught me something or reached something in me that has nothing to do with good manners and refined behavior.

"Darryl, I'm going to be a soldier someday and an officer and maybe even a gentleman. I'm going to be a leader and I'm going to be good at it, but I wouldn't be able to do that with a fearful heart. That's all I wanted to say."

"It would help Aunt Jane a lot if you told her this, or let me tell her," Darryl entreated.

"I'll tell her, sooner or later. Maybe letting her stew is my petty revenge, but I think maybe the time considering what it is she does here would help her too."

"Oh, she thinks about that all the time, believe me."

"Really? I wouldn't have guessed. I will write to her soon then, just not now. Darryl, this is goodbye for us, even if I will be here for a few more days. Do you understand?"

"Not really, but I don't guess it matters."

"Maybe we will meet again in the future, in better circumstances than this."

Darryl could think of nothing to say to that. He liked his current circumstances much better than anything his past life had offered him. Finally, he just nodded. James turned and walked away.

A few pleasant weeks passed as summer tightened its grip on New England. Marie took a short vacation to visit her family. Darryl swam and sometimes helped old Tom with the grounds keeping.

Upon her return, Marie provided the three of them with hours of amusement by teaching Darryl French, Acadian style, complete with demonstrations of the accent she had when she first started working in America. Jane already knew French and would often pretend outrage at Marie's Canadian twisting of the language. When not engrossed in Marie's language lessons or some other mundane chore, Jane rode.

During one of these horseback rides Jane stopped by the road to retrieve the mail. She could not believe her eyes as she tore the envelope open and started reading:
 
 
"Dear Ms. Thompson,

I meant to write this sooner, but I have been much busier than I expected. There are a few things I wanted you to know before too much more time passed..."
 
 
Jane blinked, trying to hold back her tears. One of my boys, she thought, in the army someday. She was as proud and as apprehensive as if James had been her own son. He was making his own way and if that way was not the one Jane would have preferred for him, well, what more could she want than to be a contributor to his success. She hurried to the house to get clean and to make a call.
 
 
Chapter 2: A Brief Interlude With Friends Old and New - In Which The Past and Future Are Examined
 
"Judge Ruth's chambers please," Jane informed the somewhat bored operator at the courthouse where one of her closest compatriots presided.

"Judge Ruth's chambers," the clerk announced when the connection was made.

"This is Jane Thompson. Is Judge Ruth available?"

"Yes, she just got back, I'll connect you."

"Hello Jane, please tell me this is not an emergency," answered the judge, humor apparent in her voice.

"No, no, I just got a wonderful letter from a former student. One that I thought I had lost forever," she proceeded to share the details of James/Jasmine's stay at the school.

Jane finished with "I don't know how many more of these I can take."

"Well, the two before James were pretty much classic cases Jane."

"Yes, I'll admit they were and it was most gratifying to find that I remain able to instill in these children the right combination of emotions to guarantee their pliability, but these last two years have been unprecedented."

Judge Ruth remained silent for a while before responding. "Jane, I've been thinking about this since Darryl. The boys are not the same as they were when we started. In the last few years I've sent you boys that I would have rejected without hesitation fifteen years ago. The last one, Mark Calchek? He had an assault on his record, but that just doesn't seem as serious nowadays when I get to see eleven year old murderers in my court."

Jane recognized that Ruth was unburdening her soul to her, so she waited for her friend to continue.

"I guess we save the ones we can and when one doesn't turn out exactly the way you plan, you re-evaluate and go on. James sounds like he has his head screwed on straight, even if I don't think he'll be visiting you at Christmas in an evening gown."

Jane laughed at the image. "You should have seen him march out of my office that last day he was in petticoats."

"You see Jane, you are adapting too. You would have made that boy sorry he'd ever thought of defying your program if he'd tried that even five years ago. But now you pay closer attention to your wards. You recognized that graduation time had arrived whether you liked it or not."

"I know. We've made a lot of changes since Darryl. We are much more careful to know the detailed backgrounds of our students and to try to determine the causes of their behaviors. But I guess you already knew all that. I'm just running on at the mouth."

"Not at all, Jane, not at all. By the way, here's a little something to brighten your day."

"Hello Aunt Jane, are you well?"

"Kenneth!" Jane nearly tipped her chair over. "It's good to hear your voice. Yes, I'm well, just a little blue over a recent student. You'd like him, Kenneth. He practically marched in here one day and announced that he was done and anxious to get to military school." Kenneth's warm laughter resounded over the connection.

"And did he leave in a dress or stark naked?"

"Neither Kenneth, you know me better than that. He left like the model of the soldier he wants to be, after getting a few parting shots off at us," Jane described the tear down and subsequent shopping trip.

"Poor Sandy, she's probably looking forward to retirement by now."

"Well," Jane replied, "sometimes she does ask for it, and as much as James' comment stung her, I think it was the haircut he wanted that really brought her close to tears."

"Jane," Kenneth said cautiously, "have you considered that what James said to Sandy may have been meant for you and your other co-conspirators as well?"

"Yes Kenneth, I have given it considerable thought."

"I'm sorry, Aunt Jane, but I just wanted to make sure you weren't hurting, too. Do you think James will succeed in his quest?" Kenneth adroitly changed the subject, but Jane still sounded troubled.

"Oh yes. The power to do so was always within him. We just helped bring it out. One of my boys is going to be a soldier, maybe even a commander someday...or a killer" Jane paused, unsure of her words and suddenly unsure of her feelings.

"Sometimes we need killers," Kenneth said softly, believing he recognized the root of Jane's distress.

"No, Kenneth. Sometimes we need soldiers who will kill when necessary, sometimes we need protectors and God help us, sometimes we even need executioners. By a killer, I mean someone who doesn't count the cost or who even likes it."

"I think I understand, Aunt Jane, but from what I've heard, your work with James was successfully finished. Don't worry overmuch on his account." Kenneth spoke with confidence, trusting Jane's experience and dedication to produce complete human beings in her graduates.

"This is getting morbid. You two get back to work. Come and visit when you get a chance. Darryl is getting a little lonely, I think."
 
 
Chapter 3: Ghosts From the Past - In Which the Scene is Set for Future Conflict
 
Another few days passed with little to note, except that Jane and Judge Ruth discussed the possibility of another student. The judge had become aware of a boy whose case was currently working its way to her. When the phone rang, Jane answered, certain it was Judge Ruth.

"Hello?"

"Hello. May I please speak to Darryl Smith? This is Keith Belmont of Child Protective Services," the unctuous voice asked.

"This is his guardian, Jane Thompson, is there a problem?"

"No ma'am. I have a few routine questions for Darryl as part of our follow up review."

"One moment." Holding her hand over the mouthpiece, Jane called Darryl, who she could hear nearby, to the phone.

"Hello?" the boy answered.

"Hello Darryl, do you remember me?"

The blood drained from Darryl's face even as he asked, "Who is this?"

"It's your old bud Keith from the bad old days, Darryl, wantin' to know if you still have that bundle of money your big brother promised us. I'm thinking about coming to collect, Darryl."

"There is no money you moron. I took the fall for that job and Harold got away with nothing but the car he stole." Jane sprang to her feet and reached for the phone, cursing herself for not realizing quicker that something was amiss.

"I'm calling the police," Jane announced to the unknown caller.

"Go ahead. Cops need to practice filling out those forms, you stupid bitch. See you around." The line went dead even as Jane reached for the button to disconnect the call.

"Who was that, Darryl? What did he say to you?" She asked the visibly shaken boy.

"That was Keith. He must be the leader of the gang I was in now. He wants the money that Harold promised the gang and he thinks I still have it. He's coming here, Jane and he's worse than Harold ever was because he's smarter and in better control of himself."

"Oh God, it's happening again," tears threatened to overwhelm the young man, "I've got to go away, Aunt Jane. I've got to go away or he'll do something..." the sentence went unfinished, interrupted by wracking sobs as Darryl buried his head against Jane's shoulder.

Jane held the boy for a while, letting his tears subside. "Nonsense, Darryl. If he found you here, he'll find you elsewhere and then you'll be alone. He'll eventually come here anyway as long as he believes there's money to be had. I'll hear no more of it," then with a smile she added, "and don't you even try to sneak off in the middle of the night again. Do you understand me?"

Darryl nodded, then could not resist an impish display. He stood straight in his best imitation of James and saluted. "Ma'am, YES MA'AM!"

Jane arched an eyebrow at him, trying not to burst into giggles when Darryl added a further display.

"Oh, I forgot. You prefer this." Darryl made an exaggerated curtsy while holding imaginary skirts, "As you wish, Aunt Jane," he said softly in Darla's voice. Finally both of them dissolved into laughter.

"What is all the noise in here?" Marie's question brought them back to reality and Jane let Darryl bring Marie up to date while she called the police.

When the police were done with her and Darryl, Jane closed the door to her office, connected the speakerphone and called Judge Ruth, at home.

"Jane! I was just going to call you. I think I may have found your next student." But when Jane explained the day's events, her friend grew quiet.

"This is an unfortunate turn of events. I've been keeping an eye on that one and he is a dangerous man. He's been smart enough to stay out of direct trouble with the police since he was about thirteen, but he's steadily built his position as leader of that gang, especially after Harold was killed."

"That's worse than I had hoped, Ruth. Is there any chance he was just playing with our heads? Would he really come this far out of his usual territory just for some possibly imaginary money?"

"Yes, he would. If he actually thinks there's money to be had. I don't think revenge is a motive here because the story is he never liked Harold and Harold's elimination cleared the way for his rise to the top."

"Well, the police determined the call was not local, so he's not here yet, but there's not much they can do unless they catch him in the act, and I don't think increased patrols around here are going to do that."

Ruth considered this then asked, "What are you going to do about the school, Jane?"

"Well, I've thought about that and I'm just going to have to suspend operations for a while. I will not endanger my students like that," Jane replied adamantly.

"I had a feeling you would feel that way, but I'm not so sure. Of course, I'm not the one who has to decide, but if you shut down until Keith screws up and lands in jail..." the sentence trailed off, but Jane realized its implications.

"Dammit," Jane swore, startling Darryl nearly out of his seat. "He wins even if never comes close to Westbury. Ruth, I see your point, but how am I going to keep the school open and keep my kids safe? I don't think hiring a couple of rent-a-cops is going to help the situation much, even if I could find some that would understand what we do here."

A tense silence held the line for a moment, then Ruth said, "Jane, I may have the answer. I know a, uhm, man. He's a security consultant. He is the soul of discretion and is basically the best person I can think of for your situation. I would suggest you contact him and at least set up an interview if you plan to keep the school open.

Which leads me to two other points. The boy I was telling you about. I think he needs you, Jane. All the signs are there, though I'm a little concerned about some of his peculiarities. He's bright, well read in a random sort of way and he can be very friendly. I've spoken to him in person. He's also moody, undisciplined, combative, resistant to authority and occasionally violent."

Jane looked up to see Darryl roll his eyes and silently mouth the words "Here we go again."

"What else do you know about him, Ruth?" Ever since Kenneth, the background checks on their perspective students had become more intensive.

"His name is Benjamin Peyton. His mother and father are dead. He's been bounced around foster homes and institutions since he was six. He'll be fifteen in three months. He has a long history of confrontations with authority, petty theft and vandalism. His behavior has only recently taken a turn for the worse. He struck a teacher, a female teacher I might add, for taking away his portable CD player during class one day. While he was in custody after this incident, another boy taunted him over something. I never did find out what. Anyway, despite their differences in size, Benjamin exploded on this boy and beat him so severely he had to be hospitalized. The first guard to grab him got a broken nose for her efforts, too. The strange thing is that when he realized what he had done, he apologized to the woman. Of course, apologies don't count for much in that situation. He's been given the full treatment, psych evaluations, confinement in the juvenile detention center until his trial. There are a few other things Jane." The judge ended somewhat hesitantly.

"You mean it gets worse?" Darryl blurted before realizing what he had said.

"I was wondering when you'd pipe up, Darryl, or is it Darla today?"

"It's Darryl until we get a new student."

"Well, mind your manners young man and don't interrupt your elders," Judge Ruth ordered with mock severity. Darryl snorted at this, but kept quiet.

"Jane, do you want to hear the rest of this or have I scared you off yet?" the judge asked.

"Well, he doesn't sound much worse than a few of the others we've had, so continue."

"Okay, mind you now, I detest this jargon that the psychologists use, but in their report they claim he has a very low self esteem. They have established that he has not been abused or molested, but that the lack of positive role models in his life has led to a lack of appreciation for his own life.

Personally, I think this is a load of garbage, although it is useful to know that he has not been abused. I'll even admit that he seems to have a poor self-image. When I talked to him, he came across at times as friendly and inquisitive and then at others as hard and uncaring. He is trying to be a hardcase, perhaps to avoid the pain that attends being a whole person. He's brittle, Jane, and that's what really concerns me. Push this one the wrong way and he might try to hurt you or he might try to kill himself. However, if he goes into the custody of the state and survives until he is eighteen, he will probably come out as a predatory animal with no compassion at all."

Jane rubbed the bridge of her nose. The headache that had threatened all day was about to make an appearance. Ruth was right, this one needed her, but how could she make it all work out.

"Ruth, you said there was something else?"

"Oh yes, Kenneth wants to take you up on your invitation to visit, especially if you are about to take on a new student. He'd like to see you and Darryl and wear out his welcome before the new arrival."

Jane looked at Darryl and at the hope that his eyes showed. Aside from being fast friends, Darryl believed that Kenneth was the smartest person alive. Doubtlessly, Darryl thought that Kenneth could provide valuable insight into the problem they faced.

"Okay Ruth, tell me when Kenneth's flight will arrive and I'll pick him up, or have Marie do it. Also, give me the information on this security guy and I'll check him out. If I can arrange security to my satisfaction, then I'll take your new student, provided he doesn't go berserk on anyone else."

"Very good, Jane, that's the spirit. I'll fax the details right over to you."

"Thanks, good night." They hung up the phone and Jane waited for the fax. Moments later the fax machine purred to life and began printing. First came Kenneth's flight details. He must really be anxious to see Darryl, Jane thought. Then came several sheets regarding Allen Sullivan, Security Specialist. The pertinent phone numbers, fax numbers and email addresses were all printed out along with a suite number for a mailing address. Jane thought that curious. Were they so paranoid they kept their office location a secret, she wondered? A brief description of Sullivan and his agency followed. Jane discovered he had a sizable staff with wide experience. His agency had been in business for eleven years. At the bottom, Ruth had scrawled a handwritten note: 'Jane, call me if you decide to interview him, there is still more to tell about Mr. Sullivan.'

Great, Jane thought, more complications.
 
 
Chapter 4: Grand Reunions - In Which the Best Things in Life are Found to Be Close at Hand
 
In the end, they all went to the airport in Providence to pick up Kenneth. There was plenty of room in the Lincoln and no one wanted to stay at the estate alone. Jane used the time to poll her associates about accepting a new student and about meeting Allen Sullivan.

"I think Judge Ruth is right," Marie spoke quietly, her usually absent accent the only sign of her emotions. "We can't let fear of some punk stop the work we do."

"I keep thinking of what James said about not being afraid, Aunt Jane. He might be a little too macho for your tastes, but he was right about how fear can paralyze you."

"You know, I never did understand his reaction to you and Mark, Darryl," Marie added, "what was the deal with that?"

"Ahhh, that was my error, Marie," Jane said quietly. "Years ago I lost a student over a stupid, bald faced lie I used as a pretext for his treatment. Although I learned my lesson about using blatant falsehoods, some people are equally offended by less obvious subterfuge. Apparently, whatever else his parents might have instilled in James, they both contributed highly to his sense of honor and his attitude toward dishonesty. I'm learning the hard way that even when people value the same things, some value certain things more than others. It puts a whole different spin on evaluating a boy for the program."

"So he was fooled by Marla and Darla? I still don't get why he acted the way he did toward them," Marie frowned, still slightly confused.

"Well, in his mind, I think they were the same as spies or traitors. I think Marla's revelation as Mark may have spurred his sudden resistance more than anything else. In fact, now that I remember, Mark told Jasmine that she would be a big sister someday too. To James, being a big sister would not be an honor, but a breech of honor. It would be a low and traitorous action. Deception is the kind of thing you use on an enemy." Jane looked in the rearview mirror to see Darryl sinking lower into the back seat.

"Darryl, I think James understands that there is an issue of perspective here. Judging from his letter, I would say that he bears you no grudge."

"Oh, I know that Aunt Jane. I just never thought of it from that point of view. I always thought I was helping my little sisters, not betraying them."

"You are helping them, Darryl. Darla and Marla, and I could have choked when Mark got tagged with that name, were instrumental in helping James, just not the way we usually plan it. The funniest thing is, if he had bothered to articulate his feelings or his position about honesty, he could have saved himself ten days of petticoated prison. He takes his attitude as much for granted as we take ours, and that is one of the reasons why Marla's outing hit him so hard."

Marie frowned, obviously she needed to chew on this for a while.

Darryl broke the silence. "So are we going to meet this Sullivan dude?"

Jane shot him a look in the mirror. "That's Mr. Sullivan dude to you, young man and when did this operation turn into a 'we' thing?"

Snorting, Darryl replied, "Well, I kind of thought I had at least been promoted to faithful sidekick? Kind of like Robin, the boy-girl wonder."

"Now there is an idea, Darryl. All our little femmes can dress in tights and capes and domino masks and pretend to be superheroes."

"Wow, Aunt Jane, I didn't think you even knew what a superhero was," laughed Darryl. "Do I need to turn my back when you duck into the phone booth?"

"Where have you been, Darryl? Even Edith White knows there are no phone booths anymore." The three had a good laugh, though not meaning anything mean about dear old Mrs. White.

"To answer your question, I am going to call Judge Ruth when we return, after I've had a chance to spend some time with Kenneth before you get him filthy dirty. I'll ask her what else it was she wanted to tell me about Allen Sullivan and then, unless my mind is changed by whatever Ruth has to tell me, I'll try to arrange an interview with the man."

"From the fax, he sounds like a tough customer," Darryl said, not without a little admiration. Jane rolled her eyes.

"Yes, he does sound like the pinnacle of manly virtue and machismo, Darryl. Try to imagine what having someone, or several someones, like that underfoot will do to our little training program."

"Hmmmm, I see your point. He'd become a source of resistance for boys that need to embrace girlishness."

"Not exactly the way I'd put it, but you have the idea."

"What about the people in his agency?" Marie asked, "There were a number of women..." Marie stumbled over the right choice of word, "agents? working with him?"

"That is one of the things which I noticed about his operation and the main reason, aside from Ruth's high recommendation, that I'm considering him."

As they approached the airport, excitement gripped the passengers of the big Lincoln. Each of them looked forward to Kenneth's visit for different, but still loving, reasons.

The reunion of Darryl and Kenneth was exactly the boisterous, noisy event that Jane expected. So different from the meetings and departures she usually attended at the train station. Kenneth hugged Jane so hard she felt her ribs creak.

"A little daintiness would not be entirely out of order here, Kenneth," Jane said, rubbing her side. Kenneth just smiled and gave Marie an equally bone crushing embrace.

"Sorry, ladies, all that boyish energy has to go somewhere."

"Hmpph," Jane tried not to laugh, "I'm sure I can find some way to channel such enthusiasm. Perhaps that shopping trip to Milady's Closet that you never got to go on, Kenneth?" Finally Jane could hold her mirth no longer, but she did manage a polite, ladylike chuckle.

"Does she carry cleats? Darryl will need a new pair to go with this." From one of the bags they had just retrieved, Kenneth produced a soccer ball with a ribbon and bow taped to it. "Don't worry, Darryl, I've seen college girls playing soccer on TV these days." Only the presence of the airport security guards prevented Darryl from leaping at his friend.

"Seriously, it's a great lot of fun and much safer than football, American football, that is. But wait, there's more," Kenneth said, his imitation lost on Jane.

"Thank you, Kenneth!" Marie exclaimed, then planted a quick kiss on his cheek. She turned the box set of CD's over in her hands, "How did you know? No, wait, there is a spy among us," she said, looking at Darryl who remained the picture of wide-eyed innocence.

"And last, but not least," Kenneth handed a heavy volume to Jane, followed by a large envelope.

"Fashions of the Victorian Era," Jane read the title aloud. "Are you sure you want this information to fall into my hands, Kenneth?" Jane asked coyly.

"As long as you use your powers for good and not evil, Aunt Jane. Open the envelope."

Jane did just that and barely suppressed a squeal when she saw what it contained. Jane pulled a number of cardboard cutouts from the envelope, embossed with photographs of several of her former students. Then she pulled out a number of sheets of paper, printed with cutouts of the fashions contained within the heavy book that she had handed to Marie to hold. She looked at the paper doll dress up kit with growing amazement.

"You are a rascal, Kenneth, how long have you been working on this?" Jane asked, looking at the pictures of Kenneth, Darryl, Eric and David. There were still others in the envelope as well.

"A little while. You know, Aunt Jane, there are some perfectly good computer applications that you could use to model your graduates with, but I've heard you prefer the old-fashioned methods, so I thought you'd rather have a real paper and plastic set of toys to play with."

"You included yourself in here, Kenneth," Jane noted.

"Yeah well, someone has to be the before example."

"Well, thank you very much. This is very thoughtful of you." Jane smiled warmly at her young friend.

Kenneth waited until they were in the car on their way back to Westbury before asking quietly, "I hear you may have a bit of trouble in the offing."

Gradually and with an occasional question or interjection, the whole story came out.

Back at home, Jane dialed Judge Ruth yet again. In the background she could hear the two boys yelling like maniacs and Tom's admonition to keep that blasted ball out of the roses. Jane was afraid to look out the window. For all she knew, Marie might be chasing with them as well. She waited while the clerk made the proper connections.

"Hello Ruth, it's Jane again. Tell me the terrible things about Allen Sullivan."

Ruth paused for longer than usual before replying, "So you're going to call him?"

"I am going to try to get him to fly out here to meet me, unless you tell me he's a cannibal or something."

"Hmmmm. I think it's safe to say he's not a cannibal. However, he is just about everything you dislike in a man, Jane, except that he no longer has that snotty attitude you so enjoy eradicating."

"Oh joy," Jane said, settling in to her chair. "I'm comfy now Ruth, I have a feeling this is going to take a while."

"In short, he's about the best person I can think of to protect you. I've had occasion to refer him before. He's smart, thoughtful, well prepared and extremely discreet. He trains his staff to be the same way."

"So, what is wrong with him that you still won't tell me about?"

With a sigh, Judge Ruth finally got down to business. "He's the antithesis of everything you stand for, Jane. He's vicious, cunning, violent and basically without real compassion. I think of him as a tame, and barely so, sociopath."

Jane felt a spark of irritation and it showed in her voice, "You wanted me to hire this man?"

"Jane, it's not as bad as that, although I know I'm making him sound terrible. But he can be terrible, sometimes. Oh, not with a client. With you and anyone else who is under his protection he is everything you like: polite, courteous and well mannered. But God help anyone who tries to hurt you. He's like the world's best-trained and meanest attack dog. He'll play with the kids, let them pull his tail, but when the intruder comes over the fence, the big teeth come out."

"You are being a little confusing, Ruth. Should I meet him or not?"

"I think you should, but be prepared. I wanted to warn you without coloring your opinion too much."

"I know this doesn't matter, but I'm curious now. How'd he get this way?"

"Twenty or so years ago, he could have been one of your students, Jane. Though I doubt I would have referred him if his case had come to me. Of course, back then you weren't in business yet anyway. He finally did something, participated in an armed robbery I think, that landed him in a juvenile facility. While there, something happened to him. He showed all the signs of becoming a full fledged felon when he got out, but instead he learned to read." Ruth paused to let that soak in. "I know this sounds like some kind of made for TV movie, but I think that is what happened. I'm not saying he suddenly turned into a saint. In fact, the opposite is true. He discovered that knowledge is power and that with knowledge and discipline you can get almost anything you want without crossing the law. That is what I think happened.

"If you ask him about it he's quite open about his past, but he won't volunteer anything. That's pretty much all there is to know."

"Okay, thanks. I'll give him a call." Jane hung up and dialed the number from the fax. As luck would have it, (good or bad, Jane would later wonder) the Sullivan Agency was between big jobs at the moment. Allen Sullivan would be in Westbury in time for dinner tomorrow. Jane began to plan.
 
 
Chapter 5: Actors and Actresses - In Which the School Becomes Crowded
 
The doorbell rang at precisely 4:00. Marie answered the door and found an impeccably dressed man of just under average height waiting there. He gave the impression of looking at her, but it was hard to tell since he still wore darkly tinted sunglasses.

"Mr. Sullivan?"

"Yes. I have an appointment to see Ms. Jane Thompson."

"Please come in. She will be with you momentarily." Marie walked away to get Jane, who waited in her office for Marie's report. The whole charade, similar to tactics Jane used in business dealings, gave Jane time for any unexpected occurrences and made her guest wait just a bit.

"And?" she asked Marie.

"He's not rabid. He's handsome in a distant sort of way. I didn't see any extra eyes or horns."

"Thanks Marie, you are a big help," Jane noted wryly.

Marie smiled, taking no offense. "I'm not saying that he's perfectly normal, Jane. Maybe the build up that you and Judge Ruth gave him is coloring my impression, but there's something about him." Marie frowned, uncertain of the words to describe their guest. "He's got a nice suit though. Oh, lay off the ethnic jokes around him. He looks like he has some really mixed ancestry."

Rolling her eyes, Jane went to meet her guest. As she approached, she could see that Marie was right as usual. Sullivan wore a nicely tailored conservative gray suit with a dark blue tie. Jane thought the gray was too dark for his complexion and hair. Marie had been right about other things as well. This man possessed a quality that Jane could not name, but that gave him a decidedly alien air. Sullivan extended his hand and introduced himself.

Jane shook his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Sullivan. I am Jane Thompson. Would you mind removing your sunglasses please? I find it distracting when trying to converse." There, she thought, my arm isn't on fire and I gave him an order. He can't be all bad.

A ghost of amusement flickered on the man's face, leaving as fast as it came. He removed his sunglasses and looked Jane directly in the eye. Jane's momentary lapse of speech and faint intake of breath was the opening he needed.

"The mark of Cain, Ms. Thompson. So I may go into the godless lands without fear." Jane barely heard, she still looked at his eyes. They were a pale aquamarine or maybe turquoise color that was almost luminescent in the dim interior of Jane's foyer.

Jane recovered quickly though and his statement registered belatedly in her brain. "I don't think that is exactly the purpose of the marking of Cain."

"Liberal interpretation," he replied.

"Does that mean you killed your brother?" Jane could hardly believe she had asked the question, it had just blurted out.

"All are my brothers."

Jane stopped abruptly. "Mr. Sullivan, this interview is not starting out as I had envisioned, plus, I have had about all the male weirdness in this house that I can stand. Shall we start over?"

"Fine with me."

"Very well. I know this is rude, but I can't help asking, those aren't contacts, are they?"

"No ma'am, they aren't."

"Well, let's go to my office and break the ice."

Once in Jane's office, they sat and Jane described the problems she faced while Marie provided tea and a light repast. After finishing her narrative, and she had left out the exact nature of the school and her students until she was certain she would hire Sullivan, Jane watched his expression carefully.

Watching a sphinx would have been more informative, Jane thought. Sullivan sipped his tea, actually seeming to enjoy its cooling flavor.

"What would you like me to do?" he finally asked.

Jane managed not to splutter, but only barely. "Well, you are the recommended expert. I was thinking you could tell me."

"You have received a threat. You have acted quickly to provide protection for yourself, and more importantly in your eyes, your students. What I need to know is how you want to deal with this threat?"

"For example," he continued when Jane remained quiet, "we could locate this gang leader and convince him to leave you alone." Jane shuddered at the implied threat this simple statement carried. "No? Well, we could turn your school into a fortress with such formidable defenses that only a lunatic would try anything here. Or, we could provide a very low profile arrangement, something that would not necessarily deter them, but would be designed to stop them, preferably outside your home."

"I see what you mean, Mr. Sullivan. I think that I lean towards the third, though it sounds like the option entailing the most personal risk. Maybe a tour of the house and grounds would help us decide. Also, I'd like you to stay for dinner and meet one of my students."

"As you wish." With that, they began a tour of the house. They examined each room in turn, including the attic, basement and the personal rooms of Jane and Marie, rarely seen by outsiders. Jane watched Allen inspect each room, noting that his expression betrayed nothing of his thoughts. Even the dichotomy between Jane and Marie's personal spaces and the stiff formality of the rest of the school went without comment, though Jane suspected it did not go without notice.

Out on the grounds, the pair paused briefly to converse with Tom, then moved on toward the stables.

"You should stable these horses elsewhere for the duration."

"Why?" Jane asked, already dreading the answer.

"Setting fire to this building while the horses are in it would be a perfect way to lure the entire household out into the open," Allen replied without seeming to notice the horror that the idea evoked in Jane.

"I see," Jane said, struggling to suppress the revulsion she felt. She could not decide what bothered her more: the fact that someone would do such a thing or the offhand way in which Allen mentioned it. "I believe we will have volumes to discuss at dinner. We should return to the house and freshen up."

In the dining room, the table was set with a formidable array of utensils. Kenneth, waiting patiently by his chair, noticed the similarity between this setting and the first meal he had endured at Jane Thompson's hands. He watched the impassive man who also waited next to a chair, trying not to stare at the man's unusual eyes. Darla entered and took the place next to Kenneth, smiling politely at the two men then pointedly gazing somewhere else.

As Marie brought platters to the table from the kitchen, Jane entered and took her seat without ceremony. Allen watched Kenneth seat Darla, then they each sat down.

"Kenneth, Darla, have you introduced yourselves to our guest?" Jane asked.

"No ma'am," they replied almost in unison.

"This is Mr. Allen Sullivan of Sullivan Security. He is here to consider the job of providing us increased security in light of the recent threat we received. Mr. Sullivan, across from you is Kenneth Roberts and beside Kenneth is Darla Smith."

Polite greetings followed, then Marie brought a last tray out and seated herself at the end of the table opposite Jane. If Sullivan was surprised by the inclusion of the cook at such an elaborate dinner, he did not show it.

Jane noted with some curiosity that Allen seemed to pause for a brief prayer before eating. After a few more moments of small talk, Jane got down to business.

"Mr. Sullivan. I've been considering your earlier question and I am inclined to entertain the third option you mentioned, if the risk to my students can be reduced to an acceptable level. I don't think my students will thrive in a fortress environment."

"Risk is difficult to quantify, Ms. Thompson, especially when the threat is not specific. What is the nature of your school here and how many students attend at once?"

Jane smiled, "I was wondering when you would get around to that question. We are something of a finishing school for unruly teens. Children with discipline problems are referred to me by their parents, their schools or sometimes the courts. We employ a variety of techniques to replace bad habits with good ones and instill respect, courtesy and self-control. We are better suited for just one or two students at a time. In rare cases there have been three children here."

The whole time, Jane watched as Allen correctly identified which utensil went with which course. As Ruth had assured her, his manners were perfectly refined, though Jane was unsure how that would matter in the long run.

"This is delicious, ma'am," he said to Marie, adroitly changing the subject. "Have you been with the school long?"

"Yes, nearly from the beginning."

"Marie is more than just a cook, Mr. Sullivan, she practically runs this place. She is a close friend as well as a valued assistant." Marie smiled widely at the compliment.

Dinner progressed. Long silences were broken by short flurries of small talk. Allen carefully observed the interactions between the other diners. Finally, Jane felt the time had come to return to business.

"Are you interested in the job, Mr. Sullivan?" she asked directly.

With some deliberation, Allen wiped a large piece of bread across his plate and took a bite. Darla stared wide-eyed at this act, certain it would provoke her Aunt in some way. Jane recognized the gesture as signifying that the rulebook had just been tossed out the window.

"Yes," he said, swallowing a mouthful of bread. "Do you test all your employees like this?" He looked at Jane, taking another bite of bread.

"Sometimes," she replied.

"Usually the game playing is directed at reducing my fee or testing my competency. But here...I'm still trying to determine if I passed." He looked at Jane, then pointedly glanced around the table.

"You may speak freely here, Mr. Sullivan. We are all involved in this problem to one degree or another."

"Why is that young man wearing a dress?"

No one moved. For a moment, no one even breathed.

"Excuse me?" Darla finally asked indignantly.

"Darla, wait a moment. Why do you say that, Mr. Sullivan?" Jane asked evenly.

"Observing people is my job."

"Then you have come to the pivotal issue here, Mr. Sullivan. Darla, or Darryl, is wearing those clothes for precisely the reason you surmised. However, for my usual students the process is not voluntary, but rather a disciplinary measure to curb the overly macho behavior that got them into trouble in the first place."

The man nodded, appearing thoughtful. "Why me?" he finally asked.

"You were recommended by a friend of mine. She said you were discreet."

Allen continued to clean every morsel and crumb from his plate, biding his time while he thought. Darryl finally broke the silence.

"Better watch your manners, Mr. Sullivan, or she'll stuff you in a dress too," Darryl said nervously.

"Darryl!" Jane exclaimed, coloring in spite of herself.

With no real expression, Allen looked up from his plate and fixed Darryl with his stare. "Been there, done that." Jane's mouth fell open and Kenneth dropped his fork with a loud clatter.

"Excuse me?" Jane asked, regaining her composure. "I would be interested in hearing about that." Jane said, speculating wildly in her own mind.

"I was a decoy once, about eleven years ago," he said, without indicating that further details were available.

"Excuse me, Mr. Sullivan, but I'd really like to know more. Could you give us the whole story?"

Allen looked at Jane with a 'you asked for it' expression and began. "It was during the time of the Stanton Heights Stalker. I was just starting out and trying to make some inroads with potential clients. One day the state attorney general calls me up and asks if I would be interested in a job in another state as a favor to his friend, the Governor.

"Seems that this stalker, a serial rapist who was becoming increasingly violent, had avoided every trap the cops had set for him. They had begun to think the guy might be a cop or an ex-cop or someone very familiar not just with procedure but also with personnel. They needed an expendable, unknown decoy. I flew out, got measured about 50 different ways. They sent a bunch of female state troopers on a buying spree, I spent a couple days with a drama coach and presto, I become Ms. Cynthia Lewis. For almost two weeks, I went about as this lady. I had an apartment, an office in a building near where another victim had worked, and sometimes I went shopping.

