"I see," Katya said slowly. "The world would indeed be a better place if everyone did that. Can I ask - whose niceness are you paying forward?"
"When I was a scrawny little sixteen-year-old, a scary f**ker of a trucker picked me up on a dark and deserted street." Jessie's smile turned her striking. "After he finished chewing me out about the dangers of hitchhiking, he fed me, let me shower in his truck, and asked me where I was going. When I said I didn't know, he gave this big sigh."
"And?" Katya prompted when Jessie fell silent.
"And I ended up riding with him for the next five years. Isaac's the one who taught me how to drive the big rigs, who got me my first gig."
"He must be so proud of you. Is he retired now?"
"Hah! He's only six years older than me!"
"Oh." Katya bit her lip, but couldn't contain her curiosity. "You don't see him as a brother, do you?"
"God, I'm pathetic. And obvious." The other woman rolled her eyes. "He still sees me as that scrawny kid he picked up. It hasn't sunk into his tiny male mind that I not only have boobs, I'd like to use them, thank you very much!"
Katya burst out laughing just as dawn began to whisper on the horizon. "You're waiting for him?"
"I'm giving him one more month. I swear, after that, I'm taking the first offer that comes along."
"It's wonderful, you know," Katya said, mind filling with memories of pure molten heat. "Being with someone who touches your heart."
"You don't sound very happy."
"I think he's going to hate me now."
A siren pierced the air, cutting off her breath.
"Damn." A scowling Jessie pulled over to the side of the long, otherwise empty road. "I swear," the blonde muttered, "the hick cops have nothing better to do than hassle law-abiding citizens."
"Jessie, we're actually - "
"Shh. Think law-abiding thoughts." Sliding back her door, Jessie grabbed her coat and jumped down. Katya couldn't see her as she moved toward the officer, but she heard her words. "Michel Benoit, don't you have to go eat a doughnut or something?"
"That's Officer Benoit to you" came the drawling response. "I got a report you're carrying contraband, sweetheart."
"Hell you did!" Now Jessie sounded pissed. "I'm clean and you know it."
"Contraband's about yay-high, dark blonde hair, on the thin side. Ring a bell?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
Katya had every faith in Jessie's skills, but she had no desire to get the woman who'd helped her so much into real trouble with the law - it wasn't as if the cop wouldn't check the vehicle. Sliding back her own door, she stepped out into the frigid winter air and walked around the front of the truck to stand beside Jessie, the dawn soft and muted around them. Even the snow lining the roadside looked warm in the red and gold light.
"What exactly," Katya said, meeting the cop's ice blue eyes, "am I supposed to have done?"
He smiled, his dark brown hair waving in the gentle breeze. "Might have something to do with firing a stunner."
"They filed a report?" There was something disturbingly familiar about this Michel Benoit.
He raised an eyebrow. "You want a record?"
"That means there's no report," Jessie told her, hands on her hips. "He's got no right to pull you in."
Michel's eyes flashed. "This ain't none of your business, Jessie."
"Take your 'aint's' and shove them," Jessie muttered. "Everyone knows you've got a flippin' law degree."
The man didn't seem to take offense, his smile reaching to warm those eyes. "Here's the deal," he said to Katya. "You can come with me nice and easy, or I find something to charge you both with."
"Both? Jessie hasn't done anything."
"Jessie," Michel murmured, "has probably done quite a lot of things."
Katya put a hand on Jessie's arm when the other woman shifted forward, as if tempted to deck the cop. "It's the eyes," she muttered. "The color threw me off but you have the same eyes."
Michel's smile widened. "I have no idea who you're talking about."
"Name Devraj ring a bell?"
"I might have a cousin called Dev, but you know, it's not that unusual a name."
Certain now that there was no way Michel would let her leave, Katya turned to Jessie. "Thank you."
Jessie was still scowling, but she hugged Katya tight. "You ever need help again, you call me. You got my number, right?"
Katya nodded, having memorized the cell code. "So," she said to Michel, "where to from here?"
PETROKOV FAMILY ARCHIVES
Letter dated December 24, 1978
It's Christmas Eve, but the world is strangely hushed. Normally, the changelings would be playing their yearly tricks - I always half expect to find a tiger sitting on my porch come midnight, as I did once when I was a child. He'd brought me a fresh bough of holly, can you imagine?
But this year, even the human carolers have stayed home. All of us are waiting for the ax to fall - the Council is nearing a decision. If it goes the way I predict, anyone not in the Net will become forever cut off from those we love.
The Council has acknowledged that adults can't be fully conditioned, but those who stay in the Net will have to follow strict guidelines. If they don't, their children will be taken from them - so that they can be conditioned the proper way. My hand is shaking as I write that. No one will ever take you or Emily from me.