New to Quest Five?
The stories are best enjoyed when read in order beginning with May 1, 2009.

Welcome To Quest Five
Allison Beaumont is having trouble finding a job after college until one day the wealthy and powerful Joseph Candle offers her a job at his rather unusual corporation, where mistakes can lead to bare bottomed spankings. Adopting the alias of Virginia West, she joins four highly skilled colleagues, racing around the globe in search of mysterious treasures, but wherever she goes, trouble is sure to follow.
Note: Some stories contain scenes of a sexual nature, corporal punishment, non-consensual corporal punishment, and strong language which some reader's may find offensive. If you feel this material might be inappropriate for you please move on to another blog by clicking the next blog link at the top of the page.

January 29, 2010

Spank & Correct: Epilogue

I carefully sat in my office chair, wishing I could stand at my desk without catching anyone's attention. The only good thing was I had the last of my morning spankings from Dad behind me. Focusing my attention on work, difficult as it was first thing in the morning, I studied the latest notes from Tom and Dr. Michaels. In essence, we were not making progress.

The pattern which I felt certain to exist in the photographs on Dr. Michaels' walls had yet to reveal itself and even the most sophistical analysis programs Kyra could devise were failing to see whatever it was my subconscious thought it was detecting. It was enough to make me doubt myself not to mention consider pulling my hair out as the answer seemed indefinitely stuck on the edge of my thoughts, never quite revealing itself to me.

"Hey," Tom said, slipping in through the door and sitting on the edge of my desk. "Anything new?"

I shook my head, pretending not to be annoyed with him sitting on my desk instead of in a chair. "There is something here, I can feel it, but I can't figure it for some stupid reason."

He dropped a flash card on my desk and said, "This won't cheer you up, but it's a lead."

I plugged it into the computer and glanced at Tom's unsmiling face trying to decide if I should ask or just wait to see what he was talking about. I knew it had to be connected to Patrick Hughes, but I did not want to guess at anything more. I turned my attention to the screen as images started to pop up and then as a clear shot appeared I sucked in a deep breath recognizing the man in the image. I hit the pause key, locking the frame on the screen and looked at Tom. He nodded sympathetically.

"Mark," I said.

"I'm sorry to be right, but I told you he was bad news," Tom said.

"You're following him?" I asked.

"Of course," He said, "If we can't locate where he's keeping Patrick's family before approaching him, I doubt we'll ever get to them."

"He knows who I am," I said.

"You mean Allison?" Tom asked.

"Yes, he knows everything about me," I said thinking about the first time I met him. "He's friends with my brother."

"You don't think your brother is involved?" Tom asked a worried expression settling on his unsettled face.

"No," I said dismissing the very idea as preposterous, "He might have unwittingly assisted Mark, but he wouldn't get involved in this sort of thing."

"You're sure?" Tom asked.

"As sure as you are about Jack," I said.

He nodded. "We'll keep an eye on Mark for now and hopefully he'll lead us where we need to go," Tom said.

"If he's working for the other side," I said, Tom and eyes meeting as understanding passed between us, "Then my entire family is in serious danger."

"He might just be a courier," Tom said, but I could see in his eyes he did not believe it to be the case anymore than I did.

My phone rang causing both of us to jump a little. Kyra said, "V, you've got a call on line two."

"Thanks," I said picking up the phone and disconnecting the intercom. Tom got up to leave me with some privacy and I said, "Hello," to static.

"Hello," I said again and Tom paused at the door looking back at me with a raised eyebrow.

"Virginia?" A male voice said through the static.

"This is Virginia West," I said, thinking I recognized the voice.

"It's Brian Osterman," The voice came through clearer for a moment, "Don't tell me you've already forgotten me?"

"No of course not," I said, remembering he was the best part of my trip to Utah. "The connection is awful."

"It can't be helped, it's a SAT phone and I'm on the move," He said.

"Don't take this wrong way, but why are you calling me?" I asked.

"You're the only one I can trust and besides, crazy as it sounds, I think this damn thing is a message for you," He said, his voice cutting in and out with heavy static.

"What are you talking about?" I said, nearly shouting and hoping he could hear me better than I was hearing him.

"The codex," He said, "It's meant for you, I'm sure of it, but it's not safe. Can you meet me tomorrow in Belize?"

"What's this about," I asked, wondering if it was some sort of trap.

"It's not safe to say anymore, Belize tomorrow, get a room at the Belcove Hotel and I'll meet you there." Brian said and the static ended abruptly as the call died.