"We were about to give up on the whole idea. Then one night, this guy puts a knife to my throat as I get out of my car after work. Now, I was being watched by some back up, but not closely, because we didn't want to spook the man. So I was on my own. I pretended to get all weak in the knees. He moved his knife hand to gesture and I killed him."

Not unexpectedly, silence greeted the end of the story. Kenneth broke the quiet, "Weren't you supposed to capture him?"

"Yes."

"But..."

"Kenneth," Jane said, "let it rest."

"So, if you are still willing to have me arrange security here, I'm still willing to take the job. Just no dressing up for me this time. I have an idea or two that I think will work just fine, however."

"Mr. Sullivan, I would like to consider this further tonight. Could you come back tomorrow morning and go over your plan with me?"

"Of course. About 9:00?"

"That would be fine, thank you."

With that, Allen excused himself and left the house with characteristic abruptness. The remaining diners looked around at each other and then at Jane. The obvious question went unasked, 'what are we going to do now?'

"Who wants cake?" Marie asked, knowing that at least three servings would be required. Jane had a slice of cake as well, then excused herself and went to her office. She talked on the phone until quite late that evening before calling Marie and her two young students in for a conference.

The next morning, she conferred with Allen Sullivan for about an hour. By dinner that evening, three women had arrived at the school. None of them let Kenneth or Darryl take their bags. Introductions were made at dinner.

"This is Linda Nichols," Allen said as the petite brunette nodded her head. "Rene Fuller," he indicated another brunette, somewhat older looking than her associate. "And Maxine Moss." The matronly redhead grinned broadly at the rest of the table.

"Linda will be playing the role of student here and Maxine will be the night watchman. She does a great rent-a-cop impersonation. Rene will either be a student or a housekeeper, depending on how she looks in the appropriate student attire. I will be joining the staff as an extra gardener. The rules are very simple. We are to blend in until there is trouble. If and when trouble comes, we are in charge until the trouble is gone. Ms. Thompson and I have discussed this at length and I know she has conferred with the rest of you. With these arrangements and a few other precautions, I think we can provide an acceptable level of security without compromising your mission.

"We have tonight to get acquainted and then tomorrow, the show begins." With that, Allen sat and ate. When he finished, he excused himself to go into town to buy needed clothes and other supplies, leaving the three women to get acquainted with Jane and her associates.

"Well, he certainly knows how to move quickly," Jane said, starting the conversation. She was not surprised by the solid front the three presented regarding Allen Sullivan.

"He's a good boss," Rene said, and the other two echoed the sentiment.

"And did he inform you fully about what we do here?"

Again Rene answered, "He told us everything he knows. Why, is there something more?" A trace of hostility crept into Rene's voice and Jane immediately recognized it as disapproval of her methods. The other two women watched intently, betraying nothing of their own feelings.

"Since he told you everything he knows, then there are no secrets remaining," Jane chose her words carefully, not wanting to suggest that Allen had held anything back from them and possibly offend their loyalty to the boss.

Rene seemed satisfied with this and resumed eating, signaling that the conversation should pass to someone else. Kenneth caught Linda looking askance at him and Darryl.

"Yes," he said firmly, "but only for about three weeks. That was long enough to get revenge on my mother."

"I see," she said, perhaps slightly bothered that her question was so obvious. "Allen said that Darryl would be taking up the role of Darla as part of your new student's program. Will you be staying here as well, Kenneth?"

"No. I am just here to visit and renew my old friendships. I am an intern at the courthouse in the city where I live now."

"Ahhh, would that be Judge Ruth? We have worked for her before."

"Yes," Kenneth smiled, pleased to be reminded of his mentor and mom away from mom. The conversation lapsed again while everyone finished dinner and dessert.

"I apologize for being so direct, but I would like to know how you feel about how we work with our boys here?"

"We're not supposed to have opinions, Ms. Thompson. That would be unprofessional. And when we do have them, we keep them to ourselves, don't we ladies?" Maxine answered, looking at her fellow agents.

"I understand that, of course, and I don't mean to pry, but I am curious about how you feel. I also don't want any misconceptions or speculation to develop..."

Maxine interrupted, "Ms. Thompson, if a judge will send boys here as an alternative to juvenile detention and you have nearly 60 graduates and no one has sued you yet, then we don't have a problem being here and that's all there really is to say about it."

Jane was quite certain that would not be all there was to say about it, at least not if the three women were here for any length of time. She would wait and allow their familiarity to grow, something that was unavoidable in such a situation no matter how unprofessional it might be.

"Well, then I guess that's everything. How about a little dress rehearsal? Our new student arrives in three days." With that, the group adjourned upstairs, except for Kenneth, who cleaned up the table and kitchen.

Once upstairs, Jane sent Darryl to his room to become Darla. Maxine went to her room to put on her uniform while the other four went to Linda's room to get her outfitted for student life. Marie assisted Linda with her makeup while Jane selected an ensemble for meeting the train.

"At least you can wear hose if you want. When we give a boy the full treatment we put him in stockings and garter belts," Jane remarked as she laid the clothes out. Linda looked skeptically at the outfit and then returned her attention to the mirror.

"I don't think we'll be able to pass you off as a student, Rene. You are too mature in both sound and appearance. Would you mind being cast as Marie's helper?" Jane did not think the woman would hesitate. Though she controlled her expression perfectly, Jane could sense Rene's discomfort with the proposition of playing dress up.

"Whichever you think would be the most effective, Ms. Thompson." The answer surprised Jane, but then she remembered the woman was a professional.

"I think you should stick to street clothes, Rene. One of us in the house should always be ready for anything," Linda suggested as the first of only two petticoats was settled around her. "I'm not exactly sure where I'm going to hide my gun in this."

Jane froze. Guns did not frighten her, she had an automatic and had been prepared to use it to defend her students, but the idea of an armed stranger, even a professional security specialist, in her home made her nervous.

"I think we can have alterations made. Also, as a rule you won't be wearing clothes quite this extreme. Although you are young and quite petite, I don't think we should try to pass you off as a fourteen-year-old. I was thinking you could be an eighteen-year-old, here for poise and polish. That way you could wear less formal dresses and some suits as well."

"Good idea, Ms. Thompson. I was thinking along those lines myself. I just didn't know what would fit here."

"I'm going to go downstairs and familiarize myself with the house," Rene announced.

Jane appreciated the opportunity to talk to Linda without her associates around. "I don't think she approves of our methods. You know her better than I. Am I right?"

Linda stuck to the company line. "Our opinions are unimportant, Ms. Thompson. We accepted this assignment without reservation, knowing that your activities here are legally sanctioned."

"Ms. Nichols, I don't mean to question anyone's professionalism, but I am concerned that Ms. Fuller's apparent hostility toward our school may color her judgement."

"I suggest you take that up with Mr. Sullivan," Linda said as she stood. Her shoes added barely an inch to her height. Jane winced as she watched Linda walk to the mirror.

"I'm afraid you still walk like a cross between a soldier and a panther, Ms. Nichols."

Linda smiled at Jane in the mirror. "Thank you, though I guess that needs a little work. By the way, unless you call your students Ms. and Miss, you better get used to calling me Linda."

"Very well. You may call me Ms. Thompson, Aunt Jane or Jane as circumstances warrant. I suppose I'll need to develop enough of a curriculum for you to blend in without distracting you from your duty. Also, I don't want you to go out of your way to avoid our student, but at the same time, I think you should minimize your contact." Jane studied the petticoated woman for a few more minutes. "I'm sorry, Linda, but I just don't think that look is right for you. We will find you some more mature attire."

A soft knock sounded at the door. Marie opened the door to let Maxine and Darla into the room. Jane and Linda both gaped, though each in response to a different tableau.

Jane stared at Maxine in amazement. As someone familiar with radical transformations, Jane realized she should not be so surprised. Maxine was the picture perfect image of a low quality rent-a-cop. Her uniform appeared to be solid blue polyester, with a variety of cheap patches sewn on. Her belt was of scuffed and worn leather, holding an equally battered nightstick. Only her gun and her radio looked of any quality. To top it off, Maxine had put something in her hair to change her highlights from just red to brazen red.

"I see my disguise is working," Maxine smiled broadly and gestured with the extra large metal flashlight she carried. "You look like a debutante, Linda. Are you guys going to dress like that all the time?"

"I don't think so," Linda said, staring at Darryl. "I don't believe it. You are Darryl, aren't you?"

"When I'm rigged out like this, I go by Darla," she said softly.

"I don't believe it," she repeated. "I think I need a new outfit sooner instead of later." She turned back to the mirror. "I'm not going to compete with a teenage boy for best dressed honors."

A quiet cough out in the hall warned them of impending company. Dressed in worn green coveralls and battered work boots, Allen surveyed the scene.

"How do we look, boss?" Maxine asked.

"Women. They make the highs higher and the lows," he paused for effect, "more frequent." He turned and walked out as Maxine laughed.

"What the hell did that mean?" Marie beat Jane to the question.

"It means we look perfect," Maxine replied.

"How could you tell?"

"If we didn't, he'd have made suggestions. We do, so he just threw out one of his little word bombs as a way of making conversation."

"Word bombs?" Jane finally got a word in.

"It's what we call the quotes he tosses at us," Linda said with a note of finality. Jane pondered this, wondering what kind of man she had let into her house. Jane recognized the signal to change the subject as well.

"I think I know exactly what sort of clothes you'll need, Linda. Are you accustomed to wearing heels?"

Kenneth watched from the kitchen as Allen moved several trunks into the basement, where he was apparently making a room for himself to stay. He knew he should offer to help, but he also knew that Sullivan probably did not want him messing with his stuff, even just to carry it.

As Kenneth watched Allen hoist the last trunk to his shoulder, Allen looked up, right at the window and directly into Kenneth's eyes. Kenneth congratulated himself for not jumping. Instead he waved. Sullivan nodded his head and appeared to say something, but Kenneth could not tell what.

"Probably just as well," he said aloud to himself.

"Just as well what?" Marie asked from behind him. This time Kenneth did jump and he barely contained the string of curse words that were his second reaction.

Marie smiled, "Were you thinking about a girl Kenneth? I can't imagine what else might distract you like that."

"Not hardly, Marie. So how does everyone dress out?" Kenneth asked, wanting to change the subject.

Marie told him while they finished cleaning up from the meal.

The next day, Rene took up her cover as assistant housekeeper with Marie showing her around. Linda worked on her student persona and Maxine slept in the apartment she had rented in a slightly rundown area on the outskirts of town. Darryl and Kenneth went riding together after packing a picnic basket with enough food for four young men to eat. When they told Jane they were going to go somewhere quiet and talk about girls, she just laughed and told them not to gallop on the lawn.

Jane called Tom into the house to explain their new circumstances. Tom, who admitted he could use the help, no matter how temporary, looked at the younger man.

"I think he'll do fine, though it's not too late to pick a new disguise, Mr. Sullivan." Then Tom thought, "Say, do you know how to run a backhoe?" Jane smiled. Tom had wanted to expand the gardens for some time now.
 
 
Chapter 6: Arrival and Departures - In Which a New Student Arrives and Takes Center Stage
 
The day had arrived. Kenneth's bags were packed and neatly arrayed in the foyer. The space that had been made by his giving of gifts was now full again, only this time with gifts received. Kenneth could see Rene in the kitchen, taking inventory of the various pantries. He tried to spot her gun, which he knew was hidden under the beige blazer she had adopted as her uniform.

"Ready?" Marie asked. Today Marie would drive him to the airport. Jane, Darla and Linda would meet the new student at the train station.

"I guess. Sometimes it's as hard to leave this place as it is to come here," he commented, trying to put his feelings into words and not being very successful.

"Is it that hard to come back here, ami?"

"Sometimes it is, Marie. I don't mean this the way it sounds, but I don't think you or Jane can ever really appreciate what the sight of this place means to me or to your other former students."

Marie just nodded and helped load his belongings into her car. Jane and Darla came down to bid him farewell.

"Don't spend all your time in the courthouse, Kenneth. Try to have some fun this summer."

"Oh, I don't think that will be a problem, Aunt Jane," Kenneth grinned up at her. Darla chuckled quietly to herself. The lights went on inside Jane's head.

"You are seeing someone? You little rat, keeping a secret like that from me!"

"Not yet, Aunt Jane, but I'm going to ask her out when I get back. I promise to tell you all about her if we actually get together. If I need any advice on how to treat a lady, I'll be sure to call you."

Jane hugged her young friend, whispering, "Be sure you do Kenneth."

"Keep practicing your soccer, Darla, I have high hopes for you." Darla's handshake changed from delicate to firm and Kenneth drew his hand back. "Ouch. What have you been feeding her, Aunt Jane?" Kenneth looked serious for a moment. "Watch your back, D, I have precious few friends in the world, so you be careful."

"Hey, you are the one that hangs out with all the criminals," Darla replied, "so you be careful too."

"I'll call tonight," Kenneth shouted as the car headed down the drive to the road.

Jane led Darla and Linda back into the kitchen, where Marie had left tea for them.

"We don't have to leave right away," she said. "Take a look at these photos." Darla took one of the pictures and Linda the other. Darla's showed a tall but thin boy with a somber expression. He wore jeans and a sweatshirt, which though bulky, did little to disguise his basic gauntness. The other picture, which Linda studied carefully, showed Benjamin's head and shoulders. In it, he smiled broadly, almost dazzlingly. He wore his dark red hair long, apparently below the collar if not longer.

"Sandy will be happy to have a boy with some hair," Darla remarked, when she examined the picture.

"He almost seems like two different people in these pictures," Linda added. "They don't look like they were taken too far apart either."

"Yes, that dual element of his spirit and his sometimes violent temper are the two things that concern me the most. I'm afraid I'm going to be playing this one by ear a little, Darla. I prefer to have a program firmly in mind at the outset, but Benjamin will have to be handled differently. We will start in the usual fashion and gauge his reaction and the effectiveness of our actions," Jane explained.

"This is secondary to my function here, but just so I know, what do you do when a boy first arrives here?"

Jane pondered this request and decided it would be best if Linda was not caught off guard by their methods. "We basically try to disorient and confuse the boy to hamper his resistance. We present our course as the only reasonable and sensible alternative, no matter how distasteful it may seem on the surface. Once he takes the first step, defiance becomes the least tenable option. All the while we are forcing the boy to discard the overly macho attitude that brought him to us and adopt a more balanced perspective in order to survive his ordeal.

"On the first day, we set him up in a very girlish room, relieve him of all his male clothes while he is asleep and present him the choice of covering himself with a dainty robe or being naked. Usually he acts out and I am 'forced' to declare that he will stay in girl's clothes until I see some improvement. Of course, the implication is that I will relent in a few days or a week," Jane smiled wickedly and Linda realized that Jane did not regret one little bit the humiliation inflicted on her charges.

"Every time he becomes comfortable with his situation, we throw out another hurdle. The first trip into town for a makeover and hair styling is one of my favorites. Gradually, he yields, adopting and relying on feminine traits to maintain her charade and prevent disclosure." Jane paused here, uncertain just how much she could safely tell this woman.

"Fear of disclosure is one of our most effective tools, but it cuts both ways. Although we hold that threat over our young boy-girl's head, we can never follow through with it, or we, and everyone who is associated with us, will be ruined. Does that make sense?" Jane concluded.

"Yes," Linda replied, not wanting to comment any further. Jane looked at the young woman's face, which was unguarded for the first time since her arrival. Her expression reflected a broad spectrum of emotions before she regained her composure and professionalism.

"Well, let's go round him up," Jane said cheerfully.

Benjamin Peyton wandered the station, waiting for his connection. Somehow, the train he was supposed to board here either had not arrived or had already left. The clerk's explanation had seemed interminable until Benjamin asked the question in a more direct fashion. When and where should he meet the train to Westbury? The answer left him with nearly an hour to spend.

His stomach growled, but he ignored it. If he ate now, feeling as he did, he knew he would be sick. Uncertainty gripped him tightly as did apprehension if not outright fear of the unknown future. The Thompson Academy, he thought to himself, what the hell kind of place would that be? The judge who had given him the option to go there instead of to juvenile had been unwilling to reveal more than the school's years of success at helping troubled teens mature into upstanding adults.

The small taste he had gotten of incarceration had been the deciding factor in accepting this alternative punishment. It would be a military style school, Benjamin speculated. He caught his reflection in a darkened window. His eyes were a soft, pleasant brown. Benjamin worked hard to make his gaze piercing or ominous. A few freckles splashed his naturally pale skin and his hair was in disarray. He stared at his hair, which he thought was long even by the more liberal standards of the day.

"It's just hair," he said aloud when he realized what was going to happen to it. Then an idea sparked in his head and he set off for the barbershop he had seen earlier.

"Can I help you, young man?" the barber asked, happy to see a customer. Nothing in the shop had been new in 30 years, but the place was still neat and tidy.

"Uhhh, yeah, just a second." Ben struggled to remember the name one of his many foster brothers had given the haircut. "I need it cut real short. I think it's called high and tight."

The barber looked at Benjamin for a long moment. "You're kidding, right?"

"Ummm, no. I want it really short on the top and practically shaved on the sides. Did I get the name right?"

"Oh yeah. Have a seat." In short order, Benjamin watched as handfuls of his hair fell to the floor. The sight caused him no particular dismay as it might have in other young boys.

"You look a little young to be running away to join the army," the barber asked over the hum of the electric clippers.

"I'm not. I'm on my way to some special school for no good kids."

"If you're a no good kid, why are you loose in the train station and in here letting me practically shave you bald?"

"I guess someone thought I could be saved," Benjamin shrugged, feeling uncomfortable with the conversation. In no time, the barber finished and Benjamin looked at himself in the mirror. He could see that even without hair, the essential Benjamin was still present in his reflection. He shuddered.

"You be careful out in the sun now," the barber advised.

"How much do I owe you?" Ben realized he had come in without counting his remaining money. He knew there was less than $20 in his pockets.

"Well, the price for that haircut hasn't changed since the last time I did it, so that'll be $1.25."

As he thankfully fumbled for the money, Benjamin asked, "When was the last time you did one of these?"

"About 1970 I think. Three boys from around here heading off to Viet Nam with the marines."

"Did they make it back?" Benjamin asked, suddenly chilled by the portent.

"I don't know."

Benjamin walked out, wondering what it would have been like to be one of those marines. Benjamin had read a lot about Viet Nam. War, or at least modern war, fascinated him. He had read dozens of books on the wars of the twentieth century. The rest of history bored him, only the wars struck a chord. Sinking into melancholy, Benjamin searched for his next train's embarkation point.

Jane, Darla and Linda waited patiently, each of them deep in their own thoughts. Jane reflected on all the boys she had met at this very place. Some had been tired, and some scared, others had been openly defiant while others had thought they could conceal their attitudes. In the end, almost all of them had come around to her way of thinking. Jane hoped this one would as well.

Every time Darla came here, she could not help but think of her own arrival. Memories of fear and uncertainty were gradually being crowded out by the loving, if slightly skewed, home that Jane had provided. Darla wondered what secret fears or hopes this boy would carry with him.

Linda watched everyone and continuously checked the location of the two people under her protection. She felt it unlikely that there would be trouble here, but she knew that letting her guard down was unthinkable. A part of her mind also concentrated on maintaining some semblance of the refined prep school veneer that the last three days had introduced to her.

"He should be on this train," Jane said, glancing at the picture she held. It was Linda who noticed the tall boy with the nearly shaven head.

"Oh not again," Jane muttered when Linda pointed the boy out to her.

Benjamin looked up. Someone had just called his name. He looked around as he kept walking, then heard his name again, sharply, from right in front of him. He stopped just in time to avoid colliding with the woman in front of him.

"Benjamin Peyton," the woman said, making his name a statement and not a question. When he only nodded, the woman gave him a tight-lipped expression of disapproval. "Answer properly when spoken to," she commanded.

"Ummm, yes. I'm Benjamin Peyton," he replied, taking a closer look at the woman. Severity was stamped all over her, from the tightly coiled roll of auburn hair to her perfect posture. She was taller than Benjamin, but a lot of that height came from the black pumps that she wore with her black business suit.

"Pay attention child!" The firm, yet quiet command snapped Benjamin back to reality. While he had been looking at her, she had been talking and he had not heard a word of it. "You are not making an auspicious start here, Benjamin. I suggest you save your woolgathering for some other time."

"Sorry," Benjamin replied, already disliking the woman.

"Barely sufficient. I'm Jane Thompson. You may call me Ms. Thompson for now. I am the head of the school to which the task of improving your attitude has fallen. This is Darla Smith and this is Linda Nichols," Jane said, gesturing to each girl in turn, "they are also students at my academy." Benjamin looked at the two, he had not even realized they were with Jane.

"Hi," he said, his puzzlement clearly written on his face. The first girl, Darla, looked barely old enough to be a teenager, at least at first glance. Benjamin realized that her clothes had given him a mistaken impression of youth. Darla wore a green dress more fit for a tea party than meeting a train. Benjamin could see layers of material pushing the skirt out away from Darla's legs. Benjamin noticed the girl's hair was a much richer red than his own had been.

Linda looked more like a woman and less like a mere girl. She dressed as one might expect Jane's understudy to dress. A straight black skirt, black hose and black heels, lightened by the cream color blouse on top, with accents of lace. Linda's hair was also not so strictly confined as Ms. Thompson's. Finally, Benjamin became aware of the awkward silence that had fallen while he gathered his impressions of the trio. He stuck out his hand.

"Benjamin Peyton. Are you sure I'm the one you are meeting here?"

Jane and Linda eschewed his handshake, but Darla took his hand so lightly Benjamin was not sure what to do with it.

"I'm quite certain of it, Benjamin. If you have all your bags we will depart for the school now."

"This is all I have," he said, tugging the strap of the gym bag.

Jane nodded and led the way to a large black Lincoln. She clucked softly under her breath and favored Benjamin with a look of derision when he clambered into the car as soon as the doors were unlocked. Darla sat in the back seat as well, though there was so much room in the car that there was no danger of a tight fit. Benjamin sank down into his seat, contemplating his new circumstances.

Obviously, Jane Thompson did not like him and apparently neither did the other two, whose names had already escaped him. Fortunately, Benjamin did not care, for he did not like himself much either. He imagined that Thompson did not usually meet students at the station. If she was the boss, then she would have a flunky or two do it. Benjamin breathed a sigh of relief when he calculated that the head of a school probably did not do much teaching. No wonder she's so pissed, he thought, probably interrupted her budget meeting or something.

Mercifully, the trip passed in silence. Benjamin even took a brief nap, awakening when the car stopped at the front door.

"Whoa," he said upon seeing the mansion. He turned his head in all directions, looking for the tents or the camp or the shed where students like him would sleep. Finally, he began to walk toward the back of the house.

"Benjamin," Darla hissed from nearby. "This way, Benjamin, don't give Aunt Jane another reason to be upset with you."

The girl signaled him to follow her as Jane and Linda exited the car.

"Darla will show you to your room," Jane said before walking into the house.

Benjamin looked around. Where were the work details? Where were the instructors and their harsh and pointless commands? For that matter, Benjamin wondered, where the hell were the other boys? The only men in view were two gardeners a few hundred feet away, marking the ground with chalk lines and spray paint.

"Benjamin," Darla spoke again, "this way."

Benjamin followed Darla through the dim interior of the house, past furnishings that defied Benjamin's image of a reform school. The only sound to be heard was the soft swishing of Darla's legs. Benjamin watched her legs as she led him up the stairs. When he realized what he was doing, he looked away, cursing softly. Girls confused and confounded him and the recent surge in his awareness of them and the mysterious transformation that overtook them as they passed puberty only worsened his discomfort. If Darla heard him, she kept it to herself.

"Here you are Benjamin," Darla gestured through an open door.

"Ummm, thanks." Benjamin entered the room and shut the door before looking around. He did a double take and then focussed his concentration in a way he had not yet done since meeting Jane Thompson. Slowly he looked around the room, moving only his head. His nose sampled the air while his ears took in the near complete silence that filled the immense house. Finally, he convinced himself that nothing was amiss, other than the fact that he was in a girl's room. He inhaled again, tasting the soft but full scent of whatever perfume had been applied to this room.

"Don't make any waves," he told himself. "Either that little red-head is playing a nasty trick on you or they were fresh out of boy's rooms." He breathed deeply again, feeling the calming effect of the exercise. The bed, a huge canopied affair done in a rosy color that was not quite pink was out of the question. Even the chairs looked too fine to use. Finally he settled himself against the wall and removed the CD player from his bag. His small and eclectic collection of music was wedged into the bag with his few clothes.

"Something especially soothing," he said aloud, though nearly any music was soothing to him, even the furious pounding of the so-called industrial sound. He extracted two discs and looked between them. Vivaldi or Enigma, he questioned himself. Then he laughed, certain he would have time to listen to both of them repeatedly before the Thompson Academy finished with him. He slipped the earphones on and let the music wash over him.

Jane sat in her office, reviewing the files that Judge Ruth had sent regarding her latest project. Aside from his air of distraction, he seemed typical of the breed, ill- mannered American teenage boy, that she had seen so often in the past. She resisted the temptation to breathe a sigh of relief and assume Benjamin would fall right into her trap. After all, he had surprised them once already with his haircut, but there was also something about him. Jane wrestled with the concept when the knock sounded at her door.

Darla entered at Jane's invitation, still wearing the lovely green dress that so complemented her complexion.

"What is it with boys and their hair these days?" she asked, sounding more like a parent than a teenager.

Jane smiled, "Well, it does fit, if I'm reading him right. I think our new student expected a real reform school, maybe even one of those charming little boot camps. I think he had his hair cut on impulse, maybe as a gesture or maybe as a real effort to fit into his new circumstance."

"Well, we can't fault him for that, I suppose. Does that mean that he will try to fit in when the real school starts, do you think?"

"That's the key, is it not? How will young Benjamin react when he finds out that his male self is taking a vacation? Darla, don't forget that one of the key words used to describe him is 'brittle'. That may be good and it may be bad. If he breaks down and accepts our tutelage with no more than the token resistance than most boys put up when we lay out their options, then this will be fine. On the other hand, he might turn sullen or he might become violent. In either case, we know what to do.

"Ultimately, if we pay close attention and observe and properly interpret the signs and signals that he puts forth, we will succeed once again."

The idea of being part of the successful education of another difficult boy appealed to Darla, though she was unsure why it excited her. She did not enjoy the little psycho-sexual and melodramatic games and humiliations that made part of Jane's arsenal, so why should the prospect of another graduate fill her with pride and hope? Darla shook her head, gently, as befitting a young lady.

"I sure hope you're right, Aunt Jane."

"It's time for you to summon our new ward, Darla," Jane said confidently.

Darla knocked on the door. Then knocked again, louder, before opening it. A feeling of dread blossomed in her stomach and when she saw Benjamin on the floor she nearly vomited. Then she realized that Benjamin's hands and feet were gently moving, responding to some rhythm that Darla could not hear. The full picture unfolded before her and she recognized that she faced nothing more tragic than a teenage boy engrossed in his music.

She tapped the toe of her low heeled patent pump against Benjamin's outstretched foot. His eyes opened slowly, registering Darla's presence. He turned off the CD player and stood.

"Ummm, hi?"

"Aunt Jane would like to see you in her office, right away," Darla instructed with all the poise and grace she could muster. The effort was lost on Benjamin.

"Sure." Benjamin followed her down the stairs and to Jane's door. Darla winced when Benjamin just opened the door and walked in.

Jane looked up, fixing the boy with a glare. "I see you have not even mastered the simple skill of knocking."

This caught Benjamin off guard. All but the most basic of manners were foreign to him. "But, ummm, Darlene said you wanted to see me...I thought, I mean," finally he just stopped and took a breath. "I didn't mean to be rude, Ms. Thompson."

A wave of pleasure and confidence filled Jane. The boy was a walking rules infraction. She had her choice of miscues to nail him for and she wasted no time doing it.

"Darlene?" she said, removing her reading glasses. "How hard is it for you to extend the simple courtesy of remembering a young lady's name that is comprised of only five letters? Tell me Benjamin, do you mean to be an ill mannered lout or do you just not care enough about other people to exercise even the simplest manners?" She paused to let him try to reply. Asking the question for which there was no correct answer was one of her favorite tactics, a quality she shared with drill instructors the world over.

As Benjamin started to work his mouth, words obviously failing him, Jane put her glasses back on and consulted the file.

"I have your file from the judge that sent you to me. This and a host of other pertinent records paint a disturbing picture for me. Did you really break a woman's nose in some kind of jailhouse brawl? And what about the incident with the teacher that landed you there in the first place?

"You have a long history of minor troubles with authority, Benjamin. This is not entirely unexpected in a boy with no apparent self-control and a complete lack of respect for those around him, but it is your attitude toward women that bothers me the most Benjamin. Do you see us as some kind of punching bag for your pent-up hostilities?"

"No," Benjamin replied, half focussed on Jane it seemed. "I didn't mean to hurt that guard either."

"Be that as it may Benjamin, you seem to have problems that are uniquely suited for our English discipline program here. Petticoat discipline has been an extremely effective tool in the past, especially with respect to an aggressive young male's difficulty with females and appreciating the role of the lady in modern society." Jane stopped to let the boy absorb her statement and to gauge his reactions to her references to petticoats.

Not surprisingly, Benjamin displayed no reaction. Jane thought he might never have heard the word 'petticoat' before.

"So what are you going to do to me?" Benjamin finally asked.

"We are going to help you, Benjamin. Help you find the path to complete balance within yourself." Jane watched as Benjamin seemed to sink deeply into reflection. His apparent inability to devote his complete attention to anything concerned her. "Benjamin, I want your word that you will obey me without hesitation during your stay here, no matter how peculiar or unpleasant you may find my orders to be." Jane paused while the words sank into Benjamin's head.

"I'm a fourteen year old criminal, lady, what good is my word going to be?" Jane listened to Benjamin's response with some amazement. At least this time she was not wholly unprepared for difficulty during this phase of the program.

"I am Ms. Thompson, young man, not 'lady' and giving your word and keeping it is the first step toward getting your life in order."

"What kind of word are you giving me?" he asked.

"This is not a negotiation, Benjamin. It's my way or back to juvenile detention for you. I can assure you that you will be much safer with me than you will be with a bunch of truly hardened criminals."

"So what good is my word if I have to give it under dress?" Benjamin asked and this time Jane was caught by surprise, at least until she determined what he really meant.

"The word you mean is 'duress', Benjamin," Jane said, suppressing a chuckle at how close the boy was to the truth about how dress and duress worked together in Jane's school. "It is not duress to give you a choice in the matter."

"Don't say I didn't warn you."

"What?" Jane demanded.

"I give you my word, which is no good, and remember I told you so when I screw up," Benjamin said, rather loudly so he could hear himself over the roar in his ears.

"I believe you will discover the wisdom of your decision," Jane said as she offered her hand to seal the bargain. Benjamin took her hand and squeezed. As the pressure continued to build Jane realized that the boy was looking right through her.

"Benjamin!" she nearly shouted and the boy jerked as though he had been entranced. He looked down and dropped her hand as he would have dropped a poisonous snake. Fixing her with an accusatory glare he shook his head sadly.

"You may return to your room and freshen yourself a bit. Lunch will be served shortly." The boy turned and left the office, leaving Jane to contemplate the encounter. When Jane was certain the boy was safely back in his room, she turned on the hidden surveillance monitor for Benjamin's room. The boy was seated on the floor, engrossed in the music pumping into his brain from the small stereo.

"That is how he was when I went up to call him to your office, Jane. When I saw him on the floor like that..." Darla had not experienced first hand the trauma of Michael's suicide attempt, but she had relived it through Jane and Marie often enough to have developed an acute fear of any such recurrence.

"Hmmm. The question is, is he just a lazy, slothful teenage boy or is there a deeper issue here? If I had not already survived others stranger than Benjamin, I might have found our first interview a bit unnerving. I think it is a sign of the times, Darla. Children are becoming wise beyond their years in some ways while in others their development is grossly stunted. What is your impression of our new ward?"

"He's nice. A little flaky, like his mind wanders a lot. He didn't try to paw me or anything. I guess I'll learn more tomorrow, if sitting outside your office and commiserating about how terrible you are is still on the schedule," Darla finished, leaving the unspoken question hanging in the air.

"I plan for it to be. We need to get him started right away. Once that is accomplished, we can slow down a little as need be." Jane paused, tapping a pen against the notepad on her desk. "I need to check on how our new security has settled in. Which reminds me," her head ducked down as she pulled something out of her desk drawer. "Try to keep this handy, it's basically a panic button, even if it does look like one of those infernal beepers. I think it's a tiny cell phone or something that only dials one number, don't ask me to explain. The main point is, push the button if you even think you see Belmont or any of his gang." Darla took the device and turned it over in her hands. "Now scoot, go see if Marie needs any help in the kitchen," Jane said as she rose. Darla curtsied gracefully and left to comply with Jane's wishes.

Outside the day was growing hot. Jane shielded her eyes with her hand while she looked at the progress being made on Tom's garden renovations. The men stopped work as she approached.

"Well, you certainly look busy enough," Jane said as she studied the various lines and paint marks marring what had been a stretch of lawn.

"We're getting there," Tom said, keeping the accent that he had once admitted was really for show.

Turning to Allen, Jane asked, "And your other project?"

"Everything is in place here. I have additional people coming in to keep an eye on things around town and also to find and track Belmont. I contacted that computer specialist you mentioned, Reggie Walters, he'll gather information on our little friends from that angle and also, I suspect, keep an eye out for any unusual electronic transactions in our area." Sullivan smiled briefly when he said this and Jane recognized that her former student would stop at nothing to protect her and the school.

"Don't get him into any trouble, Allen."

"That's out of my hands now, Ms. Thompson, but he struck me as both highly skilled and dedicated. I expect I'll be subcontracting him again in the future if he'll work with me."

"Please keep me informed."

"Of course, ma'am," Allen replied as they went back to work.

The remainder of the morning passed without event. The smells emanating from the kitchen told Jane that lunch would be a memorable experience today. Jane wondered how Marie was handling all the extra help in the kitchen. She liked her elbow room when it came to cooking.

Darla paused outside Benjamin's door, thinking. No reason not to befriend the boy sooner rather than later, she thought. Again, she had to open the door herself and rouse Benjamin out of what appeared to be a deep sleep. Instead of just shepherding him downstairs to the dining room, Darla tried to help him a little, knowing that there was more than enough about the poor boy for Jane to pick apart.

"Lunch will be ready in a few minutes. Let's get you presentable. Aunt Jane is terribly picky about such things."

"Thanks, Darla," Benjamin replied, putting strong emphasis on her name.

Darla looked up sharply, momentarily afraid that the inconceivable had happened.

"I'm sorry," Benjamin said, "that didn't come out like I wanted it to. Ms. Thompson chewed my ass for forgetting your name once today. I just wanted you to know that I have it down pat now," Benjamin smiled, but the expression made him appear sad somehow.

Darla relaxed, "That's okay Benjamin. I understand how hard it can be to remember half a dozen new people in so short a time. Tuck your shirt in and go wash your face and hands or Aunt Jane will have a tizzy when she sees you. Oh, and watch your language around her too, she's usually death on swearing."

"Okay," Benjamin nodded and made his way to the bathroom to follow Darla's advice.

Lunch proceeded as Jane had anticipated. Refined manners were obviously a foreign concept to Benjamin, and although she did not fault him entirely for his shortcomings, they did make convenient fodder for her opening ploys in the boy's training. Jane had intuitively scaled back the formality of the lunch, and now she was glad she had done so.

Darla winced when Benjamin just plopped into the chair she indicated and looked around for the food. Jane entered the room and icily corrected his error before Darla could get his attention and do it herself. As the meal continued, Jane peppered the conversation with corrections and criticisms of the boy. Occasionally she interspersed a lighter comment to one of her girls, mostly to keep up the illusion of three students instead of just one.

Following a particularly biting critique of his behavior, Benjamin cocked his head and stared at Jane.

"Yes, child? Do you feel I am being too hard on you?" Jane asked. She was being hard on him, but unlike a typical boy, he showed little reaction. Many of her statements seemed to slide right past the boy, who seemed more engrossed in the food than anything else.

"Yes, but I suppose you have to be, don't you?" Before Jane could reply to this unexpected question, Benjamin continued, "Do you keep a library here?"

Jane smiled, and allowed a trace of warmth to enter her voice. "Oh yes, we keep a library here Benjamin. Once you are fully involved in your course of study you will become very familiar with the library."

"Okay," Benjamin replied, almost cheerfully.

Jane rolled her eyes. "That's 'Thank you, Ms. Thompson' Benjamin," Jane said just as the boy took a huge bite from his fork.

Swallowing loudly, Benjamin answered, "Thank you, Ms. Thompson." Jane rubbed the bridge of her nose. Although the boy did not possess Kenneth's quiet composure or Darla's eagerness to get everything just so, he seemed to possess an almost equally formidable defense, an uncaring attitude. Jane pondered how she would handle the next and all-important interview with Benjamin.

As the meal drew to a close, the traditional glass of sherry was served to each person at the table. Jane resisted the temptation to cross her fingers, though she was certain Marie had crossed hers.

"It is my custom to offer a toast to the success of a new student in finding an appropriate course for their life," Jane said as she raised the glass. Benjamin looked around the table to see what everyone else was doing, then picked up his glass and smiled almost timidly. Jane examined the expression, so out of place with everything else she had observed about the boy. Finally, he questioned Jane with the directness she was growing to expect from him.

"Is it okay? I mean, I don't want you to get in trouble or anything." Benjamin looked at the glass, then at Jane and Marie.

Remembering Kenneth's steadfast observance of the laws regarding drinking, Jane replied, "There is nothing wrong with you drinking a small glass of wine in a family situation like this."

Benjamin looked confused. "I wasn't worried about me, but when I was in foster homes the state was very strict about giving me alcohol. And then there's my case worker or parole officer or whatever she is."

"It's okay, Benjamin, but thank you for your concern. Concern for others is often the first step toward enriching our own lives."

As Jane watched the boy, his expression of concern faded away with a shrug. "Whatever," he said as he put the glass to his lips and sipped, imitating the others at the table. Well, Jane thought to herself, Ruth warned me about his mercurial temperament.

The boy managed two or three sips of the wine before his face could no longer contain the building grimace. "Aggh. I'm sorry, this is awful," he said tactlessly in a slightly rasping voice.

"It is an acquired and refined taste," Jane remonstrated.

"Well it does taste like something that's been refined," Benjamin shot back, his first attempt at sparring with Jane.

"Benjamin! It is the height of rudeness to ridicule and disdain what you are offered as a guest." Again, Jane watched as Benjamin's demeanor underwent another quick change. His budding laughter stopped before it really sounded. His whole body went tense and his attention focussed entirely on Jane. Even from her seat, Jane could see the boys pupils dilate and his respiration rate increase. Here it comes, she thought, preparing to defend herself.

"Maybe sometimes a guest isn't used to nice things and rich people," he said acidly as he shoved his chair back and stood, forgetting the napkin on his lap. Benjamin walked, slightly unsteadily, back to his room and Jane let him go, though she did not like letting a student's act of defiance go unanswered. This time, however, his defiance played into her hands and he had apparently drank enough of the drugged wine to effect him.

Jane looked over to Marie, "Keep an eye on the monitor and we'll take care of him as soon as he's fast asleep. The girls can clean up."

Darla chose that moment to remember that she was still holding her breath. All eyes turned to her as she exhaled deeply and noisily. "Is he always going to be like that? I was sure he was just going to jump over the table at you, Aunt Jane. That is one moody kid."

"I guess we'll all know soon enough."

Back in his room, Benjamin fought the tide of sleepiness that threatened to overwhelm him. He looked again at the bed and it's fine covers. The bed that looked too nice to be used by someone like him.

"Fuck her," he slurred, plopping down on top of the bed without bothering to take his shoes off. In a few minutes he was fast asleep.

"Well great," Marie muttered. Of course this boy would be the one who slept with his clothes on. She did not entirely trust that three sips of drugged wine and his natural fatigue would keep him asleep while she relieved him of his clothes. She studied the screen further. She could see his one bag, still mostly packed and lying next to the wall where he had been sitting most of the day.

"Jane," she said as the other woman walked in, "he hasn't even looked in the drawers or closet yet. He hasn't unpacked much either. Isn't that a little odd?"

"I'm afraid this boy is going to be another trial for us, Marie," Jane said as she studied the monitor. "Do you think you'll be able to get him undressed?"

"I don't suppose we could give him a shot of something?" Marie asked hopefully, already knowing the answer would be no. "Well, I think I'll be able to. After all, he's not just drugged, he should be exhausted as well."

In the end, getting Benjamin's clothes proved to be no problem at all, at least at first.
 
 
Chapter 7: Benjamin Revealed - In Which We Learn That Some People Are More Touchy Than Others
 
Benjamin rolled. The dream he was having abruptly altered course, incorporating the strange tactile sensations his body transmitted. In his dream, Benjamin felt the gorgeous woman rub her satin covered body against him. Feminine perfection reached to embrace him and his eyes snapped open.

The dream evaporated in the almost instant transition to wakefulness. The woman was forgotten, but her silky embrace remained. Benjamin shook his head to clear it and for the second time that day he froze.

He was naked. He shifted his gaze around the room. He was alone. He inhaled deeply. This was the same room he fell asleep in. His bag was gone. His music was gone. His muscles became completely taut, practically quivering with rage. Then a truly horrible idea occurred to him.

The little alarm on Jane's desk told her the boy was up and moving about. She resisted the temptation to turn on the monitor. She stripped so much from her students that she felt some basic courtesy must remain. By itself, nudity did not offend her and she was far beyond the age where a fourteen-year-old boy's body might have any attraction for her, but still, it seemed proper to maintain this small illusion of privacy. She gave Benjamin a few minutes to stew before she started up the stairs.

The knock had barely registered before the door was flung open and Jane Thompson walked into the room. Benjamin stood in the middle of the room, head down while one hand inspected his crotch and the other groped around behind him. Jane had not expected this scene.

"What are you doing, child?" Jane asked, deciding on an outraged school marm persona.

"Someone touched me." Jane shivered at the dead, emotionless sound of the voice. "Someone touched me," he repeated and when he looked up, Jane saw the tears streaming down his face. "Was it you? Are you some kind of freak?" Jane saw his legs tense and knew that violence was imminent.

"Absolutely not!" she exclaimed as she tried to regain control of the situation. She snatched the blue satin robe from where it had been laid over the back of a chair and held it to him, averting her eyes as an expression of modesty. "Please, cover yourself. I assure you that no one has molested you or will do ANY SUCH THING in my house. Do I make myself clear?" Jane looked back at the boy again. Instead of holding the robe in front of him, as most boys had done, he clutched it in both hands, wringing it like a towel. It barely concealed him.

"You just took my clothes? You took my music?" Benjamin demanded, but Jane let the accusations pass and prepared to launch her own demands when Benjamin cut her off. "You FUCKING THIEF!" he screamed.

Jane's arm shot out, practically of its own accord, but instead of ringing the boy's face with a resounding slap, Jane felt her arm deflect against something solid. Benjamin had blocked her slap almost without thinking. Her wrist slid along the boy's angled arm, finally being caught by the crook of his wrist where his hand angled back.

They both stood perfectly still, each aware of the precariousness of the situation. For Jane, the loss of a student at this stage of his treatment was unthinkable. She felt a glimmer of hope for the boy, since he had stopped with just blocking her blow and had not escalated the situation further.

Benjamin studied Jane. Was she afraid, he asked himself? She had not moved since trying to slap him, nor had she called for help or run away. She did not seem afraid. Benjamin could not decide whether that was foolish on her part or hopeful on his own.

"You took my stuff," he repeated dully.

"Yes," Jane admitted, shouldering the full blame so that maybe he would trust the rest of the household a little bit more. "I took your belongings, but it is for no other reason than to start your lessons."

"You are still a thief. You could have asked and then I would have to obey or break my precious word to you."

Jane thought quickly. She refused to be semantically outmaneuvered by a teenage boy. "Your belongings are safely in storage, Benjamin. They are a hindrance to your proper development. You will get them back when you graduate."

Benjamin still resisted. "I have to have my music. I'll go crazy without my music."

Jane paused. A naked boy demanded a handful of CD's and a player for them instead of his clothes back. Jane had paused for too long. She could feel the boy tensing for what he had to know would be a futile assault.

"Don't," she commanded simply. "I have handled violent students before, Benjamin, I think I can handle you."

Benjamin's mouth opened, but before he could accept her invitation to fight another voice called from the hallway.

"Aunt Jane," Darla called sweetly, "Marie is going to the grocery store, may I go with her?" Benjamin darted backwards and into the bathroom, unwilling to be seen naked by the girl.

Jane speculated that either they had known downstairs that something was amiss or they had watched it on closed circuit TV. "Everything is fine here, Darla. If you are caught up with your work, you may go."

"Thank you, Aunt Jane," the girl called back.

After a moment Benjamin looked out of the bathroom. "Is she gone?" he asked softly, presenting a whole new face to Jane.

"Yes. Put this on and follow me." Jane tossed the robe toward the bathroom door. Benjamin caught the robe easily and stepped out of the bathroom, not bothering to conceal himself from Jane. Looking her square in the eye and gripping the robe tightly with both hands he pulled. The satin resisted Benjamin's adolescent strength, but the seams were not so fortunate. The garment ripped loudly in half. Fury rose within Jane, but she quickly contained it. As she fought to control her own temper, she contrived and discarded several responses.

"Are you breaking your word to me so soon?" she asked reasonably. "If not, you have a strange way of showing obedience."

Benjamin nearly threw the robe at her, but then, and for no apparent reason, he chose to play along. "Oh. I forgot what with the trauma of being stripped naked in my sleep and having all my belongings stolen. Is this obedient enough for you, Ms. Thompson?" he said coldly as he wrapped half the robe around his waist like a beach towel and tossed the other half over his shoulders like a shawl.

"It will have to do for now," she said, turning to lead the boy to her office. "Come along." Jane wondered if she was making a mistake in turning her back on the boy, but the half-expected assault did not materialize. She stopped at a large wardrobe situated in a corner of the hallway and removed a light pink robe from inside. Pink was not the boy's color she thought, but that was just too bad.

The pair made it to Jane's office without incident, though Jane had another moment of uncertainty when the boy had been behind her on the stairs.

"Sit down," Jane ordered, pointing to the chair in front of her desk. She sat down in her own, considerably more comfortable, chair and took a minute to examine some papers. The events of the past half-hour had not shaken her badly, but they had injected an element of uncertainty into her prepared remarks.

"You seem to have difficulty with authority, Benjamin, especially female authority," Jane started.

"You took my stuff," he repeated, his voice having returned to an emotionless monotone.

"Yes, I did, Benjamin. You must accept that as one of the unpleasant orders you have pledged to accept. I have your clothes and your other belongings and I will keep them until you are ready to get them back." Jane wondered if his personal goods would make an effective bargaining tool.

"You don't understand. If I don't have my music..." He left the sentence unfinished and slouched back in the chair. "What do you care."

"Silence," Jane ordered firmly. "Your opinion of whether I care is not important. Your obedience to me is. Now, tell me why you destroyed that beautiful robe."

Benjamin looked at the robe as if noticing it for the first time. He fingered the slick fabric inquisitively. "This is a girl's robe," he stated matter of factly.

"Is that why you tore it in half, Benjamin?"

"Is this some kind of test? I've already looked at all the inkblots and the other pictures that doctor had."

"No, Benjamin, it's not a test. I want to know. And when I ask you something I expect a prompt reply, not a debate."

Benjamin shrugged. "I don't know," he said, being at least partially truthful. "I guess I was mad."

Jane looked over her glasses at the boy. She saw him as a tangled knot of emotion and sensation bundled together with the frenetic energy that only teens possessed. "I am not unsympathetic to your original fears, Benjamin," she said softly, hoping to rebuild some element of respect or trust for her. "However, I will not tolerate being screamed at, sworn at or having my property destroyed because you cannot or will not maintain control of yourself," She paused to let her words sink in. "Here is another robe, put it on properly and we will continue this discussion." Jane handed the robe across the desk to the boy.

"This is another girl's robe," he stated as Jane spun her chair to give him a moment of privacy.

"It is perfectly fine for you to cover yourself with," Jane stopped before she asked if he would prefer nudity to the robe. He had already demonstrated that, under certain circumstances anyway, he did not care if he was naked. She made a mental note not to offer him the choice of leaving the estate dressed only in the robe.

"How does it feel?" she asked as she turned the chair back to face him.

"Stupid."

"Too bad. I've given the matter great consideration, Benjamin. Your behavior since your arrival here has been atrocious. You have no concept of courtesy, you treat my property as if it had no value and you seem to have severe problems understanding the proper treatment of ladies. I think a little time living as a lady would do wonders for your attitude." Jane planted her elbows on her desk and steepled her hands. "Yes, you will remain quartered in that frilly room and with only girls clothes to wear until I see some improvement in your attitude."

Benjamin erupted in laughter, surprising Jane yet again. The sounds of a thousand hurricanes blasted in his ears, darkness surged behind his eyes. A moment of pure hatred engulfed him and he barely managed not flinging himself across the desk to destroy both his tormentor and himself in a final frenzy of blood and terror.

His laughter subsided as he regained control. Through his watery eyes he could see Jane studying his face. He wondered what she saw there in that brief moment of insanity. Then his earlier fears returned and he froze.

"You are sick. I knew it," he said softly, heart hammering.

"Benjamin, if I swore on a Bible or on my mother's grave that I have no such intentions toward you, would that help?" When he did not answer she continued, "Benjamin, if you truly believe that and if you truly believe that I do not have your best interests at heart, then you may call the Judge now and she'll send someone to get you." Jane slid the phone across the desk to the boy. "Here's the number," she said as she pushed her personal phonebook to him. Jane knew she was gambling with more than just one young man's future, but it was not the first time.

Benjamin breathed deeply. He needed to concentrate. He needed to think. Which course to take? Finally, and for reasons that had nothing to do with Jane's oath, he assented.

"I don't like you. I don't trust you. But I think you are telling the truth. If you aren't though..." and for a moment Benjamin's friendly brown eyes burned with fury.

"Don't presume to threaten me, child," Jane said, concealing the faint twinge of fright she actually felt. "I'm three times your age and I have seen and done things that would send you screaming. Do we have an understanding here?" Jane watched him carefully. The fires in him were banked, not extinguished. She would have to exercise supreme caution with this one.

"Very good. When Marie returns, she will see to your first lessons in dressing and cosmetics. I expect you not only to simply comply with her instructions, but to embrace them cheerfully and graciously. Do you understand?" Jane asked as she looked at the boy's face. The face looking back up at her was profoundly different from any expression she had seen on him before. Instead of pique or even rage, a terrible sadness shone from him.

"I don't know how to be cheerful," he said. Jane's brain froze. She had been prepared for almost any kind of outburst save that one.

"Then you will learn that as well," she finally replied, and for a moment her maternal instincts demanded that she hold the boy and tell him all would be well. But that could not be, for she had cast herself as the 'heavy' in this drama. Aside from that, the boy would probably misinterpret any such physical contact from her. When Jane heard the estate's station wagon pull into the driveway, she nearly sighed with relief.

"Let's get you back to your room, then Marie will be with you momentarily," she said as she led the way back to the second floor. Once her young boy-girl had been passed to Marie, Jane hurried to the kitchen.

"Are you alright?" Darla immediately asked. Rene looked at Jane for an instant, then returned to putting away the few remaining items they had bought. Jane was sure she had seen the other woman smirk.

"Yes," Linda asked, "we heard his scream all the way down here."

Jane fixed herself a cup of very strong tea before answering. "He misinterpreted the removal of his clothes. I don't know why none of us ever thought of that angle before," she shook her head. "Just so you know, he thought he'd been molested in some way, so be very careful of your physical contact with the boy. Marie is up with her now, getting her started in the finer points of dressing and make up."

Linda stared at her client. "You just changed pronouns in mid-sentence."

Irritated, Jane replied, "Well yes. That is the point of the whole exercise, so be careful how you talk about or address our new student during this transition period." Taking a few cookies and refilling her cup, Jane left the kitchen to seek solace in her office.

"Well," Rene remarked, "that was enlightening." Linda shot her a look that spoke volumes and then they started making preparations for dinner.

There seemed to be plenty of time, and Benjamin did not have any hair to speak of, so he was allowed to soak in the tub. Of course, the bath water was scented and full of bubbles, but if he noticed, he said nothing about it. Marie knocked on the door and waited for permission to enter.

"I hate to make you start working, dear, you seem to be enjoying your bath so much. But you must shave yourself before we can proceed."

Benjamin had slid under the suds until only his head and shoulders remained visible. "Shave? Shave what?" he asked.

Marie looked intently at the boy's face. "I see that you probably have little experience at shaving, there isn't even fuzz on your face yet. What about your legs and under your arms?" Benjamin remained motionless. "Come, Benjamin, just raise your arm for me and then show my your calf, I need to see nothing else."

Reluctantly, Benjamin complied. A sparse growth of hair fuzzed his armpits and legs. When she looked back at the boy's face, she noticed that his gaze was locked onto the safety razor she still held in her hand. Marie shivered involuntarily.

"This is a little tricky the first few times, especially if you have not shaved your own face yet. I will let you try yourself, if I sit here and keep an eye on you, or I can do it for you." Marie tried to sound reasonable and logical.

"I'll do it."

They both breathed a sigh of relief when that ordeal was finally over. Marie pocketed the razor to insure it did not stray. She left Benjamin to rinse and dry while she laid out his clothes.

Marie made something of a fuss over her selection of Benjamin's first dress, even though she already knew what she would choose. Benjamin looked at the closet full of girl's clothes. He rose from the stool in front of the vanity and opened every drawer in the room.

"They are all pretty little girl's clothes, Benjamin," Marie said. She was doing her best to be nice to the boy. Although strictly speaking, it was Darla's job to be the boy's friend and confidante, Marie knew that Jane had removed herself from any real possibility of gaining the boy's affection or even trust. So she smiled and she let her normally absent accent come out to give herself an exotic air and she used the kindest and gentlest words and manners she possessed. It barely worked.

"This was all a set up from the start," he said, wondering why he was not angry at the revelation.

"Non, we thought being stuck in a girl's room might shake you up a little though. Now isn't this lovely," Marie gushed as she pulled the taffeta sailor's dress out of the closet. She had to deflect Benjamin from thinking too analytically about his predicament, lest he tumble to the truth as Kenneth had.

"How do you know it'll fit," the boy asked, still believing, and correctly so, that his circumstances had been planned from the start.

"It won't fit, you are a tall, lean boy, but I know some tricks," she winked at him. "With a little work I can fix you so Jane doesn't even recognize you. Now let's get started. Put these on." Marie handed him a pair of cotton panties, not so much different from the briefs he usually wore, except much softer.

"Why can't I wear my own underwear? At least that will fit for sure. These hardly feel like anything at all," Benjamin said, rubbing the fabric of the panties between his fingers.

"Jane wants you to feel like a lady, Benjamin, and ladies don't go about in heavy cotton shorts with big holes in the front."

Benjamin nearly smiled at the image which came to mind, Jane Thompson wearing his briefs, scratching herself and belching loudly. The more he thought about it, the closer he came to laughter. Finally had to sit down.

"That's the spirit," Marie smiled. The boy's laughter died out as she watched him, but a faint smile remained.

"Turn around, please," he asked.

Later, seated on the stool as Marie performed her artistry on his face, he had a thought. "I don't understand how this is supposed to help me."

Marie paused both to answer him and to review her work on the budding girl's face. "It has something to do with the way every person has a masculine and a feminine side to them. Emphasizing the recessive one for a while restores balance to the whole person." Benjamin looked skeptically at this statement. "I'm not a psychologist, someone else will have to explain this to you."

"I'll bet Ms. Thompson's a psychologist, isn't she?"

"You will have to discuss that with her directly, mon petite. Now, let's finish getting you dressed. I will show you today how to put on all these new things, tomorrow you will practice yourself."

Benjamin balked immediately at the garter belt and stockings. "Only hookers wear things like that!" he exclaimed.

"Benjamin! Many ladies still wear these instead of hose. For one thing they are much cooler during the summer heat than those tight pantyhose."

"Oh right. Tell you what, next time you are in a dress you can show me yours," he replied bitterly. He regretted the words even before he saw the reproachful look on Marie's face. "I'm sorry, that was a stupid thing to say," he said as he took the silky feeling scraps of material from Marie's hands.

"You are learning already," Marie answered, wondering if perhaps she had gotten too friendly with the boy. Ultimately she still had to buckle the garter belt around his waist and show him how to put the stockings on. She watched him carefully, boys almost always reacted strongly to the completely new sensation of wearing stockings. However, Benjamin showed neither sexual excitement at the unusual sensuality nor disgust at his situation.

"You must be careful with your fingernails," she pointed out, deciding not to make any comments about his attire. "Yours have not been trimmed in a while. In fact, if we have time after you are dressed, I will give you a little manicure. It is very relaxing, many people, men and women, enjoy getting them."

"Whoopie," he replied with waning enthusiasm.

Marie finished dressing the newly minted girl and had time left over to spend on the girl's hands. Mindful of Benjamin's previous reactions to physical contact, she tried to make the experience pleasant but not overtly sexual. Finally, she coated Benjamin's nails with several layers of clear polish. She had briefly considered various colors for them, but the child was cooperating and Marie saw no reason to hit her with too many changes at once.

"Let's present you to Ms. Jane now," Marie said. The protest she expected did not materialize and she wondered if Benjamin even realized he might run into someone else in the house.

"Wait, I want to see," Benjamin said anxiously. Marie cheered mentally as the girl-boy carefully examined her reflection in the mirror. But Benjamin made none of the gestures that indicated an acceptance of her new condition. She just stared as though she might bore a hole in the mirror with only her eyes.

Benjamin noticed Marie fidget slightly as she waited for him to finish his self-examination. The blonde wig startled him initially, but as he stared he could see his essential character still present. No amount of clothes and makeup would ever hide that, he thought.
 
 
Chapter 8: Dressing Out - In Which Things Seem To Start Normally But Soon Diverge
 
Benjamin sprawled on the bench outside Jane's office. When Marie had tapped on the door and announced them, Jane had commanded Benjamin to wait and Marie to check on the progress of dinner. Benjamin softly repeated the words to a song that had comforted him in the past. In her office, Jane strained to catch the child's mumblings, but the girl-boy spoke too softly.

"Hi Benjamin," Darla said sweetly as she approached from the kitchen. Benjamin noticed the girl still wore the fancy green dress that she had on earlier. Darla smiled impishly as she produced two cookies from behind her back.

"Fresh from the kitchen," she said. "I had to bake them so I don't see any reason not to test them. You may have one if you like."

"Thanks." The cookie disappeared with such speed Darla wondered if her new little sister had even chewed.

"If you are waiting for Aunt Jane, you had better not let her see you sitting like that," Darla said, employing her opening gambit. Benjamin just looked at her, blinking occasionally. "Benjamin," Darla said, dropping her voice conspiratorially, "do you want another one of Jane's famous lectures?"

"It doesn't really matter."

"Okay. Just trying to help. I hate to see her rake someone over the coals for things that aren't their fault. She's really not so bad, as long as she gets her way," Darla sighed. "I have to see her after dinner, so do me a favor and don't get her too worked up."

Benjamin looked up at the girl, "Why?" Inside her office, Jane winced. The boy could give taciturn lessons to New Englanders.

"Why do I have to see her? I smarted off about having to go to the train station today. So, not only did she pick out this dress and petticoats to wear, but I have to demonstrate for her later that I've kept myself proper and tidy all day. That's what I was going to warn you about. You keep sitting there like that and you'll wrinkle your skirt and your petticoats. She won't miss it and she'll chew your..." Darla stopped and smiled slyly. "Well, let's just say she will call your attention to it."

"This is a petticoat?" Benjamin asked, fingering the layer just beneath the skirt.

"Yes," Darla responded, silently giving thanks that the feminized boy was finally showing some interest, even if his voice did not reflect it. "And there's two things you must be careful of when you have to wear them, wrinkles and tangles." Darla proceeded to show the new student how to sit, walk and properly straighten petticoats. Benjamin seemed to absorb everything she said.

"Why don't you try it?" Darla suggested.

"No."

"Well," Darla hesitated, "I warned you." Benjamin looked up sharply when he heard the words that he had spoken earlier that day. "What?" Darla asked.

"I'll remember that you warned me."

"Listen, Benjamin, I'm just trying to help you. I think it's a pretty rotten trick she's doing to you, but the fastest way out of those clothes and back to your boy's clothes is to give her what she wants. If you fight her, you'll only make things worse."

"Thanks."

Jane saw that the 'accidental' hallway encounter was at a close and that the time had come to launch the next attack.

"Benjamin," she called from inside, "you may enter."

"Good luck," Darla whispered, before getting herself out of range of the door.

Benjamin walked in and stood so close to the desk that his skirt and undergarments were crushed in towards his legs. The petticoated boy cocked his head to one side and looked at Jane with faint curiosity. Jane decided that the best defense was a good offense.

"Although you seem to have learned not to be seated until invited, I think your current posture leaves much to be desired in the way of poise and grace," Jane started. "Step back to the center of the room and stand up straight."

Benjamin complied, managing the few steps with a shambling stroll so graceless that Jane nearly winced. The child's shoulders slumped and his head came forward and down. His feet scuffed the floor as he walked and when he finally stopped, his arms hung limply at his sides, fingers slightly curled. The comparison to a prisoner of war or a zombie leapt into Jane's mind. Jane realized then that if the boy had simply given up completely, there would be little she could do.

"Stand up straight Benjamin, and look like you have at least a spark of life in you." Jane watched as the child complied, at least with her order to stand up straight. His face was completely slack and his eyes fixed on a point somewhere on the floor.

Jane turned from the petticoated boy and pressed a switch on the intercom box. "Marie, come to my office for a moment please."

When Marie arrived, Jane simply asked, "Was this child running a fever earlier or showing any other signs of illness?"

"No," Marie answered, looking at Benjamin with some distress. She put her hand on his forehead and then tilted his head back to look at his eyes. "Benjamin, are you feeling ill?"

"No," he answered dully.

"Then what is wrong with you?" No answer was immediately forthcoming. Nor did his usually mobile face change expression in the slightest way. Jane thought this might be the longest stretch of time in which the girl-boy's expression did not change.

"Benjamin, answer the question," Jane ordered. "What is wrong with you?"

Anger boiled up in Benjamin, but this time there was no sudden pressure or roaring in the ears. Benjamin recognized his anger, but he ignored it and in doing so, he cancelled its power over him. He ignored it in part because he was too busy thinking. The words to describe what he considered wrong with himself piled up against the back of his teeth. The whole awful truth was moments away from being spewed out all over the room. Benjamin considered that if Jane knew, if she understood, she might lay off of him. He never even considered the possibility that she might really be able to help. In the end though, he let those words fall into the same chasm that had swallowed his anger.

"Nothing is wrong with me," he said without looking at either woman.

"Then why are you acting this way?" Jane asked, determined to reach the boy.

"I'm not acting."

"Benjamin," she said sharply, resisting the urge to grab his chin and force him to look her in the eye. "You know exactly what I mean. Why are you behaving this way?"

"I surrendered."

Only years of working with troubled boys kept Jane's growing exasperation at bay. "Benjamin, give me a complete explanation as an answer or you will find yourself standing there for a long time."

"Darla said I should give in, give you your way. So I surrender, I give up. Do whatever it is you are going to do because I can't change it by fighting back."

Jane groaned inwardly. This boy had a gift for putting brand new interpretations on familiar situations. A new understanding dawned on Jane. For her technique to work, the boy had to have some defiance for her to transform. The revelation also sparked an idea for igniting some spirit in Benjamin.

"I don't think you understand, Benjamin," she said, drawing closer to the boy and speaking softly to force him to pay attention. "It's not enough for you to just turn into a ragdoll for me to bend however I wish. You must consciously accept your situation, embrace it fully and ultimately come to love and enjoy it. Only when you have achieved that level of understanding and sensitivity will you be able to return to your masculine state. Then, you will have the perspective that will enable you to be a complete person."

You are out of your fucking mind, Benjamin thought. For a moment he was afraid he had spoken the words aloud, so thick was the silence in the room.

Jane watched the parade of emotions cross the boy's face. She felt that she had finally reached him. "So do you start to comprehend now, Benjamin?"

Words tumbled out of Benjamin's mouth before he could stop them. "If you think I'm going to stand here like some kind of queerbait waiting for you to chew my ass because I don't shake it like Darla does, and then try harder so you can chew my ass for something else, then you are the one who needs the fucking help." Benjamin braced himself for the storm.

Jane just smiled and straightened out an imaginary lock of errant hair on her new ward. "You can relax, Benjamin. I'm not going to strike you, though you richly deserve it for speaking to me like some gutter-born lowlife. There is plenty of time to attend to your language." Jane stood behind the boy and put her hands gently on his shoulders. She could feel the tension in them, and so was careful not to do anything suggestive of unwanted intimacy. However, she felt that all the boy's problems were interconnected and to try to isolate and address each in turn would not help. Thus, she intended to continue establishing incidental physical contact with him until he came to accept that the threat he feared did not exist in Jane. Carefully she turned the boy until he faced the full length mirror Jane kept in her office to assist her inspections.

"I don't know if you looked lately, but what I see in front of me is a young woman, not some kind of 'queerbait' as you said. She needs some help, of course, the kind of advice any good aunt or big sister or other mentor would give a budding young female. She needs refinement and grace and poise and composure as well, but all those things can be learned here."

"Now, let's get you straightened out here," Jane said mildly. As she smoothed skirts and rearranged petticoats and gently corrected posture and bearing, Benjamin took it all in with stunned amazement. The last thing he expected at the hands of Jane Thompson was mothering.

"There. Accompany Marie to the kitchen and assist her with finishing dinner. Remember to take small, dainty steps. Perhaps if you hold Marie's hand she can guide you. I read in your file that you enjoy and have some talent for cooking. I expect dinner this evening to be memorable," Jane smiled gently and dismissed the pair. A stunned and dazed Benjamin walked out arm in arm with Marie, his mind still trying to sort the events of the last thirty minutes into a semblance of logic and order.

A few moments later a genuinely puzzled Marie walked back into Jane's office, where Jane sipped a small brandy in celebration.

"Did you hypnotize him? Or drug him somehow?" Marie asked.

"No, Marie, although I wasn't sure I'd be able to do that after all these years of being the strict disciplinarian. How is he?"

"Fine Jane, he's just fine. Darla and Linda are with him. He does seem perfectly at home in the kitchen, by the way."

"Good, maybe that will calm him down a little. I hope this works Marie. If it doesn't, I'm fresh out of ideas."

"Are you going to tell me what you did to him," Marie asked again.

"When he said he had surrendered I realized something about our program. We can't accept complete surrender and still get results. At least we can't accept the kind of surrender I think Benjamin was offering. If he won't fight us, I won't fight him. Instead I'll nice him into willing compliance," Jane said as she finished her brandy. "He came here expecting a reform school or a boot camp for juvenile delinquents. Obviously he didn't find one, but mentally, I think, he had prepared for one. This may not be making a lot of sense. After all, I'm essentially winging it right now. What I hope I've done is go back to our fundamental strategy: present the boy with a situation which has no viable alternatives. He can't fight the way he was prepared to if he is not being pushed."

"But he could still fight back, he'll just have to change tactics." Marie said.

"Yes, that's true. But now we return to the similarities between her and one of our more typical students. He'll go along and become more enmeshed in his feminine side because there are no reasonable alternatives. By the time he comes up with an effective counter to our management of him, it will be too late," Jane finished sounding hopeful if not confident.

"I hope you are right, Jane. He seems a nice enough kid when he's not being weird."

Jane watched Benjamin closely at dinner. As she feared, whenever she was not distracted, she sank deep into thought. Jane did not intend to give her time to think her way into more trouble. She complimented them all on the fine dinner they had prepared, singling out Benjamin for personal attention and praise.

During the course of dinner, she kept up a constant but gentle pressure of correction on the boy. Often, she would have Darla and occasionally Linda demonstrate the proper posture for a young lady or the proper utensil to use. Sometimes these corrections would come with a slight touch by the person demonstrating. Jane scrutinized every such contact to evaluate Benjamin's reaction. By the time dinner was over, Benjamin was clearly exhausted. For her part, Jane was pleasantly tired as well, but she planned to continue Benjamin's instruction as far into the night as possible. She wanted the day's lessons fixed in his mind.

After dinner, while Darla, Linda and Rene cleared the table, Jane and Marie escorted a still dazed Benjamin upstairs.