Hanging up the phone I shoved back from my desk and nearly took Tom down on my way out the door to get to Kyra. "Can you trace that call?" I asked as soon as she was in ear shot.

"I think so," Kyra said giving me a quizzical look. "Why?"

"Just do it," I said.

A minute later she pulled up a map of Southern Mexico and Central America. She said, "Near as I can tell it came from the border region between Guatemala and Mexico."

I nodded. "Thank you," I said, "Has anyone seen Jack?"

"Looking for me?" Jack said, startling me as he walked up from behind me.

I spun around to him and said, "I need to be in Belize by morning."

"I'll go with you," Tom said.

I snapped my head to him and said, "No, I need you to stay on top of the Hughes situation."

"What's this about?" Jack asked.

"A friend is in trouble and he says he has a message for me," I said.

"Not that," Jack said, "Hughes?"

"It's a long story," I said.

"You can explain it on our flight then," Jack said and I raised my eyebrow at him, "I'm going with you. Get your things together. Kyra have the jet prepped for takeoff in an hour."

January 28, 2010

Spank & Correct: Strange Like Normal

"Got a minute V?" Tom said, walking into Q5 with a purposeful stride.

Kyra shrugged next to me, clearly still confused, but no longer certain she wanted the answers to the questions floating around her head. I smiled, sympathetic to her plight and left her to match pace with Tom, walking toward his office.

"Something up?" I asked, walking next to him.

"In my office," He said, gesturing for me to enter first and then following me inside, closing the door.

I turned around to face him, leaning on the front edge of his desk. He said, "You were right," and handed me a flash card. "He's definitely dropping information," He said as I slipped the card into the reader on his keyboard and turned his monitor to see the images. It took a moment, but then the black screen faded into high resolution, color images of Patrick Hughes slipping a Quondam flash drive into a false rock in the corporate garden on the way to the parking garage. The location was surprisingly close to where Tom and I had last talked.

"Any sign of who is retrieving the data?" I asked as the images continued play in a slideshow on the computer.

Tom shook his head and said, "Not yet. I've got round the clock surveillance on the location so we'll know when someone picks it up."

I nodded. "Anything else?" I asked.

Tom said, "I found it more than a little hard to believe even with proof in front of me so I did a little more digging into his personal situation. Turns out he's married with two kids, four and six, but when I went to his house it appears he is the only one living there."

"Divorce?" I asked, not wanting to consider the other possibility which entered my head first even thought it seemed infinitely more likely.

"I doubt it," Tom said frowning, "Closets are full, the kids' toys are still in their rooms, but from the looks of the place Patrick has been living there alone for weeks. No, I'd have to say someone is probably using them as leverage over him. Your instincts were good."

My eyes found Tom's and I could see the same rage burning in me was burning in him. It was one thing to manipulate a person directly, but to threaten their family was nothing short of evil. Looking away and back to the computer screen, I said, "What do we do now?"

Tom exhaled frustration. He said, "We wait. When someone comes to retrieve the data we'll have a lead as to where his family might be being held. Until then, anything we do will simply endanger their lives."

I nodded. "Will you keep this between us?" I asked.

Tom regarded me cautiously. "Jack should know about this," He said.

"He will, just as soon as we know what or more specifically who, we are dealing with," I said.

"You don't trust him," Tom said, almost accusingly.

I knew they were old friends and I could not compete with the longstanding trust in their relationship, but even Tom had to realize something was far from right within Q5. "I want to, but things don't add up and until we know who is involved with Patrick, I think it would be best to keep the information contained."

"Jack is not involved," Tom said with forceful conviction.

"Probably not," I said turning to face Tom directly, "But I still can't figure how he got away in the Philippines."

"He's good," Tom said.

I nodded. "So are we and they still got us," I said.

Tom said, "Jack's one of the good guys."

I stood up off the edge of his desk and stepped as close to him as I dared within the office. "I'm not asking you to pick sides," I said quietly, "just keep things quiet until we know for certain."

Tom stood their staring down at me, breathing in and out, for a long moment. I began to feel certain he would not agree with me when he said, "Alright. We'll do it your way, but it's because I trust you, not that I don't trust Jack."

"Thank you," I said and after exchanging nods, I left him alone in his office.

"There you are," Dr. Michaels said from behind me just as I turned the corner heading back into the main area of Q5. I turned around and said, "Were you looking for me?"