"Pay attention, Benjamin. Almost all of my students arrive with some fundamental knowledge of wardrobe and attire, but with you we must start from scratch." Jane pulled dozens of wispy articles from various drawers and piled them neatly on the bed.

"When you dress, you will either be standing or seated at your vanity. Maintain your proximity to a mirror at all times. This will enable you to catch any mistakes you make sooner rather than later," Jane instructed patiently.

"This is a camisole," Jane began and proceeded to identify each article in the pile and when it should be worn. Jane had the lace covered boy try on many of the garments, then showed him the proper method for storing them. Sometime during the lengthy process, Benjamin was introduced to the training bra.

"You must keep this on at all times, except when you are bathing, of course. We will put something in the cups to give them a little heft. Also, you must wear your panties at all times, just like your bra. If you are relaxing after a bath or at the end of the day, it is not proper to lay about in your underwear. Cover yourself with a robe. I had Marie find another blue one. Blue goes much better with your coloring than pink does."

"There, you are about to drop. Let's get you tucked in." To Jane's practiced eye, the boy seemed exhausted. But as she climbed into bed, Benjamin's eyes came to life again. Though fatigued nearly to the point of sleep, Benjamin found the energy to question Jane.

"What do you want from me?"

"Why Benjamin," Jane said softly, "the same thing I want from any of my students. A refined and winsome young lass, full of confidence and energy. Of course, once you reach that goal you will have a little further to go than the typical young lady, but you will find it so much easier."

"Won't help," Benjamin said tiredly, "have to fight it."

"Don't fight me, Benjamin," Jane urged sensibly. "You are already making progress. Don't you feel better now than this morning? This is good for you, if you fight you'll lose no matter what the outcome." Benjamin smiled, one of the first genuinely bright and happy smiles Jane had seen from the boy.

"Stalingrad," he said before sleep took him.

Jane stood and looked at Marie, signaling her to turn out the lights. For a moment they stood in the doorway, looking at their sleeping charge. His breathing had already settled into a deep, regular rhythm.

"What did he say to you?" Marie asked as they shut and locked the door.

"Sounded like 'Stalingrad'. As I recall that is a city in Russia now named Volgograd. I remember a huge monument there memorializing the Russian victory over the Nazis." Jane looked at her watch. She had time before she was to meet Allen in his basement headquarters. "Go see to Darla and Linda, they may want to talk to someone. I'm going to go look this up in the encyclopedia, I think it's important."

Marie found Darla, Linda and Maxine in the kitchen, having a snack. Maxine washed her glass out and tipped her hat at Marie.

"Duty time. I'll be around the house and grounds," she smiled broadly.

Apparently her arrival interrupted a conversation between Darla and Linda, because the moment the kitchen door swung shut, they turned to each other and began talking.

"In a way, I do," Darla said, "it's like a grand game or joke to go out to the mall dressed like this. Hi, Marie," Darla interrupted herself. "I was just giving Linda the lowdown on dressing."

Marie fixed a cup of herbal tea and grabbed a few cookies before joining the other two at the small table.

"That wasn't exactly what I was asking, Darla." Linda struggled to find the right words. She also appeared slightly discomfited by Marie's presence, a fact that Darla quickly picked up on.

"Marie's okay, Linda. This is old hat to her."

"Thanks. I just can't seem to find a polite way to ask this," she said. At that, Darla immediately knew exactly what Linda wanted to ask and she blushed furiously at the thought.

"I'm sorry, Darla, I didn't mean to upset you," Linda quickly added.

"No, that's okay," Darla smiled. "To answer your question, no, not really. I guess it gets that way for some of the students, but it was always more of a big acting job to me. Marie might have a better idea of the percentages." Darla looked over at Marie who had been politely minding her own business. She had still followed the conversation and knew exactly what the recent addition to the household was asking.

"That's hard to say. A very few enjoy dressing just because it arouses them. A larger number will do it just to make Jane happy or because they find a woman who enjoys that particular game. Most of our graduates recognize that, contrary to popular opinion, it's harmless fun." Marie paused, taking stock of the security agent. "Why do you ask?"

Linda thought for a moment, chewing her lip in a manner most unladylike, "To be honest, I'm fascinated by what you do here. Don't worry though," she said, raising her hand, "I'm not going to let that interfere with my professional obligations," Linda finished earnestly.

"I'm sure Jane would be happy to discuss the subject with you, when she has time."

Linda laughed lightly. "I don't think she'll have the time until your new student is safely away somewhere else. I don't see too many kids these days, but I doubt there are too many more like him."

Jane entered the kitchen, deep in thought. She almost did not see the three women at the table.

"Ah, there you are. I'm going to get a cup of tea and go get the daily report from Mr. Sullivan."

"Did you find anything in the encyclopedias?" Marie asked.

"Just enough to jog my memory, there was not a lot of detail in the article. There was an important battle there during World War II. A river runs through the city, which is some kind of industrial center. Not much else." Cup in hand, Jane made her way to the basement door.

Linda looked questioningly at Marie. "Benjamin said something odd before nodding off. Jane is trying to figure out if it means anything. You two better turn in soon, we have a busy day tomorrow."

Darla and Linda recognized a dismissal when they heard it. They cleaned up and exchanged pleasantries with Marie, then headed for their own rooms.

Jane marveled at the transformation her basement had undergone in the last few days. Allen had set up a mini- command center in the space, complete with tables, computers and several phones. Several of the tables were arrayed with maps of the surrounding area. Allen and Rene were looking at one of those maps when Jane walked in.

"Good evening Ms. Thompson. Welcome to our little home away from home," Allen said, his strange eyes shining in the low light. "Rene and I were looking at possible approaches to your house. Are you ready for our report?"

Jane nodded her assent and pulled up a chair.

"Tom and I installed a number of sensors on your grounds today, along with considerable maintenance work performed, I might add. Although we won't rely on these sensors to warn us of intruders, they are nice to have around. We have two additional agents in town now, checking up on the new arrivals and keeping an eye out for possible gang activity. We have another one trying to track Belmont from his home turf. Apparently they have left the city, or they have gone so thoroughly to ground that we can't find him. Reggie said he would check in tomorrow. He's currently searching the databases as I mentioned earlier. That is it for today."

Jane paused before responding, studying the strange man, comparing his unusual appearance and presence to his normal sounding words. "I see you have wasted no time, Mr. Sullivan. I have passed out those little panic buttons to everyone else in the house except Benjamin. He won't be out of sight much anyway, so I don't think that will matter. I have heard nothing more from Judge Ruth or the local police," Jane concluded.

"If that is everything then, I will finish up here before turning in."

"Wait, what do you know about Stalingrad, Mr. Sullivan?" Jane asked, feeling slightly foolish as she did.

"Stalingrad? There was a pivotal battle there during the Second World War."

"Anything special about this battle? Feel free to be detailed."

"It was one of the fiercest battles of the war. The Soviets fought for every inch of the city and that delay allowed reinforcements to arrive. Those reinforcements subsequently inflicted a major defeat on the Nazis and their allies." Although his eyes never left hers, Jane noticed a slight change in his attitude; as though he admired those long dead men and women in some way.

"I see. Thank you." Jane left, still pensive. She had little daily need to recall facts about battles that occurred 50 years ago, but her memory soon dredged up the detail that disturbed her most. Stalingrad was synonymous with bitter resistance in the face of impossible odds. As Jane left, Rene looked at her boss.

"I think she's had a tough day," Rene said, with little sympathy.

Silence claimed the vast house at last, or nearly so, since no house that old is without occasional creaks and groans. Maxine Moss absorbed the silence and the near darkness as she moved to a new observation point. For her, they were signs that all was well. She heard a new creak from the floor above. She detoured to the stairs and listened, but the quiet had returned.

In Jane Thompson's room, a quiet alarm chimed and a bedside lamp illuminated, shining on the head of her bed. The light contributed more to rousing Jane than the small chime. Jane flipped a switch on a small monitor, which also silenced the chime. Not surprisingly, Benjamin was seated before the vanity, staring at his reflection in the mirror. Jane felt a surge of hope. Would he try to fix his makeup or perhaps examine more thoroughly the soft, feminine undergarments that gradually entrapped him?

That hope flickered and slowly faded as Jane watched the scene. Benjamin only stared, barely moving. For a moment Jane could not distinguish the reflection from the real boy. She shook her head fiercely to clear it and to dispel the fanciful notion. After thirty minutes she was ready to go to the boy's room, but as she debated the merits of the idea, Benjamin stood and returned to bed, turning out the light as he went.
 
 
Chapter 9: Siege - In Which the True Essence of Resistance Comes to Light
 
"Benjamin," Marie said firmly. "Benjamin," she repeated with increased volume, causing the boy to finally stir.

"Urrrrrrrr," the boy muttered, turning his face away from her.

"Benjamin!" Marie nearly shouted and this time she placed her hand on his shoulder. The effect was instantaneous. Benjamin shot out from under the covers on the opposite side of the bed. When his bare feet touched the floor, he froze, eyes locking on to Marie. "Time to get up, Benjamin," Marie informed him as though nothing unusual had happened.

"Good morning, Benjamin," Jane called cheerily from the doorway. "Breakfast is nearly ready. We would have gotten you up sooner, but you simply refused to wake." Jane made a face at Benjamin's smeared makeup. "I'm sorry Benjamin. We kept you up way too late last night. I forgot to show you how to clean your face before retiring for the evening. Well, it's a lesson every young girl learns sooner or later," she said as she pointed to his unusually colorful reflection in the mirror. "Henceforth we will not neglect to be certain your face is clean when you go to sleep. I will show you how to do that now and then you can just slip a robe on and join us at the table."

Benjamin sat quietly as Jane applied the cold cream to his face and then wiped away the residue of yesterday's makeup. Jane watched his reactions carefully. The tension that was present in his muscles every time she came near him had abated. Jane thought that was good, but she also noticed that the pliable, semi-dazed expression that had dominated Benjamin's face for much of the previous afternoon was also gone. He stared intently into the mirror as she cleaned his face.

"What do you see when you do that, Benjamin?" she asked gently.

"Myself."

"Everyone sees themselves when they look into a mirror."

"Not like I do."

Jane turned him away from the mirror as she finished his face. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"What's to talk about, Ms. Thompson? It's just a reflection." Benjamin sniffed the air, "Mmmm, what's for breakfast?"

Jane did not think the change in subject was accidental, but she felt she still had time to consider the matter.

"Let's go downstairs and find out," she said.

The rest of the household was already dressed by the time breakfast was served, but Benjamin received only a brief look from the other students.

"Benjamin, don't wolf your food," Jane said gently. "Follow the examples that are set before you." Darla looked at Jane with an expression of bewilderment, but quickly returned to her plate.

As breakfast ended, Jane made her morning announcements. "Linda, don't neglect your piano practice today. Plus, selections must be made from the summer reading list by dinner tonight. If any of you venture outside today, stay away from the groundskeepers. They will be operating heavy machinery as they expand the rose and spring gardens. Darla, you will assist Marie and Benjamin with this morning's dressing and makeup drill after she has showered and cleaned up." Jane noted the lack of protest to the feminine pronoun, but assumed Benjamin had not even heard the word.

The table emptied as Rene and Marie began collecting dishes. Darla waited by her door as Benjamin came up the stairs.

"Benjamin," Darla whispered loudly, "come here." She motioned him into her room. The boy cautiously entered. "What did you do to her yesterday?" Darla smiled and hid her face behind her hands to stifle her giggles. "She forgot all about giving me the third degree and she's been so nice! This is too weird."

"I don't know, Darla," Benjamin answered with a small smile.

"Well, whatever it is, keep it up. I could use a break with Aunt Jane. Don't get me wrong. I love her to death, but sometimes she gets a little carried away with her whole school mistress gig."

"Is she really your aunt?"

"Technically? No. She's been taking care of me since I was fourteen. I think of her more like a mother than an aunt. You go get a shower and when you're done, just knock on my door. I'll come in and help you dress." Darla thought for a second, then added with mock seriousness, "As long as you stay decent in front of me."

Benjamin left, wondering if Darla could be trusted or if she was a pawn of Jane Thompson. Benjamin would wait before he decided. It looked like he would be staying for a while so time was not yet of the essence. He thought hard as he showered. Benjamin usually reacted to situations instead of planning for them, but this situation clearly required a plan. Where should I start, he asked himself?

Unbidden, the answer came to him. Can I be saved? Despite the heat of the water streaming down on him, Benjamin shivered. Was it possible, he asked himself for the first time in years? He experienced a surge of hope unlike anything he had felt in years. After a few moments of thought, the hope faded. Jane Thompson wanted to change him, to take something out of him. That could not be allowed. No matter how bad he was inside, that was his fight to fight. He would fight the darkness within and he would fight the external forces that wanted to take yet another piece of his life from him. Someday he would lose one fight or the other. He knew it in his heart, but the battle would be glorious.

Benjamin stepped out of the shower, feeling invigorated. Then he remembered that he still needed a plan.

Someone had been in his room and selected an outfit for him. A green dress, darker and with more lace then the one Darla had worn yesterday was laid out on the bed, along with an assortment of underwear and some of those petticoats that Benjamin knew would become a major annoyance in his life.

He remembered something he said to Ms. Thompson as he fell asleep last night. That magnificent battle, he thought. What better model for fighting a desperate rear-guard action? Benjamin concentrated, trying to map out a strategy to counter Thompson's psychological restructuring program.

A quiet knock on the door interrupted Benjamin's contemplation.

"It's Darla," the voice called.

"Come in. I can't really stop you anyway, the lock's on the outside," Benjamin replied. Darla entered the room, slightly downcast.

"What's wrong, Darla?"

"Aunt Jane remembered that talk she wanted to have with me. I got it while you were up here draining all the hot water. Although, it still wasn't as scorching as some I've gotten here. She seemed to be a little distracted. Still, she told me to help you do four wardrobe changes before lunch. Fortunately, Marie will be here to help as well," Darla finished. She studied the boy, and despite all the pronoun games they had played in the last day there was no mistaking Benjamin for a girl. Darla also hoped that Benjamin would let slip some inkling of what he was thinking. Jane had asked her to observe and even prod a little if she could do it without arousing his suspicions.

Outside in the garden, a diesel engine roared to life, interrupting the conversation. Darla moved to the window to look out. She could see Allen deftly manipulate the controls of the yellow earth mover.

"Whew," she said to Benjamin, "that's going to stink the place up for a while. I wonder if they thought about that when they planned their work."

"I always liked watching those machines," Benjamin said quietly. Marie walked in through the open door just as Benjamin opened his mouth to say more. His mouth snapped shut and he turned to the housekeeper.

"Good morning, Benjamin, Darla. Ready to work?"

"I guess so," Benjamin offered with a sickly smile.

"Great, sit down and let's get you some hair first. That will make the illusion more effective sooner." Benjamin sat as ordered and immediately became absorbed with his mirror image. Darla had not yet seen this particularly odd habit, so she watched as Benjamin stared. Darla shivered as she studied the boy. There was no trace of vanity, narcissism or even curiosity in his self- inspection. He looked into the mirror expectantly, as though searching for fish just below the surface of a clear pond. The more Darla watched, the creepier she felt.

"Benjamin!" Marie repeated loudly, snapping both of them back to reality. Obviously she had called his name several times. "Benjamin, we are racing the clock here. Jane is going to check out your work after each change and give you pointers, so you must pay attention."

"Of course, Ms. Marie. I'll try to do better," he said quietly. Marie almost did a double take. If this was how the boy planned to fight back, she really wanted to see what his full cooperation looked like.

"Okay, let's get you dressed." Benjamin had little to do but watch and remember for the first session. Marie and Darla had him outfitted in record time, even as they carefully explained what they were doing and that next time he would have to do most of the work himself. Marie went slower with the makeup, often demonstrating on one side of his face and then letting him attempt to apply the cosmetics on the other. This method yielded a slightly odd look that Marie had to correct before sending the boy down to Jane's office.

"Enter," Jane called when Benjamin rapped on her door. "You look lovely Benjamin," she said as stood in front of her desk. "I know that Marie and Darla helped you out this time though, so I'm eager to see how you fare on your own in the next change." She rose and came around the desk to get a better look. She was trying to split the difference between supportive mother and inspecting drill sergeant.

"Hmmmm, I can see Marie let you try your hand at the makeup. Your technique will improve with every session though, but you must concentrate. Do you know how to curtsy? Make sure Darla shows you when you go back upstairs. Also, tell Marie that your next shoes should have the tiniest bit of heel on them. Very well, back to work with you, young lady."

Benjamin left as silently as he had entered and without taking exception to being called young lady. Jane noticed that the boy-girl's walk could stand some training as well. She seemed to have forgotten Jane's advice regarding short, delicate steps.

As he climbed the stairs, Benjamin briefly touched the middle finger of his right hand to his mouth. Smiling widely, he returned to his room.

"Well, one down," he said to his team of supporters.

"That was the easy one, Benjamin," Marie said, regretting it when the smile faded from Benjamin's face. "What did Ms. Thompson have to say?"

"Ummm, she wants Darla to teach me how to curtsy and I am to wear shoes with more heel next time."

Benjamin began to dress on his own. Accidents quickly piled up.

"I'm sorry, Ms. Marie," the boy said as a run developed in yet another stocking, "I don't know what I'm doing wrong." Benjamin peeled the ruined stocking off his leg, the sixth of the session.

"Let me see your toes," Marie asked. She inspected the boy's toenails and found no sharp nicks. "Now your fingernails again." Marie had checked his fingernails when he ruined the first stocking, but found nothing.

"OW! That hurt," he shouted. Marie felt the tension come over him. A whole morning's work ruined by one hangnail, she thought.

"I'm sorry, Benjamin. You have a hangnail here where the skin comes up over the side of the nail. Do you bite your nails?"

"No."

Sighing, Marie retrieved and then applied ointment and a bandaid to the now thoroughly irritated finger. Benjamin needed assistance with the remainder of his preparations as he tried to hold and manipulate clothing and makeup applicators without using the tip of his sore finger. His lessons in curtsying yielded little promise of developing grace.

Jane observed the almost wooden curtsy Benjamin demonstrated with a hint of impatience. She resisted the temptation to return to her typical manner with such boys, though she hoped to ease back into that role.

"Benjamin, since it appears that you will be unable to achieve four changes in the allotted time I would like you to practice your curtsy for me. It is a fundamental and most basic expression of manners for a young lady," Jane concluded, wondering if she saw a hint of calculation in the boy's eyes.

"Yes ma'am," he answered. He proceeded to execute curtsy after curtsy, entering the room each time to repeat the action. Jane could almost see him mentally recalling the steps and performing each one in a jerky sequence instead of a smooth flow.

"Benjamin, I don't think you are giving me your best effort," Jane scolded. "You realize that your remaining here in these safe, comfortable surroundings hinges on not only your efforts but upon the results you achieve." Jane paused to allow her warning to sink in, but Benjamin just stared back at her.

"Benjamin, let me spell this out for you. If I am forced to call the Judge and return you to the custody of the state, you will leave here immediately. There will be enough time to clean your face and to retrieve your clothes. Therefore, you may appear, at least to some, as a rather sissified boy. Especially if you do not shed any little unconscious gestures you have picked up." Jane looked for some reaction in the boy's face, but there was none. "Do you have nothing to say for yourself?" Jane asked, but she could see that Benjamin had sealed himself inside that aura of uncaring.

"No."

"Then let us be direct, Benjamin. Would you prefer to return to a state facility, a correctional institute for youthful offenders?" Jane asked. She wondered what she would do if he answered yes. She loathed the idea of losing a student and she knew if she could just find the key to Benjamin's heart and soul she could help him.

"No."

"Then you have only one choice remaining, Benjamin. You have given me your word that you will cooperate. First, that means you say 'No ma'am,' or 'No Ms. Thompson' when you need to address me so. Second, that means that you actually attempt to meet the standards set for you here. Do you understand?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Then have you changed your mind about staying here with us?"

"No, ma'am."

"Then your work is cut out for you, Benjamin and your first task is to enter my office and curtsy ten times. You will smile even if you are not happy to see me and your tenth attempt will be an improvement on your first. Now, get started." Benjamin turned and walked out, forgetting again any attempt to mince.

By his fourth try, Jane despaired of teaching the boy anything. His smile held no warmth and his motions, though executed somewhat faster, were still performed as a sequence of steps and not as a complete and self-contained action. After his seventh repetition, Jane stopped him.

"Benjamin, are you even trying?" she asked somewhat testily.

"Yes I am! This is hard for me. I don't dance and I don't play sports and I've never done anything like this before. You go put on a pair of jeans and some boots and reach your masculine side and tell me how easy it is!" the boy finished with apparently genuine anger. Jane inwardly applauded the boy's outburst. To have finally generated some emotional reaction gratified her and gave her renewed hope. She studied his face. No tears threatened, a key step in a boy's journey at her school, but there was time enough for tears.

"You didn't seem to lack for coordination when you intercepted my hand the other day. Perhaps you feel that so dainty a movement doesn't merit your full concentration."

Benjamin's mouth opened and then shut with a snap as he bit back his angry words. Jane could see the muscles in his jaw working. Although some emotion was better than none, fury was not Jane's first choice.

"Benjamin, don't fight against me. I'm on your side. Fight together with me." Jane watched a multitude of emotions pass across the boy's face. She realized that if Benjamin planned to wage a spiritual Battle of Stalingrad against something else besides her, then she had just enlisted.

Finally he smiled wistfully. "I don't think it works that way Ms. Thompson." Benjamin closed his eyes, remembering his vow to fight for every inch of his soul and determined not to yield the slightest bit of it without exacting a terrible price. He curtsied fluidly then for Jane, eyes closed and with a sad but genuine smile etched on his face.

"There you go Benjamin, that was much improved. How did you do it?"

"I imagined it was the only move I could make that would keep you from stabbing me," he replied, the expression on his face never changing. Jane's heart plummeted. If this boy could only perceive the world and it's requirements of him as a series of threats and battles, then she how could she prevail?

"It's a start, Benjamin. Now enter and repeat the move and try to concentrate on a more pleasant reason for performing it so beautifully," she managed with more warmth than she actually felt. Benjamin did as she requested, with his eyes open, but the sad smile never left his face.

While Benjamin returned upstairs for his next wardrobe change, Jane sat and pondered the future. Her head hurt terribly and her stomach roiled and churned. Should she call Eric and seek professional insight into the boy's psyche? Whether deliberate or unintentional, the boy whipsawed Jane's emotions the way she ordinarily would have done to one of her students. It could not possibly be intentional, she thought. That would take a diabolical streak and a level of emotional control and acting ability that only Kenneth might have managed. As her mind worried at the problem that was Benjamin from every conceivable angle, she heard a terrible thudding clatter from the hallway. Instantly, Jane rose and hurried out the door to find Benjamin in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs.

Benjamin endured Marie's newest selection, a cream colored dress with copious amounts of lace and three petticoats underneath. He snagged a stocking with the bandaid before Marie simply put them on for him. During the makeover, he moved automatically, letting Marie and Darla guide his hands as much as possible while he searched his reflection. His shoes were the same color as the dress, with a full inch of heel underneath and a couple of difficult buckles each.

Mechanically, he made his way to the top of the stairs and looked down. The high ceilings of the mansion made for high staircases as well. Benjamin stepped down one step. He could not see his feet for the dress. He could not even see the stairs. Benjamin stepped down again, feeling for the step. A fall from this height could kill him, he thought, stepping down again and letting the sole of the shoe slide along the edge of the tread. So what, another part of him thought. It's too soon for anything so drastic, the more sensible part of him argued. He stepped down again, turning his ankle slightly to let the side of the shoe slide against the edge of the step. He imagined how the rush of the air would feel as he fell, the clatter that his heavy shoes would make and the sensation of having the very breath knocked out of his body. He stepped down again, turning his ankle and letting the outside surface of the shoe slide against the stair, then he put his full weight down on thin air.
 
 
Chapter 10: Respite - In Which We Learn A Little About What Goes On In Benjamin's Head
 
Jane and Marie breathed a collective sigh of relief. Through the years, they had learned that teenage boys bend and bounce in ways that defy the adult imagination. Fortunately, Benjamin must have received a double share of this teenage blessing, Jane thought.

The fall had sounded terrible and Benjamin's nearly unconscious form had looked dire when the women converged on the scene, but he was not seriously hurt. His legs, bottom and back had taken the brunt of the fall. He had received a small bump on the head when he had finally fetched up against the bottom of the staircase.

Now the boy lay stretched out on his bed, icepacks cooling various bumps and bruises. He protested their nursing more vehemently than he had his recent modeling session. The swelling on his head had subsided already, though when he had tried to get up, he had laid back down before Marie could push him down.

"You will take dinner in your room tonight, Benjamin; nothing too heavy in case you should feel some nausea. One of us will stay with you tonight for a little while at least," Jane said, noticing the way the boy bristled at the possibility of unwanted company. "I'll have none of that! Everything I do here is for your own good, even nurse-maiding boys who try to break their necks on my stairs."

"I slipped," Benjamin said earnestly and not for the first time. Jane reflected on this. Self-destructive behavior had occurred before at the school, but falling down the stairs was not exactly classic suicidal behavior.

"I must check on my other students. I'm afraid I have neglected their progress today. Marie will sit with you for a while." Moments later Marie entered, carrying a large book, and took a chair by the window.

"Unless you want to talk to me about something, I'll just sit here and read," Marie said.

Jane used the time to check with Linda and to actually approve her summer reading selections so she would look more like a student. Next, she cornered Darla and dissected every memory and observation the young woman had made of Benjamin.

"Aside from his thing with mirrors and the fact that he does not like to be touched, he seems pretty normal," Darla concluded. "At least for a teenage boy who has been sent here," she added. "When he's nice, he's very nice. It's almost like being nice is his normal state, but he's gone to great lengths to build a facade of toughness."

"Have you caught him looking at you or maybe at Linda or Marie?"

"You mean lusting after one of us, Aunt Jane? Don't forget to include yourself on that list," Darla smiled. "No," she continued, "if he is checking any of us out he has been very sneaky about it. You don't suppose...nah, that's too easy."

"That he's gay? Well, it would simplify things wouldn't it? If that were the case, I can think of ten or twenty therapists that could help him work through his feelings better than we could." Jane sighed, "Somehow, I don't think that's the case."

"It's almost your turn as Benjamin watcher," Jane continued briskly. "Take two trays up to his room and see if you can get him to open up a little. I'd like to spend my time helping the boy through his transformation, not trying to find the key to unlock his mind."

In Benjamin's room, Marie looked carefully over the top of her book at the boy. He stared off into deep space, fully awake and occasionally twitching as though to some unheard rhythm.

"Hello Benjamin," Darla called from the door, arms laden with dinner trays. "Hello Marie, how is your patient?"

"He seems fine, although very quiet for a teenager, don't you think?" She smiled at Benjamin. "Eat and then rest, Benjamin. By tomorrow you'll be as good as new." Darla walked Marie to the door and then watched her walk down the stairs. She closed the door and walked slowly back to the bedside.

"Okay, spill," she said, uncovering the tray and setting it up for Benjamin to eat.

"Did that once today, I think. Don't remember too much about it to tell the truth."

"That was a good one, Benjamin," Darla chuckled, "but I was referring to whatever you've done to get them acting so weird."

"I don't know what you mean," Benjamin said, remembering that Darla called Ms. Thompson 'Aunt Jane' and that the girl owed more allegiance to her guardian than to a reform school student. Darla caught the gist of Benjamin's feelings in the look she received from him.

"I'm not going to get you in any trouble if that's what you are worried about. It's kind of cool to watch Aunt Jane wig out. None of the stuff I ever tried on her got so much as a raised eyebrow out of her," Darla said, but Benjamin remained silent as he dug into his meal.

"Okay, can you at least tell me why Aunt Jane is suddenly reading encyclopedia articles about Russian history?" This brought a smile and then a laugh to Benjamin. He had to choke the laughter back to avoid spewing food all over the room.

"It's just something I said one night before I fell asleep," he finally managed.

"What?! What did you say?"

"Stalingrad."

Darla knew that was the word Benjamin had spoken to Jane barely 18 hours ago, but she acted dumb.

"What?"

Benjamin looked carefully at Darla's face. Was she a spy or just a teenage girl, curious about the new and disruptive element in her social life.

"Stalingrad," he repeated. Darla stared blankly at him.

"You did all that with just one word? What does it mean?"

"It was a city where a terrible and inspiring battle took place during World War II."

Darla absorbed this, looking thoughtful. "You like history?" she asked, trying not to make the conversation sound like an interrogation.

"Just the wars, really," Benjamin shrugged.

"Still, there's been a lot of wars, right? Probably all the way back to the beginning of time."

"True, I really only study the ones that happened this century, they are much more interesting."

"So what's so special about one battle?" Darla asked, trying to steer the conversation back to the subject she really wanted.

"Do you really want to know, Darla?" Benjamin asked suddenly, shifting his weight in the bed so that he was nearly face to face with the nearby girl. Darla resisted the urge to step back from the bed. "If I tell you, are you going to run off to your Aunt Jane and spill your guts? If she really wants to know, she can come up here and ask me."

Darla did not have to act hurt. Benjamin's words were delivered with caustic emphasis. "I'm just curious, Benjamin. I'm the only person around here that is in the running to be your friend and in fact, Aunt Jane expects me to help with your schooling in the 'ladylike arts'. That means that whether we like it or not, we are probably going to be seeing a good bit of each other.

"So I can try to get along with you or I can treat you like the furniture. It's up to you in the end," Darla finished with an emphatic hmphh and took her tray to the vanity.

Benjamin picked at his food for a minute, but his appetite had deserted him.

"I'm sorry, Darla," he said quietly, "I'm not used to nice people. Thank you for trying to be my friend."

"I haven't given up, Benjamin. At least, not if you don't want me to." Darla waited, holding her breath.

"That would be nice, I think. I'm not much of a friend, though, just so you know." Benjamin ate, feeling better, then remembered, "Ummmm, is it okay for you to be in here with me and have the door closed? No one around here seems to worried that I'm going to, ummm, you know, try something or something."

"I have learned to trust my own judgement as far as who is going to 'try something'. Besides, I've learned a few things about handling unruly boys and as a last resort Jane, Marie and Rene are in the house and Tom and Allen are just outside," Darla said, gesturing toward the window. The diesel shut down just then, perfectly accenting Darla's gesture and causing her to chuckle slightly at the coincidence.

"Looks like they are calling it a day," Darla said, looking out the window at the two men.

"That's a big pile of rocks," Benjamin said, startling Darla, who had not heard the boy get out of bed. "Which one is Tom and which is Allen?"

For a moment, Darla feared that Benjamin would want to go down and meet the two, as is. "Tom is the older one and shouldn't you be in bed?" Darla asked archly, changing the subject.

Benjamin shrugged. "I feel fine now, though I suppose if they see me up I'll have to resume my lessons," Benjamin rolled his eyes expressively.

"My lips are sealed," Darla replied. "That stuff must be getting on your nerves."

"I haven't paid much attention. It is kind of stupid and I feel pretty dumb standing here with one of your hand- me-down bras on," Benjamin said absently, still looking out the window.

Darla was dumbfounded. She probed further. "When I first heard what Aunt Jane had ordered and then saw you sitting there outside her office...I thought you'd be pretty mad. You don't seem mad," Darla frowned.

"Well, don't start thinking I like dressing up like some damn Barbie doll. I'll get my stuff back before long," Benjamin replied resolutely.

"But Benjamin, you look sooooo lovely," Darla mimicked her Aunt perfectly, "you're the picture of '90's femininity." Benjamin rounded on Darla with anger, but stopped at her wide-eyed expression of innocence.

"1890's" Darla said, holding back more giggles. Benjamin had no choice but to laugh as well and soon the two of them had dissolved into a gale of laughter.

After they had finished eating, Darla chattered away, still trying to determine whether Benjamin really detested his current state or if he was secretly enjoying it. As they talked Darla concluded that Benjamin was not a secret cross dresser, but she was at a loss to explain what inner reserves he possessed that made his situation merely stupid instead of outrageously intolerable. If he didn't hate it at first, how was Jane going to help him, she wondered?

Jane rapped softly on the door before entering. "Well, I see your appetite has not faltered in the face of today's tribulations," Jane said, observing the empty plates. "Darla, go down to the kitchen and fix three small slices of the pie Marie made to go with dinner."

"Yes ma'am," Darla said as she hurried away.

Jane looked carefully at Benjamin as she sat in the chair Darla had recently occupied.

"I'm feeling much better, Ms. Thompson," Benjamin answered before she could ask. "May I get up now? I could use a trip to the bathroom."

"As long as you don't feel dizzy when you rise." Jane need not have bothered with the warning. Benjamin was up before the third word had left her mouth. He returned just as Darla arrived with still another tray.

"Marie recommended milk to go with this. Saved me another trip down those stairs, too," Darla grumbled good- naturedly. They ate in silence, though Darla could see that Jane had something on her mind. Benjamin appeared oblivious, as usual, to the currents swirling around him.

"Mmm, that was good," he said with an almost impish smile.

"Darla, would you please clear the dishes away and then help Marie finish up in the kitchen." While Darla attended this chore, Jane inspected the various lumps and bruises decorating Benjamin.

"Well, you seem none the worse for the experience. Please exercise more caution in the future," Jane said as she watched Darla leave the room. "I'm glad to see that you are getting along well with Darla. It is nice to have someone close to your own age around during difficult times." Jane sat and composed her thoughts. Talking to this boy was like navigating at night along a rocky coastline.

"I was coming up to check on you a little while ago and also to remind Darla to leave the door open. I overheard the two of you arguing and I thought it best to let you work things out without any interference from me. But I did hear you say that if there was something I wanted to know, I could just come and ask you." Jane saw that she had the boy's attention now, but his face reflected curiosity instead of hostility.

"You know, I have a scrap book you should see sometime. Back in the '80s, before Russia came completely unhinged, I visited the city that used to be named Stalingrad. I went up to the hill where all the memorials are, Mamayev Hill, I think it's called. There is a statue representing victory. It's over 150 feet tall and is about the only thing of beauty I remember from the city, but it was a grim beauty," Jane looked at her student's face. Her quiet narration had an almost hypnotic effect on Benjamin. His eyes focussed on some distant point. "I know a fair bit of the history of that place, some of it more recently acquired, but I don't know what it means to you, Benjamin. Will you tell me?"

Benjamin's eyes cut right to her own, but still without fear or anger. Strangely, he seemed on the verge of tears. "I've always admired the way they fought, from the very first time I read about it." Benjamin paused and Jane feared he might have finished. Silently, she willed him to continue.

"The Red Army had been retreating all summer. Stalin finally figured out that he needed professional advice and that the army needed something more to fight for than world communism. They fought, street to street, house to house, maybe even doorjamb to doorjamb. At times, the two contesting forces would be fighting back and forth in the same building. I don't know why they fought individually, maybe they were just tired of running, but I'd like to think that they'd each found something worth fighting and dying for. In the end, they were wiped out, but they bogged down the Germans for so long that the whole offensive stalled and when reinforcements came, it was the Germans who found out what it was like to defend the rubble that had been a city. They fought too, until only 7500 of them were left to surrender.

"I've read every book I can find on every battle anyone ever bothered to write about. Some of the books were so thick and tough to read that I could barely read the captions on the photos. They all touch me somehow, but that one...I can't really explain it." When he stopped, Jane thought she would get no more on the subject, but he continued. "I don't know anything about what war is really like, Ms. Thompson. It must be terrible in ways that I can't imagine- the pain, the stink, the numbness of constant loss, the fear. It's not the war that I admire, it's the fact that it can strip a person of everything they have and everything they are and yet, sometimes, that person fights on anyway. Now do you know what it means to me?"

"I'll have to think about it for a while, Benjamin. Why don't you get some rest? Maybe Marie can come stay with you for a little while." Jane rose and left, mind full of the possible meanings of Benjamin's story. Maybe she should just ask him a few more direct questions, if she could think of what questions to ask.

Benjamin listened to Jane's footsteps recede, then got up and sat at the vanity. Motionless, he stared at his reflection. His mind whirled with possibilities. He knew he must concentrate and focus on his actions. He missed his music terribly. Darla confounded him, Linda intrigued him and Marie and Jane scared him. Briefly, and almost as an afterthought, he studied his appearance. Laughter bubbled up again, but he contained it. He turned out the light, threw off the robe and climbed into bed. If anyone is going to watch over him tonight, let her do it in the dark, he thought. Concentrate, he added to himself, concentrate. Then he fell asleep.

Marie carefully opened the door, peering into the darkened room. She convinced herself that she did really hear the soft breathing of a sleeping boy. She moved to the chair she had occupied before. Faint light seeped through the heavy drapes and the chair creaked as she settled into it. As her eyes adjusted, she could barely make out the outline of the Benjamin's sleeping form, covered by sheets and a comforter. Even asleep, he created currents in the old house. Marie considered the terrible speed with which the currents that enveloped the house had been moving lately.

In the basement, Jane listened to the brief report of the day's activities by Allen Sullivan and his associates. Linda was present tonight, listening attentively and adding details as required.

"Still no sign of them, but the city is too large for us to say with certainty that they have left. Still, better for us to assume that they are nearby or soon will be."

"Thank you both," Jane said tiredly. "Linda, when you get a moment, stop by my office." Jane climbed the stairs back up to the kitchen and poured a cup of tea.

Once back in her office, she took two aspirin and then began to make notes on a legal pad. Jane was deep in concentration when Linda knocked on the door. Jane sighed and turned the pad over and admitted the woman. Silently, she asked herself how so many riddles had come to inhabit her home.
 
 
Chapter 11: Movement - In Which We Take a Brief Digression To Check On the Progress Of Other Key Players
 
Keith Belmont surveyed the collection of guns spread out on the table. Then he surveyed the people who would be carrying some of those weapons, mentally separating them into the competent and the wannabes. Keith held on to the fear he had just heard in Darryl's voice. He wanted it to last. In a way, he enjoyed that power much more than the money he expected from this job.

"Take those automatics and those three shotguns, we'll stash the rest. And get the fucking ammo, too. Do I have to hold your fucking hands?" At least there was no whining about leaving their few machine guns behind this time.

"Cars are all gassed up, and I tossed that phone in the dumpster like you said," the short, nervous looking boy said from beside Keith.

"Good job, CC. You ride with me. We need to talk. Put Davvy T and Juice in the other cars to keep an eye on the dumbfucks." Keith turned back to the assembled gang, numbering only eleven teenage boys. "Who wants to go on a little trip and get rich?"

Predictably, there was whooping and yelling, mostly from the least capable of the group. Harold was a sick, psycho motherfucker, Keith thought, but he had something that kept people around. A lot of the old gang had split for greener pastures when Harold got himself wasted.

"First we are going to go visit some of my cousins out in the sticks. We'll camp out, screw around with the local girls and whip your asses into better shape. We got a big score coming up here and I don't want it fucked up because you were stoned that day. So if you can't cut it, get the fuck out of here now." No one moved. "Get with it then."

The four cars moved out of the ruined garage and into the streets. In the lead car, CC looked expectantly at Keith.

"You're thinking again, Coke Can, that's what I like about you. What are you thinking now?"

"$50,000 is not going to divide well by eleven," the boy said, thin hands fluttering.

"Right to the point. I think by the time we are done, we will have more than 50k and less than 11, if you get my drift. I took a little trip about a month ago, when we finally got word of where Darryl was holed up. She's rich, rich, rich and lives way on the outskirts of a little hick town. I think we'll do okay."

"You have a plan already?"

Keith smiled viciously. "Do I have a plan?" CC's admiration grew as Keith outlined his idea.
 
 
Chapter 12: Becalmed - In Which a Little Quiet Time Passes
 
Jane had stayed up too late the night before, talking to the energetic young woman masquerading as a student. Linda had questioned and probed relentlessly. To Jane, it was a mixed blessing. Another supporter of her work, especially one so young and skilled, could come in handy. On the other hand, she hoped Linda remained attentive to her true duties at the school.

Rousing slowly from her bed, Jane looked at the notepad she had left on the nightstand. As if she needed reminding, she thought, looking at the scrawl of notes that covered the pages. She flicked the monitor on. Darla and Marie were already helping Benjamin, who had apparently taken another one of his marathon showers this morning. The boy reminded Jane of Murphy's Law. What would go wrong today, she wondered?

"And it's only his third day here," she said to her reflection. "Great, talking to my reflection. The boy is rubbing off on me." Jane showered and dressed, hoping that Rene had not spiked her breakfast with ground glass and arsenic. That woman, despite her professional air and attitude, grated on her and vice versa she supposed.

Upstairs, Marie watched as Benjamin tried to reproduce her efforts at adding color to his face. He actually paid attention this morning and put forth effort. Marie wondered what ulterior motive lurked behind Benjamin's placid exterior.

"How's this?" he asked, looking uncertainly at her. Darla looked up from where she had been laying out the day's first outfit. Benjamin had awakened this morning and showered without any prodding. Of course, he'd put the same underwear back on afterwards, an error Darla had gently corrected. Darla felt Marie's tension from across the room, because it resonated with her own. They were walking on pins and needles around the boy simply because he cooperated.

The remainder of the day passed in similar fashion. Jane, Marie or Darla would cautiously and gently prod Benjamin in the desired direction. For his part, Benjamin applied himself without resistance, though his wandering mind presented the occasional misstep. And if Benjamin navigated the stairs slowly and with a death grip on the banister, no one took him to task for it.

Jane considered the possibility that the boy had decided to kill himself at the earliest opportunity. His serenity certainly mirrored that of someone who had come to grips with their own imminent mortality. Between herself and Marie, the boy was not alone for more than two minutes the whole day. He chatted with Darla when they were alone, but spoke only when spoken to in Jane or Marie's presence.

Linda and Rene received a break from kitchen duties so that Jane could observe Benjamin help prepare dinner. He demonstrated that he could concentrate and pay attention to detail as he followed recipes, Marie's verbal instructions and his own experimentation where allowed. Not only did he work something akin to magic in the kitchen, but he seemed to do it with a minimum of mess and dirty dishes and utensils.

"You have a deft hand at this," Jane said, as she placed her hand over his on the large spoon. As she raised the spoon to her nose to catch the scent of the sauce, she could feel the tightening of Benjamin's muscles. Oh well, she thought, now I know.

"Thank you, Ms. Thompson," the boy said stiffly. She noted his approval that she did not actually taste the sauce from the spoon, even though it was a common practice in kitchens around the world.

"Where did you come by all this talent, not to mention your strict standards of food preparation hygiene?"

"Here and there. I guess I've been in a lot of kitchens," he said as he considered which of the spices on the counter to add to the sauce.

"A good chef is in high demand, Benjamin," Jane said, trying a new tack. "Your talents could take you far in that field."

His shrug roused a flicker of ire. "Benjamin, although you can not be expected to have your future charted to the smallest degree, it is still important to consider where your talents and aspirations lie."

"I don't expect to amount to much, Ms. Thompson," he stated flatly as he moved across the room to the oven, effectively ending the conversation. But Jane would not let the topic be dropped. She followed him and firmly placed her hand on his shoulder. Marie stopped in mid- step to see the confrontation.

"All of my students matter to me, Benjamin, and not just because a student's failure reflects poorly on me. It matters to me because I hate to see anyone fall short of what they can achieve in the world. It matters because I care and if you learn nothing else during your time in my home, you will learn that I care more about any of my students than I do about anything else. Don't you even think about giving up on me."

Benjamin fought the rising darkness. He felt the warmth of Jane's hand through his dress. It revolted him, confused him and compelled him, all at once. He barely avoided yanking the door off the oven.

"The bread is done, Ms. Thompson. Let go of me or it will burn."

Jane withdrew her hand. "Of course, Benjamin." But what will burn, she asked silently, and am I reading something into that statement that isn't there or are you trying to warn me?

That night, Jane, Marie and Darla took turns watching over the boy's sleep via the hidden camera. Fear gripped all three women. Jane reflected that fear for her students was no stranger to her, but that never made it easy.

In his room, nestled in the soft bed and scented sheets and blankets, Benjamin slept a deep, dreamless sleep.

The next day brought the same focus and attentiveness from Benjamin. Jane and Marie felt the effects of their all night vigil, so much of the morning banter came from Darla.

"There you go, Benjamin, that's nicely done," Darla said as she examined the results of Benjamin's attempt to apply makeup. "You need more practice, but you have got the basics."

Benjamin's lack of enthusiasm did not escape Darla. He did as instructed, without fighting, but also without real animation. Darla had spent yesterday watching him and now again this morning. She knew from past experience with Jane's program not to confuse willing participation with acceptance. Benjamin's attitude and behavior worried her in a vague sort of way.

Later, she discussed the topic with Jane. "Benjamin does what he's told, true, but he doesn't seem scared or mad or excited. He's definitely not excited. I have not caught him once giving himself a second look or trying to get something perfectly right without being told."

"I know," Jane said simply. "And he still has much of the peculiar behavior he arrived with; the staring into the mirror, or staring right through one of us. When he's alone, you can see him keeping time to some music that only he can hear." Jane tapped the notepad idly. "We need to shake him up somehow. Do something that makes him more pliable without sending him back into buttoned up mode. I think it's time for the walk outside."

"But," Darla started to object, but Jane would not hear it.

"I'll talk to Tom, make sure the backhoe is not running tomorrow. Darla, he'll either try to pass or not. If he does, then he's in the game, if he doesn't even try then there's not much point in going on. I'll try my best to get Judge Ruth to put him in some other therapeutic program. Also, it will give him an opportunity to get angry without having one of us to immediately take it out on or go silent with."

"He'll still have me to take it out on," Darla mentioned pointedly.

"You're his friend, Darla," Jane said cheerfully. "Besides, Tom will be there to protect you. Try to pick a time when Allen isn't close by though."

"Great."

Makeovers and modeling occupied the rest of the morning. Darla praised Benjamin's efforts moderately. Jane and Marie gave gentle critiques of Benjamin's appearance, particularly his bearing. Unless reminded, Benjamin walked, sat and stood like a teenage boy, a lacy, color coordinated and somewhat frilly boy, but definitely a boy.

"Benjamin, you must concentrate on your mannerisms. I have an idea that might help," Jane said. Inwardly, Benjamin groaned, he did not want more help from Jane. From the closet Jane extracted a pair of modest pumps. The low heeled sort that a student or office worker might wear.

"These will force you focus on your stride length and posture. These heels are not narrow little points, so I don't think you will totter on them, but the slight elevation will help you get the hang of it."

Jane watched Marie guide the boy around the room. As she predicted, the shoes definitely adjusted the boy's stride. She examined the dress he wore. Benjamin wore no petticoats under his skirt today, just a slip. How far did she dare push him?

"Benjamin. I want you to try something for me. We're going to help you go down the stairs to the dining room. It's time for lunch anyway."

"The stairs?" Benjamin swallowed. The blood drained out of his face and fear swelled in his heart. He had forgotten that falling down the stairs was his idea in the first place.

"We'll be right beside you, and in front of you and behind you. You'll be able to see the steps if you need to. I think it would boost your confidence, but if you'd rather not," Jane left the challenge hanging.

Exhaling loudly, Benjamin accepted the challenge. "I hope your insurance is paid up," he joked feebly.

The stairs proved anticlimactic. With one hand gripping the banister, the other firmly on Jane's arm and Marie and Darla to the front and back, Benjamin descended without the slightest misstep.

"Very good, Benjamin. You three go sit down and eat. Rene and Linda prepared a sandwich tray. I have to stop by my office for a moment."

In her office, Jane sat down with relief. Her arm hurt where Benjamin had gripped it. But he had held onto her willingly and without the usual trepidation he displayed. Of course, fear probably had a lot to do with his behavior, Jane told herself, but a small success was better than none. Jane quickly jotted a few notes. She still considered calling Eric Davis for consultation, but the morning's success inclined her to delay that call.

Lunch passed with no unusual difficulties. Jane found herself correcting Benjamin repeatedly for the same problems. His grosser manners had improved drastically, but the smaller things such as proper posture, handling of utensils and table courtesy still lacked finish. Jane pondered how to correct these things without endless repetition of her commands. Hopefully, their first ventures out into public would attend to the problem without her intervention. Although the boy did not seem uneasy about his situation, the threat of public exposure might provide the motivation to 'pass' under any circumstances.

"Darla, take a break this afternoon and show Benjamin the library. Benjamin, make a selection from this list and read it thoroughly. You must discuss the work in casual conversation as well as give me an oral report when you finish."

Benjamin looked at the list. "I've never heard of any of these?"

"Well that's the point, dear, to broaden your horizons and to facilitate your growth. If there are no questions, you may resume your daily activities," Jane finished. Benjamin turned to Darla who motioned for him to follow.

"You haven't really had the chance to explore the house," Darla said as they walked out of the dining room and into an unfamiliar hallway. "Of course, Aunt Jane doesn't want the new arrivals running amok about the place, but it's nice to get out and stretch the legs. Are your feet bothering you? We could go change your shoes, no one said you had to stay in them."

"It can wait," Benjamin said. He sniffed the air gently as they walked. He definitely smelled the distinct and pleasurable scent of many books gathered in one place. They entered the room through a pair of large, French doors. Benjamin stopped suddenly to survey the place and Darla nearly ran into his back.

"Wow," Benjamin said, not even noticing Darla's near collision with him. "This is great. Library of Congress organization," he noted to the astonished Darla. A brand new transformation had overcome Benjamin as he prowled along the high shelves.

"Yes," Darla said uncertainly. "It's nice."

"Nice? I've been in schools that didn't have so many books. I don't suppose I can just come here whenever I want, right?"

Darla did not reply immediately. Ordinarily, the answer would be no, but if the library created such a positive response in the boy, Jane would have to decide. "I'll talk to Aunt Jane. Usually, by the time summer rolls around, we're a little tired of books, but perhaps you are more comfortable here."

"My comfort isn't the high priority here I think," Benjamin said as he kicked his shoes off and began climbing the ladder.

"Benjamin..." Darla began.

"I know, Ms. Thompson will have a tizzy fit if she sees me without my damn shoes, but I want to see what is up here and I want to do it without breaking my neck."

"Actually, I was going to say be careful. I don't like climbing on those things. Ladders weren't meant to have wheels."

Stopping in mid-step, Benjamin turned and looked down at Darla. "Is that really what you were going to say?"

"Yes."

"I'm sorry I snapped at you then."

"That's okay. If you like, drop your list down to me and I'll help you find something."

Darla looked at the list, already wrinkled and smudged by Benjamin's grasp. "Did you see anything on here that interested you?"

"I didn't see anything on there I even recognize," Benjamin said, surveying the history section. "Not much up here that I like."

"How about this biography of Clara Barton? I think I read that one, she founded the American Red Cross if I recall."

"Let's get it and look at it. Who is the author at the end of the list with the multiple suggestions?"

"Edith Wharton," Darla shuddered, "I think she's a Victorian novelist." Darla remembered wrestling with one of those novels as an assignment. Time vanished quickly as the pair examined the considerable collection.

"Hmmmm, maybe I'll try the biography to start with. I wonder if Ms. Thompson will let me borrow any of these others?"

"That depends," Jane announced from the doorway. "If you can keep up with your assigned reading and other tasks, I see no reason why certain library privileges should not be extended to you."

"Thank you Ms. Thompson," Benjamin replied earnestly. Jane hid her amazement at the genuine happiness showing on Benjamin's face.

"Benjamin, I applaud your concern for safety, but young ladies in my house do not clamber about on ladders while they are wearing dresses, so there's no need for your shoes to be," Jane looked around the room, "wherever it is they are. Retrieve them and let's try to get a little work in before dinner. I don't think you realize how long the two of you have been in here."

Benjamin scrambled to find his shoes. "Ummm, no, not really. We started talking about these different authors on the list here and well..." Benjamin trailed off as he looked at the antique clock on one of the library tables.

"You seem quite at home among the books, Benjamin," Jane remarked, still a little surprised at this facet of the boy's personality. Judge Ruth had said he was well read in a random sort of way. To Jane, a love of books and libraries suggested an unexpected level of sensitivity in Benjamin.

"A library is a good place to get away from people," he said.

"When we return to your room, we will work on retouching and repairing your makeup," Jane stopped short of mentioning that repair was usually done while a lady was out.

Ben's attention flagged as Jane and Darla repeated demonstrations on his face. Jane watched firsthand the manner with which Benjamin handled such a typically humiliating situation. He sat, dressed in panties and bra, slip and stockings, wearing a dress and moderately heeled shoes, and it did not appear to bother him at all.

Jane chalked part of his comfort up to his growing acceptance of the immediate circumstances. She also thought that evaluation might be overly optimistic, but boys often displayed lower resistance to their attire after they had lived in the house for a week or two and no longer felt threatened by the environment. She had a feeling that tomorrow's walk would stir things up a bit with the boy. Time to grit teeth and pray, she told herself.

Dinner passed as lunch had, without confrontation or further battle, though the running tally of Benjamin's manner's infractions grew. Jane did her best to gently remind the boy, soon to be girl she realized, of the proper posture and speed to eat with. He absorbed such critiques with no reaction except a seemingly half-hearted attempt to comply.

Jane pondered this state of affairs. If it continued after his meeting of Tom and trip to the mall this weekend, she might have to change tactics again.

Benjamin sat down at the vanity with a sigh of relief. Jane and Marie remained downstairs and Darla went to her room to get something, giving Benjamin the opportunity to be alone for the first time in days it seemed.

He stared into the mirror, feeling his mind stir. Consciously and subconsciously he had worked on his problem for the past several days and solutions were forming. Jane Thompson would reshape him to her own specifications, this much he knew for sure. Benjamin regretted this realization without really understanding why. But he needed to stay until the threat of jail or its youthful equivalent no longer hung over his head. This ruled out confrontational resistance and premature escape. He must wait until everything was certain.

"Benjamin," Jane said from his doorway. He avoided jumping and screaming by a narrow margin.

"Yes," he replied, deliberately without turning.

"You said once that if I wanted to know something about you, I should ask. What do you see when you do that?"

"Myself," he answered, recalling that had been the answer he gave the last time she asked.

Jane smiled, remembering also. "Everyone sees themselves when they look in a mirror. I think you see something more." She walked forward and sat on the stool next to Benjamin. There was hardly room, but it brought her into close contact with Benjamin, who reacted by shuddering slightly. She looked at their side by side reflections, "Does it bother you that much to be this close?"

The question fell on deaf ears. Benjamin stared at their dual reflections, completely absorbed by them. Jane watched his eyes dart back and forth between the images.

"Yes, it does," he said belatedly.

"Why?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Then will you talk about why you look in the mirror the way you do?" Jane asked, trying to stay on her mental toes.

"I see me, Ms. Thompson, every time, just me. It doesn't matter whether my hair is long or short or whether I have a wig on and this stupid shit on my face, it's still me and as long as I have anything to say about it, it always will be me." Benjamin's voice turned slightly hoarse at the end and for a second Jane thought he might cry. The vulgarity he used had not escaped her either, but for the moment, she let it pass.

"Look here," she said and pointed at the mirror. "What do you see?"

"Nothing," he replied, looking her in the eye through her reflection, "just your reflection."

"I see," Jane said. "This has been very informative, Benjamin. I hope to assist your continuing education with these little talks. Speaking of which, I believe you know to keep a civil tongue in your mouth when speaking to me. Tomorrow after breakfast, remind me to think up some punishment for your unfortunate breech.

"Get cleaned up and ready for bed. I'm sure Darla will want to bid you goodnight as well."

Jane left the boy to tend to his ablutions and returned to her office. She stared at her desk for a moment, perhaps procrastinating, perhaps gathering her thoughts. Finally she picked up the phone and dialed.

"Hello."

"Hello Eric, this is Jane. I need your advice on a student of mine."

"Need any help with anything?" Darla asked, poking her head into the room. Benjamin had resumed staring.

"No. I'm fine."

"Benjamin? You still have your wig on," Darla pointed out. Benjamin started a little and then grimaced.

"Oh God, I'd forgotten all about the damn thing." Reaching up, he yanked the wig from his head and flung it at the closet.

"Whoa there, Benjamin," Darla said, quickly shutting the door behind her. "Don't let Aunt Jane or Ms. Marie catch you doing that." Darla stopped short, seeing that Benjamin ignored her. "Benjamin?"

"Yes."

"What are you looking at?"

"Myself."

"Oh," Darla said, approaching closer. "Is something wrong?"

"Maybe."

"I'd like to help you, Benjamin, but you're going to have to turn around and talk to me for it to work."

Darla sat down on the bed as Benjamin turned to face her. The rage apparent on Benjamin's face nearly caused her to run or at least yell for help.

"I don't think you can help me, Darla," Benjamin said evenly.

"What are you so mad at? I don't think it's me so it must be Aunt Jane."

"No," he said, his anger relaxing slightly, "Ms. Thompson means well, I think. It's not her fault, but then again, it is her fault."

"What is her fault?" Darla questioned gently.

"I forgot I was wearing the wig," Benjamin answered, his face still slightly contorted and his voice tight.

"Big deal. I thought this stuff wasn't bothering you. You would have remembered when you went to lay down."

"I can't explain, Darla. I think you should go now. I need to get some sleep."

"Okay Benjamin. Good Night."

Darla left the room and shut the door, heaving a sigh of relief. After she composed herself, she headed for Jane's office.

Jane admitted Darla even though she was still on the phone with Eric Davis. She motioned Darla to take a seat and remain quiet.

"No, I don't think you need to come out here, although that is subject to change, just like everything else with this boy. I do appreciate the offer Eric, I just wanted someone else's insight into this child's mind."

Jane listened and smiled. Darla strained to catch any stray words coming from the earpiece.

"Thanks, Eric, interesting does not quite tell the whole story here. I'll keep you appraised of the situation. Good night." Jane sighed as she returned the phone to her desk.

"I was going to call you when I finished talking to Eric. Did you say good night to Benjamin?"

"Oh yes, once I pried him off that mirror and got a few words out of him. There's something wrong with him. Something no one knows about, so it's not in any file or profile." Darla related the encounter to Jane, who grew more apprehensive with each word.

"I don't suppose Eric had any helpful advice on this?" Darla asked when she finished.

"Some, but I wasn't calling him for a clinical diagnosis. I really wanted a fresh perspective."

"I'm worried. He acts like he might explode any minute now." Darla looked to Jane for comfort and advice, but Jane stared at her notes, deep in contemplation. "Don't you start zoning out on me too, Aunt Jane."

"I'm sorry dear, I was thinking about our student. I'm developing a theory. Perhaps he has not had a safe, reliable outlet for his emotions. He reacts negatively to physical contact, seems to have more than his share of adolescent confusion about women and he's prone to angry or even violent outbursts. Part of our method is to force difficult boys to express their frustration, humiliation and hostility in some way besides anger or aggression." Jane held up her hand, cutting Darla off.

"I know you know all this already, Darla, I'm talking as much for my sake as yours. How does he view himself and how does he view his emotions? I think those questions are crucial to getting through this impasse."

"Didn't Judge Ruth say something about low self-worth?" Darla remembered.

"Yes, and there have been a few times when I've heard him express it, but he's never been vehement about it."

"Well, all I know is I'm supposed to go to the garden with him tomorrow and I don't want to be around if he blows his top."

"Maybe the first outing will be the event that turns the corner for us," Jane replied hopefully.

"Just stay close, please."

Benjamin dreamed. A hall of mirrors surrounded him, leaving no portion of him unexposed. He studied the reflection, tilting his head at the gently smiling young woman staring back at him. No, he realized, he looked out from inside a reflection. Benjamin stood before him, separated somehow from everything that had defined him before.

"No!" he pounded on the glass, "NOOOOOOOO!"

The alarm and the light woke Jane. Blearily she looked at the clock, which read 3:30 A.M.

"I can't take much more of this," she said to the clock. When she turned on the monitor, a slightly new scene appeared. Benjamin, seated at the vanity, turning this way and that as he peered, stared and inspected. He actively searched his reflection, touching his face and neck as he looked at the mirror.

Jane's practiced eye detected no trace of makeup on his face, nor did he wear the wig. Clearly, he was not inspecting his transformation skills. Jane watched as Benjamin's motions became frenzied, more like a twitching than a smooth self-examination. Finally, he stopped. His arms hung limply, hands resting on the stool to either side of him. He continued to stare. When Jane glanced at the clock, she saw that almost an hour had passed. She searched for her robe and had opened the door when the monitor turned dark.

The faint reflections from the room's ambient light showed a boy getting under the covers. Jane considered her choices, awash in unfamiliar uncertainty. Finally, she went back to bed, thinking how she might broach the subject in the morning.
 
 
Chapter 13: A Walk in the Park - In Which We See Still More Oddity Revealed and Battle Lines Drawn
 
If Benjamin felt any fatigue from his early morning ramblings, he did not show it at breakfast. In fact, he performed nearly every aspect of his new morning ritual with competence, if not enthusiasm. He even concentrated on obeying all the rules of proper behavior at the table. Jane even complemented him on his efforts and found little reason to fault him.

"Benjamin, I'm pleased with your efforts this morning. When such manners become ingrained, they make every meal a pleasant occasion for togetherness with friends, family and business associates," Jane praised effusively. Maybe a little too much, she thought to herself. Silently, she wondered if some psycho-emotional breakthrough had occurred last night while everyone slept.

Benjamin only smiled and his smile still contained an air of melancholy. "Pass the butter, please," he asked Marie.

The previous night, during her nightly meeting with Allen Sullivan, Jane requested that the backhoe not be run today, so that the girls might enjoy some time outside. Now seemed like the time to plant the idea.

"Tom informed me there is a problem with the heavy equipment and they won't be running it today. If you ladies would like to take advantage of the beautiful weather we are having by walking about and enjoying the grounds and gardens, I highly recommend it."

Predictably, Benjamin stiffened, immediately alert. Darla also came to attention, but with an entirely different reception to the idea.

"That would be great! I've been dying for a chance to get outside. I'm not even sure I remember what's blooming right now. Benjamin, Linda, say you'll go walking with me."

"Ummm, a little problem here," Benjamin noted with rising panic. "Guy in girl's clothes? Ummm, outside? Not happening, no way."

Darla caught herself before she said 'have you looked in the mirror', instead she replied, "Don't be silly, Benjamin. No one knows you're a guy and as long as you watch what you say and do, no one will. Your hair and your face would pass anywhere and your behavior is good enough for a little walk around the grounds. Please? We get to change into something without petticoats and heels," Darla nearly sang to the boy.

Linda smiled, "It would be nice to get out, and I have some things I haven't had a chance to wear. They'd be perfect."

Benjamin grew wary. Intuitively he knew the time for action drew near.

"Okay," he said, "but you'd better be right about no one recognizing me." He turned his attention back to breakfast and practically gulped it down.

"Excuse me," he said. Not waiting around to make sure he had permission, Benjamin hurried from the table and back to his room. A short while later Darla and Marie arrived. Darla had already changed into a pretty cotton print summer dress, white, lace top anklets and canvas deck shoes. Together they rummaged through closets and drawers until they found exactly the right combination. The resulting outfit left Benjamin bare legged, bare shouldered and practically barefoot. He almost asked to return to the dress and underclothes he wore for his ill fated trip down the stairs. Even more disconcerting were the soft plastic pads Marie slipped into his bra.

"You can't wear a dress like this without a little something to help," she said cheerfully. Benjamin bore it all without verbal complaint, though his expression conveyed his feelings without a doubt.

"You two ready?" Linda said from the doorway. Benjamin stared openly at her. He had not imagined Jane Thompson allowed such casual clothes at her school, but Linda wore a comfortable looking peasant dress, floppy hat and calf high hiking boots.

"I know this is last summer's look Benjamin, but you don't have to stare."

"I, ummm, no, I mean...you look fine. I didn't mean anything by it."

Darla watched with interest. Benjamin had displayed little interest in girls or women. In a way, such normal behavior from so unusual a boy provided some comfort to Darla.

"Then let's go! This'll be fun."

Once outside Darla remembered the things she had been missing since Benjamin's arrival. She did not hold a grudge against the boy, but the new student had prevented her from swimming or playing soccer or baseball. The July air felt pleasantly hot on Darla's face. Benjamin breathed deeply, noticing the paleness of his skin.

Together they walked for a bit, then Linda decided to hike to the far stone wall bordering the estate.

"I'm not really dressed for that, Linda," Benjamin protested.

"Well, if you two don't mind, I'd like to go anyway. We can split up for now I guess. This won't take long." Linda marched off, covering ground quickly. Benjamin watched her walk away.

"Don't say it," he warned Darla.

"Who? Me?" Darla laughed. "I didn't see a thing." They made a circuit around the house, stopping to look at the pool. Darla kept a sharp eye out for Tom and Allen. Finally she spotted him near the stables, and Allen was not nearby either. She angled in the direction of the now vacant stables.

"Do you like horses?" she asked, trying to keep Benjamin's attention off the gardener.

"I've never ridden one. I see cops riding them every once in a while in the city."

"Aunt Jane keeps several, she really loves to ride. Let's go see them," Darla said excitedly. Benjamin had to lengthen his stride to keep up with the girl, and consequently he did not notice Tom standing near the building right away.

"Darla," Benjamin hissed. "There's a guy right there. I can't go over there."

"What? Oh, it's just Tom. He's okay. And I doubt he'll notice. You look fine. Heck, for a minute I kind of forgot myself."

"I'm not going over there," Benjamin said desperately.

"We're too close now. It would be rude for you to turn around and go back now. Come on, I swear you'll pass without a trace." Darla held Benjamin's arm with a surprisingly strong grip.

"Hi Tom," Darla said sweetly. "Where are the horses?"

"Miss Darla," he greeted her. "Don't you remember? Ms. Thompson had them moved to the Fitzgibbons farm last week."

"Oh, you're right. I forgot all about that," Darla turned to apologize to Benjamin, who stood stiffly at her side. "Where are my manners? Tom, this is," Darla paused just long enough to give the appearance of quick thinking, "Mina, Mina Peyton our newest student here."

Mina froze, but Tom remained unperturbed. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Mina," he said.

"Ummm, nice to meet you, too," Mina mumbled when she regained her composure. Darla was about to lead Mina away from the scene before she lost her nerve completely when Allen Sullivan rounded the corner of the building. He paused, apparently not expecting to find two young women idly chatting with Tom, but he was too close to turn around without being rude, so, like Mina, he was trapped into the encounter.

"I don't think you've met the new help, Miss Darla. This is Allen Sullivan," he nodded to the approaching man. "Allen, this is Miss Darla Smith and Miss Mina Peyton."

"Pleasure to meet you," Allen said mildly. Darla turned to collect Mina and make their escape, but Mina stood motionless, staring at Allen.

"Mina?"

"Miss, are you okay?" Allen asked at the same time.

"How do you do it, Mr. Sullivan? How do you do it?" Mina stared at the man with an expression bordering on awe. She recognized in Sullivan some sort of kindred spirit and possibly an alternate path than the one she had long presumed was her destiny.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," the man said.

"Mina, I think you've been out in the sun too long. Come on Mina," Darla coaxed, finally resorting to taking the stunned girl's hand and pulling her along.

Once they had moved away from the stable, Darla tried to wake the girl again. "Mina! Hey, wake up in there!"

"I'm sorry," the girl replied, "I just had the most amazing idea." She shook her head sharply. "Why the hell are you calling me Mina?" she asked as she remembered the details of the encounter.

"I couldn't very well call you Benjamin, could I? To tell you the truth," Darla lied, "I had forgotten for a second you were a boy. I had to make up a name on the spot."

"I am a boy, Darla, not was a boy," Mina proclaimed angrily, "don't you forget that ever! Did your Aunt put you up to this? That's it, isn't it?" she accused hotly without giving Darla a chance to reply. Her anger slipped quickly into fury. "This was a put up job from the very start. I can't believe I thought you were my friend." Darla moved to calm the angry student. "NO! You touch me and we'll both be sorry. Get the fuck away from me!"

Mina stormed toward the house, her vision blurred by red rage. Now is the time, she realized as she strode toward the house. Immediately, a coldness came over her, and her raw, seething anger channeled itself into thought and plan. Yes, she thought, now is the time to defend. Inch by inch, day by day, she thought to herself.

Jane watched the fireworks from just inside the house, suppressing the urge to go to Darla's defense. She knew that would only complicate the situation and she thought Darla could handle herself. When Mina stormed away from the girl, Jane hurried to her office.

As she approached the steps up to the front door, Mina paused, allowing the coldness to seep into her every fiber. The last of her fury flared as a temptation to rip the door from its hinges. Quickly and quietly she entered the house and moved down the hall.

"Good morning, Ms. Rene. Is Ms. Thompson in her office?" she said to the stunned housekeeper who had just stepped from an adjoining hall with a load of towels in her arms. The woman nodded her assent, clearly taken aback. She watched as Mina swayed gracefully along the hall, the picture of poise and femininity, combined with an ominous element of sinuous danger.

At the door to Jane's office, Mina knocked softly.

"Come in," Jane called, expecting Marie or Darla. She drew a quick breath when Mina entered and made her way across the room with the same effortless, almost majestic, grace she displayed in the hall.

"Good morning, Ms. Thompson," Mina said as she curtsied perfectly, somehow managing to make the gesture look vaguely threatening. Jane evaluated the girl's perfect posture and manner. She resembled a spring, tightly coiled, waiting for the unwary to unleash its pentup energy. Jane ignored the girl's vastly improved performance for the moment.

"I thought you had forgotten about me this morning," Jane remarked. She realized she could not use the girl's masculine name without undermining her transformation, but she also could not use the feminized name without pulling the rug completely out from under Darla. A knock on the door alleviated that uncomfortable impasse.

"One moment please," Jane said to Mina. "Enter."

Darla entered the room and stopped cold when she saw Mina.

Mina turned toward the shocked girl. "Ah, the spy returns to her master."

"Darla?" Jane questioned.

"We ran into Tom by the stables," Darla blurted, determined to tell the story first. "I couldn't introduce her as Benjamin, so I just said 'Mina'. I guess I remembered it from one of those books we were looking at the other day." Darla turned to the other girl, who stood relaxed and ready. Before she could address Mina, Jane interrupted.

"And you took exception to being called Mina and that is the source of the shouting I heard a few moments ago. You were already supposed to see me today about your language, Mina," Jane emphasized the feminine name for effect. Mina did not interrupt or even bristle at Jane's continued use of her name. She simply waited.

"Despite your sudden and considerable improvements, you will remain Mina and you will remain in feminine attire and accoutrements until I am sufficiently convinced that all your behavioral problems are corrected." Jane rose from her chair for emphasis and continued. "To have come as far as you have in so short a time, and then to throw it away in a fit of annoyance indicates there is considerable work yet to be done. Do you understand me?"

Mina remained unperturbed. "I would like the chance to give my side of the story. I believe the circumstances as I see them may reduce my punishment."

Jane considered the girl's request, though she had no intention of reducing her so-called punishment.

"Very well, proceed."

"I stand by my accusations, Ms. Thompson. Darla betrayed my trust and friendship by deliberately forcing me to be introduced to those men. I also believe she acted at your request. I believe she has reported our every moment together to you, her Aunt Jane.

"Yes, I lost my temper with her and yes, I used foul language in her presence and I understand that those are punishable offenses. But, I did demonstrate control and a cool head, things that I learned here.

"Return my clothing, belongings and identity to me and stop this masquerade. Then punish me as you see fit. I will dig rocks out of the garden by hand if that's what you order," the girl finished.

Jane considered and analyzed the persuasive oration. Where was this sudden growth spurt of maturity coming from? From the look on Darla's face, Mina had wounded her deeply with her completely accurate accusations. Coming so soon after James' expression of his own opinion would only reinforce the terrible things Darla must be feeling.

"Impossible," Jane finally decreed. "I think you overstate your improvements. I think that the moment you return to your masculine identity you will forget everything that you are painfully learning now. I also think the process must continue until we are all quite certain that your improvement is genuine and not simply a response to get your way."

"Ms. Thompson, I insist my belongings be returned," Mina asked emphatically.

"Mina, I have made my decision. There are other reasons, more practical reasons, as well. Most of your clothes I have sent away for cleaning and repair. So even if you did convince me, I can not do as you ask. But there is a more pragmatic reason than that. You have absorbed a certain number of expressions and gestures that are clearly feminine in nature. It takes some time to replace those gestures and mannerisms with your usual behavior, and since I was planning an outing into town tomorrow for us all, I can hardly have you dressed as a boy and acting like a girl. Better for you to dress as a girl and act like one too," Jane sprang the trap, "but if you insist, I'm sure something can be found that will at least look androgynous on you. We even have a short hairpiece so you won't look like some kind of GI Jane."

"If that is how you want it, I will try it, Ms. Thompson." The unspoken 'you'll be sorry' hung in the air.

"Then you are dismissed. Return to your room and clean up for lunch. After lunch, Marie will show you some new makeup techniques."

Mina curtsied elegantly, then strode from the room as though it were her own office. Jane looked at Darla. The girl was a wreck.

"Darla, go to my private rooms. I'll bring us a snack and we can talk there."

"Okay. Thanks, Aunt Jane," Darla said, leaving Jane to ponder this new turn of events. At least having a boy demand his clothing back was familiar territory to Jane. Though Mina would no doubt put a unique twist on the situation. Jane flipped on the monitor for Mina's room and checked in on the girl. She reclined on the bed, legs stretched out in front of her and arms folded across her chest. She stared at the door as though waiting for someone. Did she need to be watched, Jane asked herself? She did not seem at all inclined to kill herself, especially not after that display in Jane's office. Jane resolved to check frequently on the girl, but not to mount a full time watch of her. Then she headed for the kitchen.

By the time Jane arrived at her sitting room, Darla had either already cried or had staved off the tears that plainly wet her eyes.

"Tough day," Jane said, placing the platter on the low table.

"I don't know if I can do this again, Aunt Jane," Darla said, picking over the fruits, cookies and crackers before her.

"Pepsi or lemonade? That was all Marie had, unless you want some milk or tea."

Darla looked up at her more-than-aunt, "I must look pretty awful for you to mother me like this."

"I knew you'd snap back quickly, Darla, but I'm still concerned. Especially now. Let me guess. After the ringer James put you and Mark through, the last thing you needed was your new little sister to accuse you of being my spy and co-conspirator. The fact that the allegation is exactly true and denying it or defending yourself makes you a liar is even more disheartening. Am I right?"

"Right on the money. I don't see how I can be their friend anymore and also give my word that I'll never lie to them or spy on them. That's part of my job. I don't know why I never saw this before," Darla concluded.

"I had this discussion once before with Michael Nash, a bit before your face graced my halls. We discussed the telling of lies and revealing of truths in great detail. Finally, after excoriating me for lying to him, Michael realized that he would lie to protect his own children and he would lie to them as well, in order to keep them safe.

"So, I still have guilt pangs when I resort to a lie with one of my kids, but I try to put it in perspective and to judge my actions on what comes out of them."

"There's another thing to remember here. Good people are easily unbalanced by accusations of duplicity. Mina accused you of terrible things today, but one of the reasons her statements struck so hard is that you really want to be her friend, and you would be an honest and trustworthy friend as well and that is what really hurts."

"That's the problem, Jane, I can reconcile the two sides in my head, but in my heart or my guts...it just all comes to pieces," Darla paused to sip her drink. "This would not be as big a deal if my feelings weren't topsy- turvy right now. It doesn't help that she seems to know exactly the thing to say to really get to me."

Jane smiled wryly. "Yes, our Mina has a talent for cutting straight to the heart, even though I don't think she knows what she's doing. Could you imagine that ability in someone not fundamentally good natured?"

"So what do I do now? I have been rejected. Should I try to worm my way into her good graces again?"

"I think we can skip that part. Let Mina decide for herself that you care for her. Since she set herself up for it so well, I'm going to give her a dose of the heavy duty cosmetics and a trip to the mall. Our main problem is that Mina is right about her mannerisms. I don't think she'd have any trouble reverting back to Benjamin and vice versa when she wants to. That is scary. For now, let's go eat some lunch and let things sort themselves out a little bit."

Lunch passed in almost complete silence. Jane noted that Mina had indeed repaired her makeup and fixed her hair. She also cultivated an icy hauteur that would have done a princess proud. Who was this protean child, Jane thought, would the real Benjamin Peyton please stand up?

"Mina, return to your room with Marie. She will give you some more makeup tips. Darla, you are behind in your piano work, so spend some time in the conservatory reacquainting yourself with the instrument. Linda, help Rene in the kitchen. Dismissed."

As they each moved to their respective duties, Darla remembered something else he meant to tell Jane earlier. Darla caught her as she walked to her office and related the story of Darla's reaction to Allen Sullivan.

"Great," Jane murmured. "I knew he would have some kind of effect on our students. Thanks for telling me this, Darla. I guess I need to talk to him."

Jane returned to the kitchen and asked Rene to get Allen's attention and call him to his basement headquarters. Minutes later, Allen entered the cool basement through the outside door.

"Ms. Thompson," the man said, removing his sunglasses.

Jane noticed that they were alone for a change. Except for the interview in her office, they had not been alone together since she hired his agency. A moment later, Linda came down the stairs with lemonade for them all.

"Rene asked me to bring this down to you," the young woman said. Jane smiled to herself, wondering if perhaps Rene had staked a claim that even she was unaware of. That would explain a great deal, Jane thought to herself.

"Allen, Darla tells me that Benjamin, or Mina as we call her now, spoke to you rather oddly out by the stables today. Tell me what you heard and what you thought, please."

"Well, she stared at me in a very penetrating manner, then she asked me 'How do you do it?' twice. I really don't know what she was talking about. I hadn't planned on interacting with your students, but when I rounded the corner on them, there wasn't much I could do about it."

"No, I guess you did the right thing by speaking to them. If you have any ideas on what Mina was trying to ask you, let me know."

"Certainly," Allen replied, his own thoughts spinning.

Marie spent hours showing Mina every cosmetic trick she could remember. In that time, she successfully coated nearly every surface of Mina's face with the long duration theater makeup. The girl was in for a big surprise in the morning.

"Put something a little less casual on for dinner, Mina. Then straighten out your hair and join us in the dining room."

Dinner passed much the same as lunch, except that Mina spent considerable time glancing out the window. Jane recognized the search for Allen and wondered what the girl possibly wanted with the gardener. Jane pondered the girl, remarking several times about her improved manners. Mina showed no reaction to these comments, nor did Benjamin surface to protest them.

Jane pondered the new and latest transformation in her student. A girl capable of grace and charm who also possessed a viper's tongue and the cold blood it took to use it. On top of that, she maintained Benjamin's air of indifference with even less effort than he had. A plan to unnerve the child had been developed, though, and Jane looked forward to implementing it in the morning.
 
 
Chapter 14: First Blood - In Which the Attempts to Unnerve Mina Bear Fruit
 
"Up and at 'em, Mina. You're running late now. I guess you didn't hear Marie calling you." Jane's forced early morning cheer roused Mina from her slumber.

"Ms. Thompson? What are you doing?" Mina asked icily.

"Laying out your things for today. They are the best we could do on such short notice, but they should fit. Do you prefer to be called Mina or Benjamin while you are wearing them?" Jane asked sweetly.

"I shall decide that once I see how I look in them," Mina replied carefully. Inwardly she wanted to jump for joy, but at the same time she searched for the catch. Jane had laid out a pair of tan slacks, neatly creased with cuffs at the hem, a white shirt, a pair of loafers and a pair of white socks. Mina inspected each article in turn. The pants looked acceptable, though barely so. The shirt turned out to be a blouse, though not much else distinguished it from a boys white shirt. The socks were short and the fabric was thin, but Mina did not think anyone would be looking at her socks. The loafers were those idiotic brown penny loafers, complete with pennies. Mina had always thought they looked stupid. Sighing, she began to dress. Finally, she looked at the cap of dark blonde hair that had also been laid out and sneered, disdaining to put it on. Then she sat on the familiar vanity stool and stared.

Jane watched the girl dress from her office, waiting for the change. She noted the curled lip as Mina examined the hairpiece that had been selected for her. When the girl sat down at the vanity, Jane leaned forward toward the small screen, searching for detail. Mina sat for nearly fifteen minutes. Jane saw instantly that although Mina had sat down at the vanity, it was Benjamin that arose from it. Questions flooded into her head. Could Benjamin be so gifted an actor? Could he possibly have some undiagnosed mental disorder? Or was he so deeply embroiled in combating her that he did whatever necessary to protect whatever he defended by instinct? Jane made more notes on the pad and turned off the monitor.

"There you are, Mina. You better hurry or you'll miss breakfast entirely."

"Thanks Ms. Thompson. Could you call me Benjamin, at least once we get wherever we are going? It's bad enough that I can't seem to get this color off my face. I don't know why, I guess I never noticed it before," he said as he walked to the waiting breakfast table.

Jane watched him walk. Gone was the snakelike grace of Mina. Back was the devil may care posture of a young teenage boy. No, Jane thought, he's not going to have any trouble losing his 'swishiness' because he never had any in the first place.

Benjamin barely gobbled a piece of fruit and some toast before they packed into the big wagon. Everyone but the gardeners headed into town.

"Oh hell," Benjamin murmured softly as he examined his fingernails. "Darla," he asked the girl sitting next to him, "do you have a coin I could borrow for a few minutes?"

Darla looked at Benjamin, who waited patiently for her to reply. Is this the same boy who had spent the last several days apparently hating her guts?

"Sure, just a second," Darla answered as she rummaged around in her purse. As she handed the quarter to Benjamin she asked, "I didn't think you were speaking to me anymore, Benjamin?"

The boy sat up straight, suddenly tense. "We did fight, didn't we? I was wondering why you are being so quiet."

"You don't remember?" Darla asked incredulously.

Benjamin bit his lip, "Ummm, I called you a spy for your Aunt, didn't I? Ouch..."

Darla noticed Jane watching them in the mirror. She looked for some hint of what to do next, but Benjamin beat her to it.

"Are you a spy?"

"Of course not," she replied, color rising, "but if I see you doing something that's going to get you hurt, I'll tell Aunt Jane so fast..."

"I'm sorry, Darla, if I hurt your feelings."

"Thanks. Now, why'd you want that quarter?"

"Oh shi...ummm, I mean uh-oh," he yelped. Instead of telling her, Benjamin immediately bent to scraping at the pink nail polish still covering his nails.

"I don't think it's working," Darla observed. "Didn't Marie put some kind of topcoat on them?"

"I've seen cars that scratched easier than this. I don't suppose you have a knife or a blowtorch in that purse?" Darla shook her head, feeling momentarily sorry for him. "Oh well, I guess I'll tough it out with my hands in my pockets."

A short while later they arrived at the mall. Jane watched Darla chat with Benjamin as they walked to the entrance. She would need to separate the two of them for this trip to produce the desired results.

"Linda," Jane said to the watchful young woman. "Stay close to Benjamin when we separate. Let the locals pick on him a little but don't let things get out of hand."

"Ms. Thompson, we should all stay together," Linda pointed out.

"I'm aware of that, and that's why Rene is here with us today instead of just yourself. I'm afraid this is necessary for Benjamin's sake. We won't be far."

"I really don't like this, Ms. Thompson. I must confer." Linda moved over to Rene and they spoke together for a few moments. Neither of them took their eyes off of the surrounding cars and customers. Finally, Linda walked back to Jane.

"Rene thinks it will work okay, as long as we are not too far apart in the mall."

"Excellent."

Once the group entered the mall, Jane pointed to their first destination, Milady's Closet. Then she handed Benjamin ten dollars.

"You may not wish to accompany us Benjamin, and I know you have no money. In case you are still hungry, use that to get something," Jane said charitably, mentally adding 'and wave your cute little pink nails around as well.'

"Thank you, Ms. Thompson. I think I'll just sit down over there while you shop."

The party entered the store and a few moments later Linda came back out and sat down next to Benjamin, drawing a curious look from him.

"The sachet they use in there made me sneeze," she said, dabbing at her nose with a tissue. "Do you mind if I wait out here with you?"

"You don't have to, I wasn't planning to run away."

Linda smiled, "I don't know that I'd be able to stop you if you did." A few more silent moments passed, then Linda spoke again. "Benjamin? Do you always go by that or has anyone ever called you Ben or Benny or whatever?"

"I like my name just the way it is. Just the way my folks gave it to me." Ben decided not to recount all the times someone had tried just that. Many arguments in his past had arisen over just that issue. They sat in silence for a while longer. Benjamin sniffed the air frequently. The smell from the food court was getting to him.

"I can't take it anymore," he said aloud, then to Linda, "Can you help me?"

"What's wrong?"

"I want a pretzel and a coke, but I still have this damn polish on my fingernails. Would you take my money and go get them for me?"

Linda almost groaned. "How about you give me the money now and we both walk over together? No one will see your hands," she suggested. Benjamin agreed and off they went to stand in the short line.

"Aw, isn't that cute," jeered a voice from behind Benjamin. "Is that your mommy? Did she dress you up so pretty?"

Benjamin turned to see a boy of about sixteen standing maybe four feet away with several friends, both girls and boys.

"Is that a faggot boy or a really ugly butch dyke, Sammy?" the girl asked.

"Why don't you kids get out of here before I call security," Linda threatened. They were unimpressed at this threat and at Linda herself. Her disguise worked against her in this scenario.

"Why don't you find yourself a real man to play with, bitch?"

Benjamin had not moved since turning around. As he stared at the belligerent teen, time slowed to a crawl. His mouth opened to tell the creep to fuck off, but the other boy moved first.

"I think you should get out of here you little homo, before someone gets hurt," the boy threatened, jabbing his finger at Benjamin's chest for emphasis. As the finger, slightly dirty, Benjamin noticed, with grease under the nail, came back for another jab, Benjamin reached out and grabbed it with his left hand. Then he twisted his whole arm downward.

The boy screamed and dropped to his knees, but Benjamin continued to twist, threatening to break the bone.

"Hey you little fuck!" the girl yelled and jumped at Benjamin. He didn't even look at her as his foot lashed out and connected painfully with her hip. Even though the blow did not land on her abdomen, it still sent her sprawling. The other two boys started to move. Linda restrained the urge to go for her gun, slipping easily into a fighting stance instead.

"Stop," she told the boys simply. They regarded her for a moment. Although her stance appeared at odds with the attractive red and yellow dress she wore or the sweep of her dark hair, the boys saw she meant business.

"Benjamin," Linda urged calmly, "Benjamin! Let him go, Benjamin."

But Benjamin heard not a word. As the kneeling boy's screams increased in pitch and intensity, they also attracted attention.

"Benjamin, let go this INSTANT!" Jane commanded. Benjamin, whose thoughts were awash in darkness and rage, heard this order and reluctantly let go. He continued to stare at the sobbing teen and his stricken cohort. The girl he kicked managed to pull herself to her boyfriend's side.

"You're sick," she accused through her own tears. "What is wrong with you?"

She received no answer as Jane and Marie physically hauled their eerily silent ward through the food court and into Betty Franson's store.

"Betty, may we borrow your office for a moment?" Jane asked, not really stopping for permission.

"Of course Jane. Is he alright?" Betty fluttered, not sure she wanted this kind of incident in her store, but unwilling to inconvenience her best customer.

Jane and Marie dropped the still unresisting boy in a chair.

"This time you have gone too far," Jane started immediately. "You have proven that all your meek and mild behavior to date is a sham, a charade to fool me into thinking you are fit to rejoin society. You will remain Mina until I am convinced you are reformed. You will remain Mina until I believe you like it! Only then will I consider the possibility of returning you to your former identity," Jane knew she had come full circle, reverting to the form she usually used with difficult boys. She gauged Benjamin's reaction.

"Shields up," Darla whispered to Linda as they watched from the doorway.

Darla's observation proved accurate. Benjamin looked in Jane's direction, but his eyes focussed on some distant place. Her words and the emotion behind them had absolutely no visible effect on the boy.

"Betty, I must ask one more favor of you today. Do you have a service entrance here? Some quiet back door we can slip out through?"

"Certainly Jane, I receive stock and shipments through there. It opens into a loading area concealed by a large wall and some greenery," the woman replied, anxious to have the disruptive young man out of her establishment.

"Marie, bring the wagon around to that door. We'll meet you there. Betty, are any of your clerks in the back, or can we get out without being seen?" Jane asked, turning to her.

"Oh. I'll make sure no one is back there. Give me a moment." Betty hurried from the office. She returned moments later.

"All clear."

With that, the whole group hurried from the store. Jane still tugged Benjamin along, haranguing him all the way to the service door. They waited uneasily, with Linda and Rene warily scanning the area, until Marie pulled the wagon around.

The ride back to the estate passed in uncomfortable silence. Benjamin scanned the passengers once or twice, then folded his arms across his chest and leaned back into the seat.

"Linda, escort our young pugilist to my office. I will be there momentarily," Jane said as she exited the vehicle. "Marie, come with me please."

Darla let herself out of the car and looked around, unsure of what she should do. Tom and Allen were nowhere in sight and the dirty yellow backhoe sat idle amidst several piles of dirt and rock. She stood there until everyone else had gone into the house, appreciating the moment of solitude. Finally, the groundskeepers walked into view from behind the house. They each carried a bundle of stakes. Tom waved to Darla when he saw her looking.

"Gotta go in sometime," she said softly to herself, breaking the reverie.

Inside the house, Jane consulted with Marie in the kitchen while Linda and Benjamin waited in Jane's office. Jane fought her growing anger, both at herself and at the boy. Finally, she succeeded in attaining the calm, head mistress demeanor that had proved effective in the past, but would likely be wasted on Benjamin. Still, she would not give up on the boy. He had shown too many flashes of warmth and grace and compassion to be written off.

"Linda, wait outside please. I'll need to talk to you in a moment," Jane said as she entered her office. She noticed Benjamin slouched in the chair in front of her desk. "Stand up," she ordered.

Benjamin rose, making the effort look more like a haphazard arrangement of limbs than a milestone of human evolution. Jane recognized that something was absent from Benjamin that she had not expected. He had no apparent hostility toward her, yet. Nor was he tensed up like a spring about to pop either. She passed close enough to him to brush him with her arm, but he did not react. Interesting, Jane thought, hoping it was a sign of progress. It would be nice to salvage something out of the past week.

"You have no arguments to present, Mina? No threats to make?" Jane asked, walking around to her chair.

"Not really, Ms. Thompson," he replied, showing no reaction to the name Mina either.

"Are you even sorry that our trip was disrupted by your inexcusable behavior?"

"It was only a matter of time before someone decided I looked weird, Ms. Thompson. You knew that when we left this morning," Benjamin said, without anger or accusation.

Jane almost froze, where did this boy get his insight, she thought. "Yes, that was the test, Mina. Not whether you could change effortlessly from Mina to Benjamin, but whether you could use some other method than violence to defuse a confrontational situation. You failed the test."

"He was about to attack me, Ms. Thompson. Linda was there, ask her. If he'd jumped me things would have gotten a lot uglier."

"I intend to ask Linda in detail about the whole incident. But you forget, I was standing in the door of Ms. Franson's shop, watching the whole sorry affair transpire. I have the distinct feeling that you wanted him to attack you. You wanted an excuse to do violence to that boy. Can you deny that?"

Benjamin started to speak then stopped, shrugging.

"I see. Well, despite your articulate plea to the contrary, I believe my original program must be reinstated in full force. You will learn how to be a lady. In doing so, you will also learn how to control those baser impulses toward violence and aggression. Then you will return to your male identity vastly improved for the experience." Jane studied Benjamin's face, but could see no trace of reaction there.

"Very well. Return to your room, remove those clothes and put your robe on. Marie will be up to see you shortly."

Benjamin left without a word, leaving Jane to wrestle with the question of what the hell is going on. She reflected, starting from scratch and throwing away all assumptions about the boy. She sat in that fashion for a few minutes before a quiet cough interrupted her concentration.

"Linda! I'm sorry, I entirely forgot that I asked you to wait. Please, close the door and have a seat."

"Benjamin, I take it?" the woman asked.

"Who else? I wanted to hear your observations of the incident at the mall," Jane requested. Linda needed only a few minutes to complete her narrative, which Jane absorbed without question.

"More mystery. Thank you Linda, return to your duties."

Jane began a new page of notes, considering the things she had observed as she went along. Benjamin fought at the drop of a hat it seemed, but why did he fight, she asked herself. The answer, she concluded, was whenever he felt threatened. She listed the times when Benjamin had acted out or been close to it: when he discovered his clothes were gone, preceded, she remembered, by the incident at the table over sherry. Then Jane remembered the other incidents surrounding that first, terrible misunderstanding, the ripped robe and his threat to her.

Jane stopped, tapping the pen against the blotter. "He ripped the robe," she said aloud. He cut his hair, apparently on impulse, but what if that was done in anger rather than as a gesture of compliance. He also ruined at least half a dozen stockings before Marie discovered the hangnail. But a boy this smart should have realized that his fingernail was ripping the stockings.

Shivering slightly, Jane recalled the fall down the stairs. That had come right after the closest they had come to having a heart to heart talk. Could that have been deliberate? In a flash, Jane understood that virtually every action Benjamin had taken served to oppose her in some way. Even the appearance of Mina, with her icy airs, served not to transform Benjamin, but to resist something.

"He's been fighting his precious battle, his Stalingrad, since he got here," Jane said aloud, "but if he's fighting me, what in God's name is he defending?" Jane looked at the clock and wondered where the morning had gone. Before she could rise, Marie knocked on the door and announced lunch. Jane resolved to observe Mina during the meal and then to gather her troops for a session of analysis before anything else went wrong.
 
 
Chapter 15: Fact Finding - In Which Jane Makes a Serious Attempt at Unraveling an Enigma
 
Mina waited patiently by her chair. Though Jane had not given Marie any explicit instructions in how the girl should be dressed, Marie had accurately gauged Jane's wishes. Mina wore a pale blue dress with one petticoat beneath. Sheer white stockings covered her legs and dainty closed toe flats with narrow ankle straps rounded the ensemble out. Mina would blend perfectly at any summer garden party, Jane noted.

Jane also noticed Mina looking attentively out the window. "The work proceeds apace," Jane probed.

"Ma'am?" Mina asked.

"The work on the garden additions. It is coming along nicely, don't you think?"

"Oh. Yes, ma'am. How long before they are finished?"

"A few weeks I imagine." Jane watched the girl's expression become speculative. Remembering Mina's initial encounter with the gardeners, Jane knew that Mina looked for Allen. But why, Jane asked herself? Another subject for reflection she noted.

Marie, Rene and Darla entered bearing trays and pitchers. In deference to the growing heat outside, lunch consisted of light sandwiches, fruits and raw vegetables with either iced tea or lemonade.

Mina ate sparingly, conversing with Darla between nibbles. Darla had reached some accommodation with Mina's changeable nature. She simply accepted whatever persona Mina projected without question, reacting accordingly. Consequently, Darla no longer concerned herself with the fact that Mina had bitterly accused her of treachery and then apparently forgotten the entire incident. Maybe, Jane wondered, Darla had stumbled onto something.

"Ms. Thompson, may I take a walk about the grounds after lunch?" Mina asked as though permission were a foregone conclusion.

"Provided Darla or Linda accompanies you and you stay away from the groundskeepers," Jane answered. "You still have a great many lessons to take with us, Mina, so don't assume you will be strolling about at your leisure whenever you feel the urge.

"Also," Jane continued, "we need to something about your hair. I've arranged an appointment for you at the salon that Darla uses. They are accustomed to working with younger women. I expect that you will be on your absolute best behavior. Am I clear?"

"Of course, Ms. Thompson. When is the appointment?"

"Early tomorrow morning. That way you can get some hair extensions and look more like their typical patron before their regular appointments arrive," Jane concluded. She watched Mina carefully for any fear of being revealed as a crossdressed boy. She showed no reaction at all.

"I will help clear the table, then I would like that walk I requested," Mina spoke with an attitude just short of commanding.

"Linda, please accompany Mina. Darla, I would like to see you for a moment after the dishes are done."

Her small chore finished, Mina headed for the kitchen door with Linda close behind. Together they exited the house and strolled past the pool then out onto the vast lawn. Mina's thoughts spun slowly in her head. She needed to understand what Jane Thompson wanted of her in order to gain her release and avoid the renovation of her soul that she knew Jane intended. Mina knew that passing unscathed through this process and gaining the official stamp of government approval would benefit her in the long run. But the more she examined the problem, the more she believed that Jane Thompson would not be fooled, that she would hammer Mina until she had wrought the changes she desired.

Mina considered escape as a real option for the first time since arriving at the school. Escape presented an array of problems that required detailed planning to solve. Planning did not come easily to Mina.

"You planning to walk into town?" Linda asked quietly. Mina looked up. Her distracting thoughts allowed the distance covered to pass unnoticed. They were within a few yards of one of the stone walls that crisscrossed the countryside here. This wall separated the school grounds from a narrow road. The road in turn separated the wall from a thinly wooded tract of land.

"Not quite," Mina replied, as though she had actually meant to blunder into the wall. Mina turned to lead the pair in another direction and spotted Tom and Allen crouched in freshly dug earth near the house.

"Now you mean to camp here all night?" Linda asked with a smile, trying to lighten the question.

Mina whirled on the older girl, then stiffened, regaining her haughty composure. "I wondered what they are doing," she said. In fact, the men were doing something peculiar, spooning small amounts of dirt into various tubes and adding liquid to them.

"I'd say they are doing a soil analysis of some sort. I'm sure they don't want to plant a prize winning flower or something and have it die because the soil pH was wrong," Linda explained.

"Thank you," Mina said simply, then began walking again, but she did not take her eyes off the two men.

"Surely, they are not that fascinating?" Linda questioned.

"Maybe they are. Do you know them?"

"Only by name and in passing. They are likeable and polite, not much else to say about them."

Mina did not share Linda's opinion. She watched the two men until she could no longer stare without turning her head. By that time, they were nearly to the door.

"Thank you for your company, Linda," Mina said.

"Thank you, Mina. Next time I will be better company if you choose to actually converse."

Mina offered Linda only a tight-lipped smile, then headed to her room to wash and maybe change. Even as she approached the staircase, her mind returned to its previous track. How could she be rid of this place and this idiotic charade? As she passed the closed door to Jane's office, she could hear the voices from inside. Mina considered eavesdropping for a moment, then discarded the notion. She returned to her room and showered, thinking and humming while the hot water scoured away the morning's sweat.

Jane convened the impromptu meeting, "Anyone have any dramatic insights into our young martial artist?" Marie and Darla remained quiet. The speakerphone on the desk remained quiet as well, where Dr. Eric Davis waited on the other end of the long distance connection.

"Eric, is it possible that this boy has some kind of mild or undiagnosed personality disorder?"

"Hard to really make an evaluation of that sort without working directly with the boy. On the surface I'd say no, considering that he's been evaluated by professionals already. It seems you've come across a boy who has something else to defend than the kind of overblown male ego that leads boys to become your students, Jane. I think you are on the right track by trying to figure out what motivates his behavior."

"Let me lay out my line of thought regarding motivation. I think you'll see, Eric, that I have not interrupted your busy day for nothing." Jane proceeded to outline the various shifts in Benjamin's behavior and personality since his arrival at the school, including her speculation about his possibly self-destructive tendencies.

"Now are there any ideas?" Jane concluded.

"I'd like to point out how he's behaved around me," Darla added, "and how he seems to be entirely without fear of Jane's petticoat methods. He's said he feels stupid and thinks it's a waste of time, but he's never hinted at any fear of being dressed or at being revealed. I'm not saying he's not afraid, just that if he is, he doesn't show it."

"That suggests that there is something he fears more," Eric said.

"Or something he is protecting so fervently that all else pales in comparison," Jane put in. This theory grew in her estimation with each passing moment. In her mind she pictured a hurricane, swirling violently, curled around a calm center. She knew the analogy broke down quickly, since hurricanes did not protect anything, but the image seemed appropriate. She pictured Benjamin and Mina together, back to back, tightly defending something unseen.

Marie finally spoke, "The question to me is, are we doing anything to help the boy? If he does not respond to this treatment, are we qualified to do something else with him? I'd hate to see him in the custody of the prison system, even the juvenile system."

"That is the heart of the matter," Jane said, beating Eric who had started to say the exact same thing. "I think our best chance to uncover the better Benjamin is through Mina. We have more experience doing it that way and it may keep Benjamin off balance enough to open his heart to us."

"I guardedly agree with you, Jane," Eric put in quickly. "I think you've been through enough recently not to just assume your way is the best and I trust your judgement. I am concerned about the child's apparent self-destructive behavior, though and that is specialty of mine. If you need me to visit, in any capacity, or if she should have any more mysterious accidents, please call me," Eric said, voicing his major worry.

"Thank you Eric, your continued support means so much to me. Well, if no one else wants to speak, I think we're finished." Jane clicked off the phone and turned to her cadre. "Okay then. I want the all out overdrive feminization effort. If we can't embarrass, humiliate and just plain scare this boy, we can possibly make such a lady out of him that he will trust one of us to the point that he admits someone to that guarded place inside him. Let's work out a few details."

The meeting continued for another thirty minutes as Jane, Darla and Marie developed a real program for turning Mina into a lady. There would be ballet, piano, various outings and some form of exercise, lest the whole school fall out of shape. Jane felt a renewed surge of confidence as her conspirators left the office to begin the new plan. How could Mina fight back if Jane did not directly threaten her? But another doubt nagged at her, wriggling into her tightly woven plan. What if the person we need to break through to Benjamin is outside right now, working in the garden?

"Or what if I only think he is the right person," Jane asked herself quietly.

Mina turned the water off. Whatever else you could say about Jane Thompson and her school, the hot water never ran out. She had reflected and searched in comforting isolation, and now, singing quietly to herself, she dressed, ready to face the enemy. She recognized that her thoughts had wandered far and wide since her first day at this school. Her feelings had been battered and torn and that had distracted her. She knew the goal, but until now the method remained unclear.

She had to talk to the strange gardener. He offered hope for something other than a future of annihilation. She had to fight Thompson's attempts to change her, while at the same time leading her to believe she changed. Or, Mina thought, fight until she could run away, preferably after a chance to talk to the man.

Looking in the mirror, Mina felt a pang of anxiety. What if she was failing even as she planned her fight? Was she not already looking and behaving like the perfectly prissy little girl that Thompson wanted? Mina examined the mirror carefully, pushing the darkness away once again. The darkness wanted her to believe she was losing this battle, the darkness wanted her to give in. Mina fought the darkness, the rage that threatened to consume her, but she would not give it up either. It remained a part of her for better or worse.

"You are thinking of yourself as a girl," Mina accused the mirror, worried that some corruption of her being crept in unnoticed. "Or is that bullshit about having two sides really true? You are me, whoever you are. You are who it's going to take to get the hell out of here, because if you aren't," Mina paused, finger stabbing toward the mirror the same way the bully's finger had stabbed at Benjamin, "you're dead already."

A knock on the door put a hasty end to Mina's threatening behavior.

"Mina? Darla and Marie here. May we come in?" Darla called through the closed door.

"Enter," Mina said, consciously imitating Jane Thompson.

"We are to help you dress," Marie said. "Ms. Thompson wants to introduce you to more formal attire. We will perform several changes between now and dinner and also work on walking in a higher heeled shoe."

"I see," Mina exhaled loudly. "Lead the way then." Darla exchanged a brief glance with Marie before asking Mina to sit at the vanity. As she worked with Mina's wig she tried to analyze the newest and subtlest shift in Mina's outward appearance.

"I know you'll be glad to get rid of this thing tomorrow," Darla said cheerfully. "I've heard extensions are a pain to start with, but they'll be so much cooler and more natural than this thing," she continued as she styled the artificial hair. Mina said nothing, so Darla tried a new approach.

"Are you mad at me for something, Mina?" she asked bluntly.

"Of course not Darla. I was angry with you earlier, but that was my own mistake. You have been very kind to me and I am grateful for your assistance," Mina said evenly as her eyes met Darla's in the mirror. Marie paused in her wardrobe search, looking over her shoulder at Darla.

"In fact, I've been thinking about that unfortunate incident. If there is anything I can do to make up for my behavior, please let me know, and if you are willing, I'd like your company next time I get to walk outside."

"Why, thank you, Mina," Darla stammered. "That is very thoughtful of you." Darla noticed Marie's study of them, but could make no signal that Mina would not see.

"Here we go," Marie said triumphantly. "Your basic black. This dress will require a number of petticoats beneath it, but this one," she said, holding out her left arm, "is more like a grown lady's dinner dress, you may not even be wearing a slip beneath it." Marie deliberately chose the two opposite extremes of dressing to gauge Mina's reactions. Each presented an opportunity to arouse various senses and possibly stimulate a sensual reaction. As Benjamin, their student did not seem to even notice the various sensations associated with his attire, but perhaps Mina would be different.

"I will let you help pick out shoes Mina. It is not enough to just wear what you are told. You must be able to organize your own appearance," Marie added. "Why don't you start by selecting the appropriate foundation for this dress." Marie expected Mina to ask what a foundation was, but instead the girl calmly began sorting through the various items of underwear in the chest.

"Excuse me for a moment," Darla said, leaving the room abruptly. While Mina discussed underwear with Marie, Darla crept down the stairs to Jane's office.

"I think you should see this if you're not watching already," Darla said quietly. Jane looked up from the column of notes scribed on the paper and powered up the monitor.

"Oh my," she voiced softly. "Marie is going all out, isn't she. Mina doesn't look happy but she doesn't look like she's putting up a fight either."

"I guess that depends on what you consider a fight. She apologized to me for that 'unfortunate incident'. Do you realize that so far she's been furious with me, forgotten we ever fought, remembered only after I reminded her and then graciously, if somewhat condescendingly, apologized for the whole event. Now she's up there letting Marie play dress up and although she's not making a big stink out of it, she isn't exactly full of joy to be there. I can't tell where the Benja-Mina ends and where the act begins." Darla fairly fumed.

"Is that why you left?" Jane asked.

"Not really. She had to change underwear and I thought I should leave. It made a good excuse anyway," she grinned sheepishly.

"Maybe I should go up and make a surprise visit," Jane wondered aloud. "But I don't want to interfere with Marie's plan. I think I know what she's up to."

"What? Trying to see if Mina will get even slightly aroused by having all that slick satin and silk wrapped around her? That reminds me," Darla suddenly remembered, "I did catch her looking at Linda a few days ago. I should have told you right away but it slipped my mind."

"Looking how?"

"Openly and appreciatively. Like he'd never noticed how pretty she is," Darla replied trying to remember the details. "Linda even said something about it but I don't remember what it was. Something like Benjamin was staring because Linda was wearing last summer's fashion. She didn't jump his case about it."

"Thanks Darla. I know this one has been tough on you. You are doing a wonderful job," Jane said as she glanced at the monitor. "You need to get back to Mina though, she'll probably want your help to get down the stairs."

Darla kissed her aunt on the cheek and returned to Mina's room. She stopped in her tracks at the sight of the new girl.

"I leave you two for five minutes!" Darla exclaimed, staring at the transformed Mina. The tight bodiced black dress outlined her lean figure perfectly while the layers of petticoats buoyed the skirts airily, somehow lightening the dark color. Black stockings and black, lace-up ankle boots with at least three inches of heel added to the overall effect.

"I take it you approve?" Marie asked sweetly. "I was going to throw in a pair of gloves, but I thought that might be overdoing it, but wait until you see what I have planned for her hair. Come, sit down Mina."

Mina complied as quickly as her shoes allowed, taking the short, mincing steps valued by Jane in her pupils. Marie immediately began to gather and manipulate Mina's dark blonde hair.

"This would look even better with your natural red color," Marie noted. The hair that had fallen past Mina's shoulder was now pulled up and back, exposing her pale neck. Mina looked at her reflection. Darla waited for the weirdness to start, but Mina actually seemed to be looking at her dress and hair. Darla's silent cheer died quickly though.

"Now what?" Mina asked Marie. Her voice contained more than a hint of the chill that Mina used so effectively.

"You do your makeup and then go see Ms. Thompson," Marie answered, giving no hint that she had caught the chill from Mina. The girl reached for a bottle but Marie interrupted.

"Not that one, Mina, it's too dark," Marie corrected. "Do you remember our discussion of color the other day?"

"No."

Here it comes, Darla thought, convinced she could feel cold fury rolling off the girl in waves.

"If you don't help me," Mina said evenly, "all this will be for nothing," she gestured at the dress. Darla could not decide whether her statement contained a threat or a plea for help.

"Okay, but you must pay attention so you can do this yourself," Marie relented. Marie selected the proper combination and coached Mina in its application.

"There, time to present yourself," Marie said cheerfully. Darla's admiration of the woman's composure jumped a notch. Mina rose and walked to the door.

"Do you need some help with the stairs?" Darla asked.

"That would be nice," Mina replied, apparently unconcerned about the coming descent. Darla walked beside Mina, holding her hand and arm while Mina lightly touched the banister.

Mina looked down from the top step, thoughts whirling. A slip now and they would both tumble down the long staircase. She carefully planted her left foot on the next step, then moved the right one down beside it.

"Mina?"

Her grip on the rail remained light, just a faint touch as her foot lifted and dropped softly to the next stair. She felt the heel of her right boot catch slightly on the step as she moved it to match the left.

"Mina?"

Her left foot dropped again. Only the faint whisper of fabric could be heard as she moved, like the rustling of a breeze. Her right heel caught on the corner of the step as she moved her foot. The familiar roaring sound filled her ears.

"Mina!?"

Mina planted her weight on that tangled foot, snapping the boot heel and catapulting her forward. Her brief flight was interrupted as Darla's free arm whipped behind her to catch the banister, tilting them both at a crazy angle. Darla's muscles strained as she refused to give up her hold on the other girl. Seeing no other way to stop them both from hurtling down to the floor, Darla planted her feet and wrenched hard. They both sat down with a thud.

Mina saw the tears on Darla's face and the painful arch of her back. "Marie! Ms. Thompson! Somebody come quick!" she yelled. Instantly the stairs were crowded with people. The muscles in Darla's back hurt like fire. Mina awkwardly got out of the way as Jane and Marie examined the girl.

"She saved me," Mina explained. Darla's teeth were clenched tightly and she did not seem able to explain for herself. "She grabbed me when I fell, my shoe broke, see?"

"Okay Mina, get back up the stairs and let us look, okay." Jane tried to calm the child. Rene and Linda looked up from the bottom of the stairs.

"Is someone hurt?" Rene called.

"Darla hurt her back," Jane answered. Jane got up to call the nurse and found herself face to face with Rene.

"Let me see. I was an EMT before this," she said, kneeling beside the girl. Linda returned, holding the icepacks Rene had told her to get even before she saw what was wrong.

"Try to relax, Darla," she said as she gently felt along the girls back. The muscles between the back and shoulder were knotted and tender.

"She's strained some muscles back here, maybe even torn something. Give me that ice and get some of that Advil from the kitchen drawer. Darla gritted her teeth even harder as the ice pressed against her abused muscles. Finally the pain abated enough for her to speak.

"Mina? Where is she?"

"Linda took her to her room. She seemed quite distraught," Jane answered.

"Keep an eye on her. S'no accident," she slurred.

"What?" Jane struggled to keep her voice low.

"Don't think this was accident," he repeated as Rene returned with a small black suitcase.

"I'm not a doctor, Ms. Thompson, but I have had a lot of training. I can give her something for the pain and I don't think the vertebrae are involved, but we will need to be careful moving her until an x-ray can be taken."

"X-ray," Jane said, realizing that Darla would have to become Daryl again.

"Yes ma'am. If you want to be absolutely sure that the injury is just to the muscles and not the spine, she'll need an x-ray...oh damn," Rene swore, realizing for herself what Jane had a moment before.

"Do what you can and I'll get Tom to bring a board in here to move him the rest of the way down the stairs." Jane walked away, trying to sort the multitude of impressions and accusations in her mind. Marie followed her long time friend.

"Get his clothes and do the fastest teardown you can without hurting him. Make sure Linda keeps Mina in her room. We'll take Darryl out through the kitchen door, put him in the wagon and get him to the doctor."

"And Mina?" Marie asked, having heard Darla's accusations.

"We'll deal with her when we get home. Linda stays here with her. You and Rene go with me to help Darryl. Tell Linda to keep both eyes on that girl. I can't believe she'd deliberately try to hurt Darla, but I can't believe Darla would make something up like that," Jane shook her head.

Within minutes Darla had turned back into Darryl, though with rather long hair. Carefully, the two men loaded him into the wagon and Jane pulled away. Jane benefited from her fairly high visibility in this small New England community. Although doctors did not just drop everything to see Jane's ward, their staff exhibited a certain helpfulness in getting a spot scheduled immediately with someone. This resulted in Darryl being put on a gurney and wheeled directly into an examining room upon arrival at an orthopedist's office.

A short while later, Jane sat with the doctor and discussed Darryl's injury. Darryl himself was in the next room, receiving praise from various nurses and technicians for saving his cousin from a nasty spill down the stairs.

"Ms. Thompson," the doctor began formally, "your young man has suffered a mild strain to the muscles that connect his back to his shoulder." The doctor paused to show Jane the appropriate location on a wall chart. "The good news is there is no damage to his spine or any other connecting structures. Ice and anti-inflammatory medication for the swelling, something else for the pain if necessary and plenty of rest should fix him up in short order. And no rescuing damsels in distress for at least three weeks."

"Thank you Doctor Perkins," Jane said as she nodded and the doctor gave her a card with his various numbers.

Marie walked over to the nearby pharmacy while the nurses loaded Darryl into the car.

"Darryl," Jane began, trying not to show her anxiety.

"No, I'm not sure," he answered, knowing what the next question would be.

"Then why'd you say it?"

"Because I thought she did it on purpose, but now that I think about it some more, I just don't know."

"Tell me everything from the very start," Jane commanded softly.

"Well, she was on her way to present herself to you. I went with her because I thought she had a thing about the stairs now. I asked her if she wanted help and she said yes, a little nicer than her ice princess mode. I held her hand and she held the rail, but she didn't seem scared at all. Then she just kind of tuned out. I said her name, but she just kept going, then she put her foot down kind of funny and toppled. The next thing I knew is she was sitting on the step below me yelling for you and trying to help me.

"Maybe it was the pain talking, but I just can't shake the feeling that she fell on purpose," Darryl finished. Jane pondered his words while Marie walked back to the car.

"Well?" she asked, apparently perfectly aware that something extraordinary was going on.

"Do you feel up to being Darla again for a while?" Jane asked the sleepy young man.

"As long as we stay out of the dance studio. I suppose it's that or tell her I'm in the hospital while I stay somewhere else?"

Jane nodded, thinking furiously.
 
 
Chapter 16: Questions and Answers - In Which We See Some Wishes Half Fulfilled
 
Tom and Allen watched the wagon pull away with the stricken boy inside. For a moment, they looked curiously at each other, wondering how the other felt about all the unusual methods and lessons employed by Jane and her associates. Neither voiced their questions.

"We made a mess," Allen said, looking back through the open door and into the foyer. In the rush to help, no one had noticed the dirt they tracked into the scrupulously clean house.

"All the help left with Miss Jane," Tom said. "Guess we should clean it up. Good thing it's dry dirt and not mud," he grinned. Both men untied their boots and left them on the steps, then brushed loose dirt from their coveralls.

"I'll get a broom," Tom said, walking toward the kitchen. Allen walked carefully through the foyer and to the stairs, surveying the extent of the mess. He walked carefully to avoid grinding the dirt into the rug or scratching hardwood.

"I thought I heard you and Tom prowling around down here," Linda said from the top of the stairs.

"We thought we should clean up the mess we made before Ms. Thompson gets back, or more importantly, before Rene gets back," he said without a smile.

Mina appeared beside Linda, moving quietly on her stocking feet.

"Mr. Sullivan, can I talk to you?" Her words came out in a rush. Linda put her hand on Mina's arm.

"You're supposed to stay in your room, Mina," Linda said, but Mina did not hear her. For Mina, there were only two people in the world at that moment.

"Mr. Sullivan, please, I have to know. You have to tell me."

Allen caught a warning look from Linda. "I'm sorry Miss Mina. I'm not to have much to do with the students. It's not proper."

Linda caught Mina before she could launch herself down the stairs at Allen. "Mina, stop that this instant!"

"But he knows! You know! You have to help me..." Allen did not hear the rest since he walked outside and shut the door. He put his boots on and waited for Tom.

"I'm sorry Tom, I couldn't stay."

"That's okay, I heard most of it. What do you suppose she means?" Tom asked curiously. Life was never dull at the Thompson Academy, he thought, even for old gardeners.

"No idea," Allen replied, wondering the same thing himself. "I'll have to talk to Ms. Thompson when she returns." Allen rose, feeling uneasy. There was something in the boy's plea that gave him an odd feeling. "Let's get back to work."

"That's the spirit," Tom said, clapping the other man on the shoulder. They walked together to the site of the expanded gardens. The rocks near the surface had been dug out of the earth and replaced with rich soil. The whole area had been plowed and disked again. Now Allen marked the spots for individual plants and beds while Tom held the drawing and directed him.

They watched the wagon return and pull around back. The two men walked to the house, expecting to carry Darryl up to his room, but the wagon was empty. Later they learned that Darryl had insisted on walking for himself. Jane appeared at the kitchen door before they reached it.

"Thank you for cleaning up the dirt in the front hall. Rene just made a pitcher of lemonade and I think you should have a glass. Allen, I need to see you for a moment please." Jane turned and led the way to the basement door. Linda waited for them at the table.

"I understand Mina had more words for you today when you were in the house," Jane said once they were all seated.

"Yes," Allen said simply where other men might have protested their innocence.

"Do they mean anything to you?"

"No."

Jane sighed and leaned back in her chair. "If I thought it might help her to talk to you, would you be willing to do it?"

Allen did not answer immediately, an action which told Jane all she needed to know. "If you thought it would help, but I am no counselor, Ms. Thompson. I have no idea what has gotten into the child's head."

Jane sensed the tiny unease present in the otherwise unflappable Sullivan. She wondered what could make a man like that so wary of a teenage boy.

"I will think about it," Jane said.

"If you will, wait a moment, we can cover our other business as well," Allen suggested. He checked the computer, fax and voice mail, quickly digesting the information they presented. "That gang is on the move. Between Mr. Walters and my investigators, they've located a farm in Ohio where the gang laid up for a while. My guess is they are in New England already, if they are still coming at all," he said as he handed a sheaf of faxes and printouts to Jane.

Jane did not need to ask the question. Allen quickly said, "We tighten our lines move people into the area. Leave Mr. Walters and one of my men following the trail, bring the rest of them into Westbury where they may do us some good. Is there any reason why we couldn't bring a little more help onto the grounds?"

"I would rather not, Allen. I expect they would just delay their plans or maybe quit them altogether. That is almost as bad as facing them. Call me if anything else develops." She walked back up the stairs for a heart to heart with Mina. She doubted that she would learn anything.

In another town nearby, a group of men and boys met in a cheap motel room. They studied photographs and maps. Four of them sat around another table, listening to Keith explain their role in the plan.

"There won't be any police, at least not right away. I made sure this bitch knows were coming and the police will be a lot closer to her mansion than to a little piss ant bank on the opposite end of the town." The four nodded at the logic, gratifying Keith with their stupidity. It would be a miracle if these four idiots managed to rob the bank.

"But when the alarm goes off at the bank, after you're gone," he emphasized, "the police will come running. Then we pick this rich whore clean and meet to divide the money." This time Keith fed them half the truth, their main job was to draw the police to the bank and get killed. Of course there was a small chance they would actually escape with some money, which was fine with Keith.

"Okay, study these maps and photos and come up with a plan. I gotta talk to these guys," Keith said warmly. He caught CC looking at him, trying to erase the slight tinge of mistrust that colored his expression.

"What do you think?" he asked the crowded table. They looked up from maps and notes.

"Looks like a picnic," Davvy said, "especially after all that bullshit army training you put us through."

"Making you run across a field until you could do it without seeing black spots wasn't bullshit. I want to be ready, just in case. They have one fat rentacop watching at night. Who's to say they haven't got one or two stashed in the house. Fuckin' place is big enough..."

"Okay, okay man. Can't make a fuckin' joke..." Davvy said.

"When are we going?" CC asked quietly.

"In a few days. Got some things to check out first." That ended the conversation and the group split back up and headed to separate motels in twos and threes.

Mina lay on her bed, looking over the edge at the floor. So close, she thought. He stood right in front of her, but it never occurred to her that he might not want to talk. A knock sounded at the door.

"Enter," Mina said, feeling foolish. She would have to pile furniture in front of the doorway to actually keep anyone out.

Jane Thompson strode into the room, trying to feel energetic. In truth, she wanted to lay down and take a nap.

"I suppose you know by know that Darla will be fine, after a few days rest," Jane tried to project warmth in her voice.

"Yes, Ms. Marie told me. I'm so sorry Ms. Thompson," Mina said sincerely.

"Yes, you seem to have terrible trouble with the stairs. What were you thinking?"

"What?"

"Darla said she called your name several times, but you continued down the stairs as though dazed. What is on your mind could possibly distract you under those circumstances?" Jane asked again.

"I wasn't distracted. I was being careful. I was only moving one foot one step at a time, then the heel caught and that was that. I don't know how Darla managed to catch me, but I am glad she did." Mina turned away, "But I'm sorry she's hurt on my account."

"Is the gardener causing your mind to stray like that, Mina?" Jane asked, deliberately changing her approach. Mina remained absolutely motionless, even her breathing seemed to stop. "Well?" Jane repeated. "I heard about your strange conversation with him and I want to know why you find a man you don't even know so fascinating."

"Conversation?" Mina snorted. "He wouldn't even talk to me," she said, still not turning toward Jane.

"What is so important that you must discuss it with a total stranger?"

"No."

"No?" Jane echoed. "Really, Mina? I think that given time, you will tell me. Why don't you just do it now and save yourself the trouble?"

"Or what? Send me back? Maybe put me in baby clothes next? How about a cow suit? I can stay outside in the field all day getting in touch with my cow side."

Neither Benjamin nor Mina had displayed such biting sarcasm before, but Jane took in stride. She appeared to be considering the options Mina presented.

"No, I don't think a cow suit is going to work. You would make a lean cow and I simply don't know where to find diapers in your size. But I do know where to find dresses and high heels and maybe a corset or two. I'm not doing this for punishment's sake, Mina. I'm doing it to help you. But if you don't want help then there's really not much more I can do for you or even to you. Think it over and maybe you'll decide you can talk to me after all." Jane left the room with one backward glance. The girl was the picture of misery and confusion. Jane took no joy in Mina's predicament, but she did feel glad to see her expression. She hoped it would lead to a resolution soon.

Mina felt so low that she barely touched her dinner and was excused early for bed. Jane thought that letting the girl ponder her own thoughts would bring about the opening she needed.

Jane visited with Darla, Linda and Rene. She actually managed a pleasant conversation with Rene. Jane could see that the woman did not approve of the activities of the school. More importantly, Jane realized she was right about her estimation of Rene's attraction to Allen Sullivan and her viewing of Jane as a potential rival for his affections. Subtly, Jane signaled her non- participation in that particular contest and silently wished the other woman luck. A stone might be more responsive than Sullivan.

Finally, and with Maxine in attendance, Jane met with Allen for the second time that day. He had no news. He had been in contact with the local police and sheriff's department though, for what good it might do.

"Any other thoughts on our young charge?" Jane asked. She had considered the same question for most of the day and had finally concluded the answer was somewhere in Allen. Something about him attracted Mina's attention. What did Mina want, Jane wondered? The answer to that question, Jane realized, would be something within Allen himself.
 
 
Chapter 17: Bad Hair Day - In Which An Unfortunate Misunderstanding Occurs
 
Yesterday had been so eventful that Mina had forgotten all about the promised, or threatened, visit to the salon. At least she forgot until Marie cheerfully woke her up at 6:00 in the morning.

As before, Marie put her hand on Mina's shoulder when the girl would not wake up. Mina rolled out of the bed with amazing speed.

"Good morning Mina," Marie said with a smile. "You must get dressed for your hair appointment today."

"I wish you would stop doing that," Mina replied.

"I wish you wouldn't sleep like the dead, Mina," Marie retorted. Marie turned to the wardrobe. "Let's see. We've tried black. And green. I don't think red or pink are your colors and we've tried blue as well. I think we'll go back to this one," Marie said as she pulled the lacy cream colored horror out of the oversized closet.

"Thank you Marie. I can dress myself," Mina said hopefully. Marie looked carefully at the girl, almost studying her.

"I'll be in the kitchen if you need me," Marie answered. Mina smiled back at the woman and then watched thankfully as she left the room. A dark tide surged up in Mina and she barely resisted the urge to shred the obnoxious dress and set fire to the room. Instead she took a shower.

Mina descended the stairs without concern and made her way to the dining room.

"Mina," Marie met her in the room, "carry this up to Darla please." Mina took the tray from the woman and returned to the second floor. She knocked on the door.

"Please let that be breakfast," Darla replied from inside. Mina carried the tray in and set it up. The other girl carefully made her way up to a sitting position.

"I'm sorry," Mina said, still avoiding Darla's eyes.

"What happened?" Darla asked.

"I fell, but you saved me," Mina replied dully. Her eyes began to fill with tears and she blinked, thinking the hard thoughts that had always kept her from crying before.

"You should have let me go," Mina finally finished. "I don't deserve friends like you." With that, Mina quietly left the room. Darla sat in stunned amazement for a moment.

"Oh shit," she said, stabbing at the intercom button.

Mina pushed her food around the plate and looked up as Jane hurried into the room, dressed only in a robe and with her wet hair hanging down her back. Jane stopped so fast she nearly tipped over.

"Where have you been?"

"I took Darla's breakfast up to her. Marie asked me to do it," Mina replied, not really wanting to deal with another lecture from Ms. Thompson.

"And is Darla feeling better this morning?" Jane asked.

"I couldn't really tell. She sat up in bed to eat though. I suppose that's an improvement." For an instant, Mina hovered on the edge of telling Jane everything, starting with her apology to Darla. The moment died quickly though.

"I'm sorry Ms. Thompson. Seeing Darla like that, because of me...I just don't feel hungry right now. May I be excused?"

Jane sighed, "Of course child, go lay down or maybe read. We'll be leaving for town shortly." Jane watched the girl leave. She knew they had been close, if only for a second.

"Marie," Jane called into the kitchen, "I need your help for a moment."

"Good morning," Marie greeted her long time friend.

"Good morning," Jane replied. "Can you come upstairs with me for a few minutes?" When they reached her suite, Jane explained Darla's fear that Mina might hurt herself. Marie settled in to watch the monitor while Jane finished showering and dressing.

Mina had returned to her room by the time Marie began her watch. Marie felt the same sudden nausea that Darla had felt weeks ago. Mina was stretched out on the floor. Before Marie's heart had a chance to really stop, she noticed the girl's foot twitched, keeping time to some music that played only in Mina's head. Mina did not otherwise move the entire time Marie watched.

"Well, how is she?" Jane asked as she entered from her bathroom.

"Look for yourself," Marie said, shaking her head.

"Dammit! That is almost exactly the way Benjamin was on his first day here. Don't tell me we've been chasing our tails in a circle!" Jane paused for a moment to calm down. "Okay, we go ahead with the plan. Go into to town and try to have a nice time, maybe loosen her up a little. I'll take Linda. You stay here and tend Darla if she needs it." Jane left to round up her girls.

Mina remained quiet and withdrawn during the drive to Marisha Chalet. This gave Jane time to think and Linda time to watch every passerby without distraction.

The mall was closed when they arrived, but the shop's private exterior door was unlocked. Carolyn Beale greeted the small group near the door, looking carefully at both Linda and Mina.

"Let me see what's left of your real hair, Mina," Carolyn asked. Mina glanced at Jane.

"It's okay, Mina. Carolyn is an old friend of mine," Jane said. Mina quickly interpreted that to mean that Carolyn knew that she was actually Benjamin stuffed into an increasingly annoying silk, satin, taffeta, linen, lace and jacquard shell. Mina tugged the wig from her head.

"Could you trim this up a little?" she asked. "It's grown out some in the last few weeks." Mina stared at the woman defiantly. Jane laughed softly at her joke, figuring it was the last reaction Mina would expect from her.

"We need to go the other way, Mina. At least for a while," Jane replied.

Carolyn smiled politely and said, "From what I can see, you have a very nice color. Why children are hacking their hair off these days, I have no idea. Anyway, we should be able to match it without difficulty. My partner," Caro gestured at the woman who had just entered the room, "will take care of attaching the extensions and styling you. I will do a little makeover on you to match the new color. Unless, you want to keep this color," Caro asked skeptically.

"I don't really care."

"Now that's no way for a lady to act," Sandy spoke up. "Your hair is terribly important to you. You might spend hours trying to get it to look just so."

"Mina, this is Sandy. As I said, she'll be doing the extensions and the style."

"And she has a bit of a mouth," Jane warned, her comment intended more as a reminder for Sandy than a warning for Mina. She had talked to Sandy already about the special and possibly dangerous nature of this case, but old habits, and pleasures, died hard.

"Don't worry," she winked, "I'll be gentle. Come along Mina, we have work to do." Mina took one more look at Jane before following the stylist.

Sandy studied the girl-boy carefully. In the past, she had enjoyed slamming home the reality of their feminized state to Jane's students. She possessed a seemingly endless supply of caustic wit and barbed comments, all designed to terrify the poor boys into complete submission. Recent and bitter experience had forced Sandy to reassess her role in these little dramas and to be a little more selective in her taunts and methods.

Even without Jane's report on this boy, Sandy could tell that Mina was an odd bird. She felt an unfamiliar moment of uncertainty.

"How do you like it so far?" she asked, probing. "Kind of sexy, I think. The feeling of those soft, slippery fabrics and all the time you get to spend playing with your hair and skin care."

Mina looked at the short-haired woman in her blue jeans and comfortable blouse. "Trade you," she offered. Sandy smiled, she liked the scared ones a lot, but she really liked the lively ones.

"Are you sure? Sometimes a guy gets a taste of the other side and decides to stay. You don't exactly look uncomfortable in those clothes. I thought you might be a natural sissy boy."

Jane listened warily from a nearby chair. Sandy was only warming up, but Jane could see the caution or maybe uncertainty she exercised. Sandy finished washing and drying what was left of Mina's natural hair.

"You are going to look fabulous with this hair. I have to glue it to your scalp, but once it's on, we'll be able to style it and play with it just like it was real. By the time I'm done, you'll turn the head of every boy in town." Sandy nodded with satisfaction when Mina went rigid in her chair. "I don't think you like that idea, my little swishy boy. I've heard about your problems with women, Mina. Doesn't seem so funny now that the high heel is on the other foot."

Mina barely heard Sandy's last comment. Her head had filled with a single sound, the sound of all the keys being pressed at once on the biggest pipe organ in the world. Mina tensed, trying not to explode on the sadistic woman. Jane might not be sick, she finally concluded, but this one surely was. Sandy's words drifted down through Mina's consciousness.

"I never treated a girl that way! Never!" Mina said through clenched teeth.

"Whoa there, studly girl. You telling me you don't look at girls? That's kind of hard to believe, unless of course you like being one instead."

Mina fought with herself. She wanted to fly at the woman, fists and feet swinging. She knew she could not, must not, if she ever wanted to get out of here with her soul intact.

From her chair, Jane watched the tension and rage drain from Mina's face. She saw Mina whisper something to Sandy and then she watched as Mina shifted into indifference. She seemed to no longer be acknowledging even her own presence in the room. Jane's gaze shifted to Sandy's face. Sandy wore a look of slight consternation followed by an uneasy smile that reminded Jane of whistling in a graveyard. Jane found these observations enlightening, since she had not had the chance to simply observe Mina before.

Sandy peppered her conversation with increasingly inflammatory remarks, all to no avail. She also pulled the hair extensions a little harder than needed, which was the only thing that stirred Mina from her trance.

"You're hurting me," Mina said dully.

"Beauty always has a price, Mina. Another lesson the young ladies learn early in life," Sandy remonstrated.

Mina thought about telling Sandy just what she thought of her and her stupid commentary when she saw the pin. Wedged between the bar holding the arm of the chair and the seat was a straight pin. Without any real plan or purpose, Mina worried at the pin until she pulled it into her hand. Then she hid it, pushing the pin into her sleeve.

Sandy finished attaching the extensions. Looking at the mirror, Mina could not believe what she saw. Her hair, full, long and deep red, cascaded down past her collar. When Sandy and Caro returned with a large book, Mina still stared into the mirror.

"I think she's in love," Sandy said loudly. Carolyn plopped the book down on the girl's lap, but she still did not respond. They both looked at Jane, who gave them no advice. Finally, Sandy spun the chair around and Mina looked up with a jerk.

"Mina, you need to pick a style from the book. Sandy and I are going to perm your hair," Carolyn said as the girl looked up at her.

"I don't care what you pick," Mina said.

"Listen hon, this is fun for a girl. So you can either smile big and try to have a good time looking through this book, or I just might let it slip to those young ladies coming in over there that I have a little sissy boy in a dress in my shop. I'll let them walk around and try to figure out just who it is," Sandy threatened.

"I don't like you," Mina answered and started to get up from the chair. Sandy and Carolyn each grabbed for an arm, but Mina was too quick and slipped through their grasp. She did, however, run directly into Jane.

"Stop right there Miss Peyton," Jane said curtly. Mina did stop and for a moment Jane thought progress was being made. "You aren't finished yet. I can't have you leaving here looking like a half-drowned Irish setter in a dress. Try asking politely for assistance and maybe you will be receive it." Jane watched the expression shift on Mina's face. The ice queen returneth, she thought to herself.

Mina curtsied fluidly, raising an eyebrow or two in the salon. She belatedly realized she had been set up. Sandy provided the same provocation that the bully had given earlier.

"Forgive me, Ms. Thompson. I grow tired of this woman's base and vulgar humor." Mina sat down and looked at the book for a moment before pointedly turning to Carolyn. "Ms. Beale, this is all so new to me. Please help me make an appropriate selection," Mina said this loudly enough for a few nearby patrons to hear, effectively trapping Carolyn into not only helping her, but helping her in a way that did not make Mina look ridiculous when she was finished. Jane looked at the girl incredulously. Did Mina even realize what she was doing, Jane asked herself?

Staring at Mina as though she had transformed into a venomous reptile, Carolyn nodded. The resulting selection was fairly mild as perms from that particular book went, and actually would complement Mina's tall, lean frame. Sandy started to work.

"Vulgar and base, little Miss Priss?" she said with genuine irritation. "You have no idea just how nasty it can get. I can always shut my mouth, but you're still a boy dressed up like a French whore. Notice that you have already attracted some attention here today. Look at those two over by Caro. I saw them watching your Miss- high-and-mighty routine. They might think you're cool for being such a bitch, who knows? I wonder if they'd like an introduction."

"Maybe they would Sandy," Mina said without looking up, "I've heard some women think it's sexy." Sandy's mouth shut with a snap, but the seed of curiosity was planted. Mina used the mirror to look at the two teenage girls. They were pretty. The taller one had blonde hair, apparently with some help from Carolyn. Her friend had dark brown hair cut in a short, perky style to match her stature and personality. Mina found herself looking at the two whenever she could. Then she quit being coy and practically stared at them. Luckily, the pair was deeply absorbed by whatever Carolyn was explaining to them.

The combination of watching the girls in the mirror and Sandy's nimble hands continuously touching her head and neck as she worked finally had an effect. Mina squirmed in her chair, trying to shift panties and petticoats, but Sandy had seen this before.

"My, my, what big...eyes you have Mina," she said softly into Mina's ear. Sandy's hand clamped down on Mina's thigh as she rested her chin on Mina's shoulder. "Are you hiding something down here, Mina," Sandy whispered. The sound of her voice and feel of her breath only heightened Mina's excitement.

"Let go of me you sick bitch," Mina finally managed. "They put people like you in jail."

"Yes, they do. Right alongside people like you. Imagine the possibilities," Sandy said as she let go of Mina's leg and stood up straight. Sandy finally felt like she had earned her pay, though it had taken long enough to find something that really got to her latest femme-boy toy.

Mina sat in cold fury. The woman had touched her like that and had suggested worse. Mina carefully worked to keep the expression from her face. The bitch was going to pay if she could just figure out how to do it without ruining everything. Then she saw the wasp. Somehow it had made its way into the store, probably from the outside entrance, and now it buzzed lazily along the ceiling, near the wall. Mina watched it carefully as it bumped along. It was probably already dying from whatever pesticides the overzealous exterminators saturated the mall with.

The idea gelled all at once, as they so often did for Mina. This time though, she did not simply act on impulse, but thought and planned as she rarely had. She even felt a moment of reluctance or remorse before the fact, but it did not last long. As she waited for the wasp to come toward her, she slipped the pin out of her sleeve.

Eventually, the wasp did draw near, approaching in a haphazard manner. Mina carefully checked the mirror to see if Jane was watching her. The wasp came closer. Mina shifted her feet and looked again for Jane. As the poor insect passed right by her face, Mina checked the mirror to see where Sandy was.

Screaming, she flailed her arms. "Get it off me!" Mina shrieked. She planted her feet and pushed up with her legs, lining the back of her head up just right. As Mina's head crunched into Sandy's face, additional screams sounded in the salon. Jane appeared almost instantaneously, but too late.

"It stung me. It stung me," Mina repeated, pushing the sleeve of her dress up to reveal a welt with a tiny red dot at the center. Then she noticed Sandy sitting on the floor holding a towel to her face and moaning.

"Oh my God! Sandy! Are you okay?" the girl shouted, immediately forgetting her own injury and moving to the injured woman's side. Jane looked at the scene and immediately took charge.

"Mina, go sit over there." She pointed at an out of the way chair. "Get me some ice, right away," Jane ordered one of the stylists who had come to Sandy's aid. The stylist moved quickly for the door and as she opened it, a wasp flew out too. As Jane tended Sandy and waited for the ice, Linda looked appraisingly at Mina, wondering if she had seen what she thought she saw or what the girl wanted her to. Another employee, looking around for something useful to do, picked up a straight pin from the floor and threw it in the trash before anyone had any other accidents.

A shaken Carolyn appeared and bent to examine her partner. Mina looked around the shop. Everyone looked at the unfortunate woman sitting on the floor. That is, everyone except Linda. She watched Mina.

By a fortuitous arrangement of mirrors in the shop, Linda could look right at the girl. Linda noted the change in Mina's expression when Mina saw her staring. She got up and went to the younger girl.

"You okay?" Linda asked.

"Yeah," she said shamefacedly. "I'm unlucky to be around I guess."

"Well, accidents happen, but it's important to pay attention to your surroundings too." Linda hugged Mina and returned to her chair, looking around the shop for video cameras as she did.

Jane held the ice to Sandy's face. Fortunately, Sandy's nose did not appear broken nor had she lost any teeth, but her nose was bleeding and so were her lips.

"Hold still, Sandy," Jane ordered. Sandy quit squirming.

"Is the girl alright?" she asked.

"Mina? She's fine," Jane looked to the chair where Mina sat, talking to Linda.

"What happened? I was just about to zing her good and then I was on my ass seeing stars. Did she deck me?"

"Would I be sitting here so calmly if she had," Jane replied. "She got stung by a bee or wasp and jumped up out of the chair." Jane wondered at the curious coincidence now though. "Did she say anything to you? Make any threats?"

"Threats? No. Though I'd say she was pretty pissed. She got a little excited watching those two high schoolers over there and I let her know that I noticed."

"Did you touch her?"

"You mean did I grab her crotch? Of course not. I put my hand on her leg though," Sandy explained.

Jane sighed, already thinking the worst.

Mina had gone to the restroom when Linda approached Jane.

"Do you think they'd let me have the tapes from those two security cameras?" Linda said.

"You think Mina purposely antagonized that wasp into stinging her so she could ram Sandy." Jane stated.

Linda studied the woman. "You're quick," she said admiringly. "But I don't think the wasp ever got close enough to sting her."

"I'll ask Caro. I doubt if she'll mind."

The conversation ended as Mina returned to her chair. Sandy actually finished cutting the girl's hair so that Caro could continue her makeover lessons to the now sizeable group of girls in the other room.

Jane observed Mina closely. She sat still with her hands folded in her lap underneath the bright cape that kept hair off her clothes. Her expression was sad, not exactly what Jane would have expected from a coldly calculating attacker. Mina noticed Jane's attention and gave her teacher a wan smile.

No, Jane thought, this would not be easy to sort out. Sandy finished Mina's hair and the girl rose, turning to the stylist. Jane could not quite hear what she said, but it appeared to be some kind of apology. Mina even touched Sandy on the arm, a very feminine gesture Jane noted.

Mina went with Jane and Linda to the car, not even noticing the videotapes in the bag Linda carried. "You okay, Mina? Want to stop for an early lunch?" Jane asked. "I just want to go back and lie down. My arm hurts and my head hurts," she lied, then added a little truth. "I don't feel very well."

Back at the mansion, Mina went straight to her room to lie down. Jane and Linda watched the tapes.

"Well, that was a bust," Linda said. "Sorry to waste your time like that Ms. Thompson."

"No, not at all. I didn't even think of them and if the cameras had pointed in a different direction we might be singing a different tune right now. I guess we'll just have to watch our little Mina very closely now. She sure isn't acting like someone who enjoyed bloodying Sandy like that."
 
 
Chapter 18: Tortured Souls - In Which We come Very Near to the End of the Story
 
Mina woke the next day, feeling miserable. She looked at the sky and saw that the day had barely begun. Sleep eluded her, so she got up and showered and dressed in the clothes Marie had helped her pick. She was still not trusted to dress herself. Not so much for any nefarious reasons, but instead because she still had difficulty coordinating her attire.

She started for the door, even though she knew it would be locked. As she reached for the knob, someone knocked softly on the door.

"Come in," she said, retreating to the middle of the room. Jane entered, looking not at all like herself. This was deliberate, of course. Jane wanted to get the girl as relaxed as possible. Jane wore a modest robe, tied at the waist. Her hair was still damp from the shower and she had even skipped putting on slippers.

"Good morning Mina. I thought I heard you stirring around in here. Are you feeling any better today?" Jane asked.

Mina shook her head. "I feel pretty rotten."

"Head still hurt?"

"No ma'am, my head is just fine. I feel bad about what I did to Sandy. Will she be okay?"

"She'll be fine," Jane answered, thinking furiously. She could feel a confession brewing inside her student. She just did not know exactly whether to push for it or let it come out on its own. "You want to talk about it?" Jane finally asked.

"No."

"You'll need to, eventually," Jane told her.

"Then let eventually happen sometime later," Mina replied.

"That's when it usually does," Jane answered with a smile. "Why don't you come help me fix breakfast. We'll give Marie and Rene the morning off."

"Okay."

Mina became a little more animated in the kitchen, orchestrating every detail of the meal with amazing dexterity.

"That smells delicious." The voice startled the two cooks.

"Maxine, not nice to sneak around like that," Jane chided. "Would you like some coffee?"

"Love some. You wouldn't happen to have an apple or banana lying around would you?" Maxine winked at the two. "I try not to eat when I'm on watch, that way I stay awake better."

Marie and Rene came in just as Maxine finished her snack. They noticed the reduction in work for the morning and smiled.

"Bonjour," Marie said cheerfully. "Thank you for cooking such a nice breakfast."

"Mina did all the work," Jane praised the girl, who just looked back at the items on the counter.

"Why don't you two sit down and we'll serve this. I'll take a tray up to Darla," Marie suggested.

"Gladly," Jane replied. "Come along Mina. Our work here is complete." Mina followed Jane into the dining room. When Marie entered, bearing a tray, Mina stopped her.

"Ms. Marie, may I take Darla's tray up to her?"

"If you wish," Marie said, handing Mina the tray. Mina ascended the stairs without difficulty and knocked on Darla's door.

"Come in," Darla called back to her. When Mina entered she saw that Darla had already dressed and was reclined in bed with a magazine.

"Hi Mina. I thought I smelled something good cooking this morning." Mina set up the tray so Darla could eat and then sat down on the stool by Darla's dresser.

"Are you feeling better?" Mina asked quietly.

"Yes. I told Marie I could dress myself and come down to the table, but she wouldn't buy it. I tell you though, I'm not staying cooped up in here tomorrow too."

"Darla," Mina hesitated, uncertain of how to begin. "I know you love your Aunt, but do you trust her? Could you talk to her about anything?"

Darla paused, suddenly serious. She had known something was up just by the way Mina had acted.

"I trust her, but I get the feeling I'm not the one who needs to talk to her. Mina, is something wrong?"

"Yes, I think so. Ummm...I don't want to talk about it now. I was just wondering...well...if I wanted to later or something. I like to work things out for myself." Mina quickly excused herself and left. In the hall, she composed herself. Outside, she could hear the workday starting for Tom and Allen. Mina paused, looking through the window. She watched for a moment, thinking furiously. Finally, she turned back to the dining room.

Mina forced herself to eat and talk and attempt to be cheerful, but she fell short of her goal.

"Okay Mina, today you are to work with Marie on coordinating colors, textures and accessories. Report to my office after each change," Jane ordered. "And mind the stairs," she added as an afterthought. Jane headed for her office as Linda and Rene cleaned up the breakfast table.

"You girls stay out of trouble," Maxine grinned as she left to catch some sleep. Linda pretended to throw a grapefruit rind at her.

"There, that's a much better selection, Mina," Marie appraised the girl's dress, shoes, handbag and jewelry. "Do you see how the shoes you picked first clash with the rest of the outfit?" Marie asked the quiet, almost sullen, girl.

"Yes ma'am."

"Good. Now, go show Ms. Thompson and then return for another change." Mina bit her tongue to hold back a sigh. This would be her third trip down to Jane's office of the morning. Her feet hurt, her back hurt and her stomach hurt. She knew that her stomach hurt because of a sudden onslaught of conscience, but if she told all to Jane Thompson, things would only get worse. And where was this feeling coming from anyway, she asked herself? It was not like she had never hurt anyone before.

But somewhere down inside, the argument had already been answered. You meant to hurt that woman, he heard himself say.

"She deserved it!" Mina answered, not realizing that she had spoken aloud.

"Mina?" Jane called from within her office. "What is all that noise about?" Mina opened the door, looking grim.

"Just thinking out loud," she said

"I see. What were you thinking about so loudly?"

"Something that's bothering me. I just don't know what to do." Mina looked close to tears. Within her head, the arguing voices were lost in the sound of hurricane winds. Mina realized that she was lost. "I...I..." She never finished the sentence. The door crashed open.

"Something's going down," Rene said, "Get everyone together."

Mina looked at the housekeeper incredulously. A wire dangled from one ear and a large, ominous automatic filled her right hand. Linda appeared behind her, shoving an identical earplug into her left ear. The group moved to the foyer near the front door. Linda and Rene looked out the windows, watching their boss even as he and Tom conversed with a young man at the far end of the driveway.

"Shit," Rene suddenly yelled and turned and ran for the back of the house. "Clear out, now!" she yelled at Jane and Marie.

Allen heard the car before he saw it. It sounded like a prime candidate for recycling. He spotted it easily as it sputtered along the road that ran past the mansion. The window tint prevented Allen from seeing any passengers. The road dipped about 100 feet before Jane's driveway and the car was out of sight for a moment. That was the moment it chose to give up the ghost.

Allen motioned to Tom and they both started walking toward the wall. Tom started to drop the shovel he carried, but changed his mind. They had gotten about halfway when they saw the boy.

"Hello," he called, "My car died and I need to use a phone." Allen angled for him, trying to keep an eye on the house and the spot on the wall near where the car had stopped. The boy was skinny and nervous looking. His feet shuffled and his hands twitched and wrung. Allen pressed a button on the remote in his pocket.

"Look alive in there," Allen said at the button on his coverall pocket, transmitting the words to the earplugs that at least one of the women should have in by now.

The boy was chattering mindlessly now. "Should have known better than to take the thing on a long trip like this, but I wanted to see the ocean. If you know anything about cars, I'd appreciate it if you took a look." Allen removed his sunglasses and looked at the boy as they approached. Allen kept glancing at the wall between them and the car, but no attackers appeared there. The boy's nervous movement grew even worse. Just as Allen reached the boy, he saw the boy's eyes cut to the house. Allen glanced, already understanding he had been fooled. He saw the boy run behind the house and realized they had hidden in the woods on the other side of the rode.

The boy realized he had blown it and reached for his pistol even as Allen kicked him in the stomach. He went down hard.

"Back and to the right," Allen said into his mike as he broke into a sprint. "Back and to the right." Behind him he heard a shovel connect with something hard and a single shot that did not come anywhere near him.

Inside the house, Mina saw the gardener kick the boy, who still managed to get his gun out before Tom clubbed him with the shovel. By then Allen had already covered nearly thirty yards. Even at this distance, Mina could see the pale blue-green flecks of color that made up Allen's eyes. She broke and ran up the stairs.

"Dammit no!" Jane yelled, but Mina was not listening. "Darla's room," she said to Marie as they both rapidly climbed the stairs. Marie thought to open the front door for Allen before she fled.

The first two boys crashed through the French doors into the conservatory, pistols in hand. One of them died when he exchanged shots with Rene, who crouched behind the slight protection of the doorjamb. The other dove for cover out of Rene's line of sight and began firing at the door. Rene could hear the sound of gunfire and breaking glass in other parts of the house. She made a quick decision. "One down in music room, one behind cover. Pulling back to find Linda." Then she noticed the blood on her arm. The surviving boy emptied his clip on the door before realizing no one was shooting back.

In doorway to the laundry room, Linda had only one window to cover. She heard other windows breaking in the house as well, but did not let them distract her. The boy smashed into the window without hesitation, another gang member close behind him. Linda shot the first while he was still in the window frame. He fell backwards, discharging his gun several times. The second boy had ducked to the side when the first shot hit his partner. He looked down at the bloody wreck on the ground and ran.

Linda saw the boy running, but by the time he crossed her sights, he was too far away for a pistol shot. "One down in laundry. One running away. Jane and company ran up the stairs. At least one more in the kitchen."

Keith and K-zone heard the shots as they hit the kitchen door. The door was unlocked, but they did not bother with the knob. The door was also pretty solid, but the frame it was in had seen many years. The whole thing flew apart when Keith slammed his shoulder into it at full speed. They tumbled into the kitchen and ducked for cover as they heard the flurry of gunfire inside. Keith motioned K-zone to advance.

The two agents had heard Jane, Marie and Mina go up the stairs. Linda remembered that the huge house had three staircases up to the second floor.

"Upstairs," she said as she rejoined Rene in the hallway. An old servant's stairway led from the laundry all the way to the attic. The treads squeaked when Linda walked on them.

Allen stopped on the porch and eased up to the door. During his sprint, he had slipped on the headset and so knew the disposition of his people inside. He listened for a moment and then slid around the door into the foyer. Plenty of movement could be heard in the house, but he could not sort it out.

"I'm in the house, give me your positions."

"The school is in Darla's room. I am in a doorway in the main upstairs hall. Rene caught a fragment or a ricochet in her arm, she's in Darla's room."

Allen moved on, stalking. Anything on the first floor was his.

Tense silence gripped the inhabitants of Darla's room. The unreality of the situation left all but Darla's mind a little numb and uncomprehending. Darla had seen and heard the sounds of gunfire before. She was scared.

Jane and Marie hefted Darla out of bed and laid her down on the floor, so the bed was between them and the door. Mina crouched behind the massive wardrobe, mind spinning. She knew that this would be her best chance to get away from the school, but could not really concentrate. Rene cut the blood soaked sleeve of her jacket away from the wound. An ugly gash decorated her forearm. The injury was quickly bandaged, but was beginning to hurt and stiffen her arm.

Keith and K-Zone leapfrogged out of the kitchen and into the large dining room. Keith knew there had been too much shooting and it was too quiet. If his guys had shot a bunch of unresisting kids and teachers, they would have made some noise by now. No, he thought, there were other guns in the house and they were good enough to have taken one or two of his guys out.

Keith exited the dining room into the main hallway on the first floor just in time to see the one of the gardeners slip around a door into another room. He motioned K-Zone to follow him as he moved to the stairs.

In the conservatory, the gang member gathered his nerve and moved for the door. The house had turned quiet when the shooting finally stopped. The boy crouched in the splintered doorjamb and looked. The house was huge and it seemed anyone could be anywhere. He rose to his feet, ready to tackle the hallway.

"Drop it," a soft voice called. He whirled, thinking to get back into the music room and out the window, but a searing pain erupted in his side and he fell, not thinking anything anymore.

"One down, downstairs hallway," Allen told his team.

"I don't see anyone else, but I think I heard something on the front stairs," Linda said. She stuck the mirror out into the hall again and moved it back and forth.

At the top of the front steps, Keith and K-Zone crouched. They had been studying the number of doors at the top of the climb, plus the two hallways leading away from the stairs when the heard the shots. Keith thought he saw a flicker of light down one hall. He motioned K-Zone to the other side of the doorway and he peered around the side of the opening. There it was, a mirror on a little handle, like a dentist would poke in your mouth. He fired his entire clip at the wall covering the mirror holder's position.

Linda fell back from the door as chips of plaster and dust flew. No slugs penetrated the wall. This house was made of tougher stuff than gypsum wallboard and wooden studs.

"Upstairs, at least one," she said and the room exploded with more shots. She threw herself across the bed and onto the floor behind it and fired back, hoping to make the gunman pause. She felt a stab of pain as she landed, but ignored it to get into position. The gunman was outlined in the door frame and she fired, just as he moved. The bullet smashed into the opposite wall.

"Upstairs, two, I think," Linda gritted her teeth. Her knee throbbed and she realized her leg had struck the old radiator as she landed.

"Did you see anyone in there?" Keith said. K-Zone shook his head. "Fuck! Where are these assholes coming from."

From several doors down the hall, Rene looked with her own mirror. Having the advantage of knowing exactly where to look, her action went undetected.

"Two, backs to the wall, in the hallway, facing each other. There just outside your door, Linda."

"On my way, main stairs," Allen replied. He could hear police sirens wailing in the distance.

"Linda, are you okay?" Rene said, but Linda did not reply. Rene turned the corner and fired, determined to drive the remaining gangsters away from her teammate's door.

"Shit!" Keith screamed as K-Zone slumped to the floor. He vaulted the rail guarding the staircase and dropped straight down on to Allen Sullivan. The pair tumbled down the stairs and Keith landed on top of the man, gun still in hand. Allen kicked Keith in back with his knee and sprung to his feet, reaching for his gun, as the boy crashed into the wall behind him. Keith was as quick as Allen though and was on his feet before the man could turn and fire.

"Don't try it boy," Allen said. "Give up now and at least you'll live."

Keith stared at the man's bizarre eyes, barely hearing a word. Wordlessly, Keith spun, trying to beat the man. He shot first but missed. Allen shot back and hit. Allen stood, looking down at another corpse. Allen's coveralls were slightly scorched from the close range exchange, but the boy had fired too soon.

"The mark of Cain, boy," he said, looking out the door into the yard where squad cars screeched to a halt.

"Linda?" Rene called from just inside Darla's door. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I screwed up my leg and I don't think my radio's working, but I'm okay."

"Stay put. Allen, is that all of them?"

"I don't know. There could be more in the house. Sit tight, let the police sweep the house and then we'll get the women out." Allen took no chances. He stayed in the house near the front door and waved at the approaching cop cars. He saw Tom talking to the sheriff and pointing to the door.

The cop keyed his mike, "Mr. Sullivan, come on out. Nobody move yet." When the man was out, he spoke quickly to the collected officers. In moments, the house swarmed with police and deputies. A few minutes later, Linda came out, limping and leaning on a burly deputy. Following her and surrounded by cops of all varieties came Jane, Marie, Darla and Mina. Rene brought up the rear.

"Sheriff Beale, what a welcome sight!" Jane exclaimed when she saw her former student.

"Who's hurt, Jane?" he asked as the ambulances and fire engine pulled into the yard. A news van followed in the fire engine's wake.

"Rene is bleeding and Linda hurt her leg. Can we move Marie and the kids around to the back of the house or something? I don't want them on TV if I can help it."

"We'll do something about that," he replied. "Get that damn news crew back up to the road and out of the way," he shouted at one of his deputies. "There, but you'll still need to move your people. Those cameras won't have any trouble spotting you from the road."

"Jane scanned the area. Bodies were coming out of her house on stretchers. EMT's were dressing Rene's arm. Linda sat on the back of cruiser with her leg propped up and a large ice bag covering her knee. In another cruiser, two deputies questioned a boy. Tom was walking toward Jane, still carrying his shovel."

"Whoa Tom," Sheriff Beale suddenly said. "You should be more careful with that thing." Tom stopped, looking puzzled for just a second before remembering.

"Hell, I'm getting too old for this insanity," he muttered as he gingerly pulled the nine millimeter automatic from his pocket. "Take the damn thing. Seen enough of them when I was in the army anyway. Melt the damn thing down into something useful," Tom turned away, suddenly unable to keep his eyes dry.

"Tom," Jane said gently. "Thank you."

"Ahhh, don't mind me, Ms. Thompson. Make sure those young'ns are okay."

"Sheriff," Jane repeated as she noticed the live broadcast crew setting up their antenna from out by the road.

"I hear you, Jane." He had another deputy put the two students in a car and drive around the back of the house. With the house cleared out, the collected law officers spread out over the grounds, searching for the one that Linda told them got away.

Mina sat in the car, looking around. Darla had taken some pain medication for her back and had quickly fallen asleep. She had welcomed the feeling, not wanting to watch as the bodies of former gang members were rolled out of the big house.

The idea came to her suddenly, as they so often did. Mina wrote quickly on a scrap of paper and tucked it into Darla's hand.

"I think I'm going to be sick," Mina announced, fumbling for the door handle. She got the door open and vomited loudly. "I feel light," she told the deputy as he came around to her door. "I think I'm going to faint."

The deputy wasted no time driving back around to where an ambulance was parked, but the EMT's were all busy.

"Wait right here. I'll be right back," he said. Mina nodded and waited almost five seconds before slipping out of the car and into another ambulance.
 
 
Chapter 19: Aftermath - In Which We See That Not Everyone Who Needs Jane's Help Is a Student
 
Jane was frantic. Sheriff Beale was annoyed. Allen was just quiet.

"Where could she have gone?" Jane asked, not for the first time.

"The only vehicles to leave before we found out were ambulances and fire trucks. She's not at the fire station, so she either hopped off somewhere in between or she's at the hospital. She can't have gotten far."

Jane's mind spun. How could she have let this happen, she asked herself? Responsibility rested only on one set of shoulders here, she reminded herself.

The police had their hands full. One boy had escaped the bloody shootout at the school and driven away in the car that had carried the gang to the school. Two gang members had escaped the botched bank robbery attempt, fleeing on foot as soon as they heard the sirens. The other two had been taken into custody. So now the authorities searched for at least four teenagers, including one whose true identity was not known yet, except by the Sheriff.

Jane read the scrawl Mina had left with Darla for the hundredth time.

'Ms. Thompson, I can't stay here any longer. I don't want to hurt anyone else, but I don't think I want to die yet either.'

Mina waited in the ambulance, feeling it navigate through traffic. When the vehicle stopped, she grabbed a spare pair of coveralls and what looked like someone's gym bag, opened the door and jumped out. She landed on a city street, cars all around. Mina wasted no time, running as soon as her feet hit pavement. Surprised shouts erupted from the ambulance and from surrounding drivers. She was free.

As soon as she turned a corner, she stopped running. Instead she matched her pace to those around her and ducked into the first fast food restaurant she saw. Quickly she stripped out of the dress and underwear and into the coverall. The gym bag contained a change of clothes, including some basketball shoes that were too big for her, some pens, a watch, a baseball cap and twenty dollars and change.

Shoving the mass of hair under the cap, she looked into the mirror. Benjamin stared back. Benjamin exhaled deeply, a huge sigh of relief, and inspected himself, finding not exactly the same Benjamin who had rolled into Westbury on that train. He tensed, momentarily afraid. What had this experience stolen from his life, he wondered? He searched the mirror until someone pounded angrily on the door. With his last look, he realized that although he was different, it was because something had been added, not taken away.

Benjamin hurried out of the bathroom, past a young woman's angry glare and into the uncertain future. He hummed as he walked.

The day never seemed to end at the Thompson Academy. Darla had fallen asleep again. Rene and Linda had returned to the mansion, but Linda could not walk without crutches. Rene's own injury turned out to be messy, but not incapacitating. The phone had finally stopped ringing.

"Here you are, Jane," Marie said softly as she put the tray on the small table and shut the door. Jane's apartment seemed to be the only part of the house without broken glass or bloodstain, though Jane attributed that perception to her own overactive imagination. Marie dished out sandwiches and pie with milk, even rousing Darla so she might eat something.

"Where's Allen and his people?" Jane asked.

"Linda is in her room, resting. She'll return home tomorrow, but I think she wants to talk to you before she leaves. Rene and Maxine are in the basement with Allen, monitoring incoming reports. I gave Rene a tray to take down with her."

"Hmmm," Jane thought aloud, "I don't know why they didn't just pack up and leave. Looks like the shooting is over." She had discussed this with Sullivan and he explained that they had already been paid so they would stay for a while longer or until the last boy had been picked up.

Marie did not voice her own opinion. Jane was too distracted and besides, she had only the barest germ of a theory. She looked at the television.

"Recapping tonight's top story: a running battle raged through this historic mansion today. For reasons yet unknown, a youth gang invaded this mansion, the site of a girl's finishing school, but were fended off by the school's security personnel. School personnel declined to be interviewed. No students were hurt in the exchange of gunfire. Five gang members were killed and one captured. We'll bring you more as the story continues to unfold."

The next morning brought a small horde of workmen to repair the damaged windows and walls. Allen continued his work in the garden, mainly to avoid sitting in the basement all day. Other agents replaced Linda and Rene, agents who did not need to blend into the school's environment.

"Ms. Thompson, I'm sorry things did not work out better," Linda apologized as she prepared to leave. "I've never seen a gang act so organized before..." she shook her head. "What I really wanted to talk to you about was your work here. I've talked to Darla and Marie a good bit and I support your efforts. If you ever need someone like me again or if you have a position open full or part time, I'm sure we can come to an agreement."

"Thank you Linda. It's been a pleasure having you around. I'll consider your suggestion when we are back to normal here." Jane shook the woman's hand and turned to leave.

"Ms. Thompson," Rene said, surprising Jane, "could I have a moment?" At a look from Rene, Linda limped away.

"Yes, Ms. Fuller, what is it?"

"Keep an eye on Allen. Something's bothering him," Rene said simply. The last thing Jane wanted was to get involved in someone else's love life, especially a possibly unrequited love.

"We all have a lot on our mind Rene. I'm sure he'll be fine."

"No, Ms. Thompson. Something is really bugging him, I can tell. I won't say I know Allen, but I know him about as well as a person can. I've seen him shrug off bigger, bloodier messes than what happened here yesterday like they were nothing. Please help him if you can."

Jane realized that Rene had come as close to baring her heart as she would probably ever and it moved her. She extended her hand and the surprised woman took it.

"I'll do what I can, Rene."

"Thanks." Rene smiled genuinely for the first time since Jane had met her. Linda waved as the two women drove away. Jane walked the grounds, looking at the empty stables. The horses could come back now, she realized. The hammering and banter of the repairmen and the assorted noises coming from the garden provided a peculiar backdrop for Jane's reflection. She thought about the last few weeks. What had gone right and what had gone wrong. How might she have helped Benjamin sooner or better?

Jane's meandering path took her nearly to the road. She turned and looked back at the school, her home. These things had to be considered, she thought, because there would be no quitting.

When Jane returned to the house, Marie was waiting with the phone.

"Sheriff Beale wants to talk to you," she said.

"Hello."

"Hello, Jane. We talked to the ambulance crew that carried Mina out into town. I don't know how this happened, but their first report got lost somehow and no one interviewed them until today. Anyway, Mina apparently jumped out of the ambulance while it was stopped, stealing some spare clothes and a gym bag as she went. A few witnesses recall seeing a nicely dressed girl with long red hair walking around here yesterday, but no one has seen her today.

"I've got officers at the bus station and the train station and I've got some just cruising the highways that lead out of town. I've also got the usual bulletins going, for all the good that will do. Have you talked to Judge Ruth lately?"

"Not yet this morning, but I was going to as soon as you checked in."

"Well, we'll keep looking. Sorry I didn't have better news. Good bye."

Jane returned he phone to it's cradle and stood up. She needed to fortify herself with some strong tea before making her next call.

When she returned, she picked up the phone and dialed from memory.

"Hello, Jane," the judge said when they were finally connected.

"Hello. Still no luck finding him," Jane said, getting straight to the point. "I'm sure he shed his Mina identity as soon as he could and hitched a ride with Bill Gates right after he bought a winning lottery ticket," Jane said with a small trace of bitterness.

"You're saying the boy has amazing luck then, Jane?" Ruth said warmly, trying to comfort her friend. "Jane, don't be too hard on yourself. By your own account, the boy was not exactly prime material for your program that we though he was. Add to that the presence of total strangers at your school and not just the threat but the occurrence of terrible violence and I'm amazed you came through as well as you have.

"I'm disappointed in Benjamin, not you. He's a sharp boy by all accounts, I don't understand why he would run when he was on the verge of getting the help he plainly needed."

"What will happen to him if he's caught?"

"When he's caught, Jane," the judge corrected. "Lucky or not, the boy can't stay on the run forever." Judge Ruth sounded certain, but Jane would have bet heavily on Benjamin if anyone had offered. "I'll do what I can for him Jane, but the truth is, it doesn't look good for the boy. I'll make sure he gets a decent education and whatever help the counselors and therapists can provide."

"Let me know if there's anything I can do," Jane said.

"I will. I've caught a few news reports out here. They make it sound like a small battle was fought there. Did Sullivan and his agency work out alright?"

"We're still here and the bad guys are dead. Well, most of them anyway. Three got away. Allen and a few of his personnel are sticking around in case they come back this way."

"Really?" Judge Ruth asked. "I wouldn't have thought he'd stick around once the dust settled. Let me know if there are any problems. I send a good bit of work his way, when it's appropriate, and I want to make sure they are performing up to spec."

"I will. Thanks Ruth, you've been a big help."

"Nonsense. You're a big, tough girl Jane. I didn't think this would get you down for long. Call again soon."

"I will, good bye." Jane took a long sip of her tea and pondered.

"You okay?" Tom asked Allen as they patted the earth around freshly planted rose bushes.

"Yeah."

"I was just wondering. You haven't said your two words for the day yet."

Allen squinted at the sky. "Gonna rain."

"Whew. I feel much better now. Anything else you want to say?"

Allen looked at the man. His face and hands were weathered by exposure and his eyes had a permanent squint with webs of lines around them.

"You wouldn't squint like that if you had some sunglasses," Allen said mildly. Tom laughed. "Thanks for decking that kid."

"I couldn't just let him shoot you."

"You should have. That'll teach me not to turn my back on them, even is someone is standing around with a shovel to guard them."

"That what's eatin' you?" Tom asked. Allen shrugged, wanting to change the subject. "Well, if you need to talk to someone, I'm usually here. Of course Miss Jane has a better ear for it than I do and you don't look like the sort she'd hang a dress on."

"I think Miss Jane has enough on her plate already." Allen said, then he ended the conversation by changing the subject. "Should we be planting this stuff in the middle of the summer?"

Tom chuckled again. "Not really, but I've forgotten more tricks for keeping a garden green than most folks know. We'll be fine."

A few more days rolled past. Outside the new gardens took on their final shape. The horses were returned to the stables and Jane gratefully began riding again.

She also kept an eye on Allen Sullivan. First out of curiosity, then out of genuine concern. But she did not know how to approach the man. Since Benjamin's escape, he made even less of an effort to seem normal. Jane had seen him restlessly prowling the grounds. Benjamin finally brought the matter to a boil.

Five days after the shootout, a note arrived in the mail addressed merely Jane Thompson, Thompson Academy. It had been mailed locally with no return address. Jane tore it open.
 
 



Dear Ms. Thompson,
By now I am far away, maybe even close to home. I left this note where someone would find it and drop it in the mailbox. I just want you to know that I'm fine and that I wasn't kidnapped by terrorists or whoever that was in the school that day. I don't know what else to say. I hope you aren't in trouble with the judge.

I still want my stuff back, so don't give it away. I guess that's everything.

Tell Darla I said hi.

Benjamin.


 
 
Jane read the note twice, afraid she had missed something in Benjamin's cramped, angular script. Thinking furiously, Jane grabbed her checkbook and went searching for Allen Sullivan.

She found him on the front steps, perched gargoyle fashion and looking over the side of the step at something in the grass. She did not doubt that he heard her coming, but instead of the warm, compassionate opening she had planned, she said something else.

"Do you have any idea how creepy that looks?"

Allen stood and turned. "Yes, actually I do. Is this better?" he asked, putting on his sunglasses.

"No. It's not." Jane's temper was starting to get the better of her. "I'm not scared of a little unusual eye color. Now, what's behind the eyes is a whole different story. I suppose with eyes like that and coloring like you have, you were destined to stand out wherever you went, but I'm not here to discuss your personal development," Jane said tartly, then waited a few seconds. "I want to hire you for a new job."

"No," Allen replied.

"No? You haven't even heard what I want you to do."

"Find Benjamin."

"Well, that wasn't too hard to figure out. Why won't you do it for me? There's something about that boy you never liked or trusted, isn't there? I should have let him talk to you when he was here. He saw something in you that he thought would help him, but I didn't want to let him near you."

Allen considered this and finally asked the obvious question. "Why?"

"I was afraid he'd turn out like you," Jane said with equal parts of embarrassment and determination. Allen did not flinch. His expression remained unchanged. For the first time since meeting the strange man, Jane felt genuine fear of him.

"Allen, I'm not the kind of person who thinks everyone should be in therapy. I have heard some of your history and I think you've done a great job getting your life together, but you need something else. You are missing something...you need some kind of help to be whole and complete. The people around you are more than just your assignments or potential threats to your assignment. You need my help and I need yours."

"What do you want?"

"Find Benjamin. Find him and help him." Jane struggled to keep her eyes dry. "You promise to work on that and I'll find whatever person or resource we think will help you. In addition to your fee," Jane added as an afterthought.

"That won't be a problem," Sullivan said, "your bill has been paid already."

"What?"

"An anonymous foundation contacted my accountant back home and arranged to pay for our services."

"Anonymous my..." Jane stopped short, feeling the unseen yet not so subtle hands of her former students. "As long as you are paid, I'll work the details out later with this...foundation. Are you in or out?"

"In," he said without hesitation, surprising Jane. "I'd like to stay here a few more days to start the search from this end. I'll need pictures and whatever other information you have on him," Allen said, noticing Jane's raised eyebrow. "I'd also like a chance to talk to you. You come highly recommended and there are a few things I'd like to hash out."

"Very well. I will be available the rest of the day and all day tomorrow. Just let me know when would be convenient." Allen nodded and walked away, heading for the basement command post with new orders. Jane listened to the pounding of the hammers and watched the truck pull up with her new windows and doors. She looked around at the bright summer day and then turned and went inside, shutting the door softly behind her.
 
 
End of Season of Remembrance © 2002,2013 Ediolon90 (Eido)
End of Season of Fear Book 1 of 3 by Ediolon90 (Eido)



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