Dr. Michaels nodded his head and gestured for me to follow him in the opposite direction of where I had been heading. I changed course and said, "Miss me?"

"I admit I have been eager to hear your thoughts regarding my findings," Dr. Michaels said gesturing for me to enter his small office, "But I would not qualify that eagerness as missing you. In fact, I would say your absence was appropriate and I should hope it did you some good."

"Time will tell," I said slipping passed him into his office.

The desk was a disaster. Papers strewn in every which direction, open books stacked around the room on the floor, chairs, and filing cabinets and prints of the photos taken inside the Easter Island cave were pinned to the walls in some sort of an effort to recreate the circular positioning. I stepped carefully through the mess, my attention caught by one of the photographs on the wall opposite the door which seemed to be focused on a single character in the writing; V.

"You've made some progress?" I asked twisting to look back at Dr. Michaels.

"Limited," He said squeezing his way behind his desk and bringing his monitor back to life. "As you know the language has never been successfully translated because there is only a limited amount of surviving text. I've been using a variation of Kyra's pattern recognition software on the entire collection of texts ever discovered on Easter Island and the results have allowed me to confirm two texts as fraudulent entries. Once I threw them out, I was able to identify a few of the characters and can at least confirm it is definitely a written language."

"That doesn't sound like much progress toward deciphering the text," I said, still staring at the picture before me.

"It's the first steps, but without more to go on, the translation could still take years or possibly never," Dr. Michaels said.

"So what did you want to show me?" I asked turning my back to the photograph and facing him.

"This," Dr Michaels said clicking his mouse and bringing up a slideshow of images. At first, I was lost as the images played across his screen. They were clearly taken from a variety of finds around the world, but after a few images had taken their turn on the screen I began to recognize the pattern. It was precisely the same thing which had drawn me to the photograph on the wall and by the look on Dr. Michaels' face, he had posted it there for exactly that reason.

I said, "What does it mean?"

He shrugged and said, "I don't know. It can't be coincidence, but there is no single meaning for it transcending cultures."

Glancing between him and the screen I could see he had a theory he was afraid to put a voice to for fear it would make him sound as insane as the idea did. "It's a message, isn't it," I said.

He nodded in apparent agreement with my assessment. "But it doesn't make any sense. How could anyone leave you a message spread across the entire world and thousands of years of history?" said Dr. Michaels.

"How can you be certain the message is for me?" I asked.

Dr. Michaels said, "That part is admittedly a hunch, but the coincidence seems unlikely although, the 'V' symbol can be interpreted as anything from a modern day 'A' to a numeric '5' not to mention it's correlation to rivers, valleys, and mountain ranges. It just seems it's prominence in the writings surrounding this team's finds is unmistakably abnormal."

Rambling thoughts bounced around inside my skull, but it was the word mountain which kept echoing. There was the crazy dream I had and whatever I am to call the trip my grandmother sent me on. In both there were mountains and a cave and something about that made me wonder if the symbol had more to do with that than me personally. If only I could wrap my head around the impossibilities posed by the theory, then I might start to understand what was expected of me.

"What about caves?" I asked.

Dr. Michaels looked up at me with a furrowed brow. "It's possible. Do you have a theory?" He said.

"Maybe, but it doesn't make any sense," I said, shaking my head. "At least not yet."

"Care to share?" Dr. Michaels asked, impatiently folding his arms across his chest.

I said, "Not yet. I need more information to make any sense."

"Perhaps I could help?" Dr. Michaels said.

I glanced around the room taking in the photographs and the fringes of understanding began to grip at the edges of my ability to understand. "It's some sort of a map," I said, turning in circles, staring at the photographs.

"A map?"Dr. Michaels said making not attempt to hide his skepticism.

"Not in the typical sense," I said, not sure I completely understood what was shooting through my head, "The placement of the symbols is specific and out of alignment with everything else."

"It's typical of titling or labeling," Dr. Michaels said.

"It has a pattern and it's familiar, but I'm not placing it just yet," I said, frustrated I could not put the final connections together despite the feeling that they should be obvious.

"I'll run it through the computer, but it seems like a waste of time," Dr. Michaels said.

I shrugged trying to relax in hopes the realization would come flowing once I was not trying so hard to make it happen. "I'm not sure the computer will catch it without more to go on, but there is definitely a familiar pattern here. I just can't quite recall where I've seen it before," I said.

The phone buzzed from underneath the papers on Dr. Michaels' desk and Kyra voice said, "Jack would like everyone out here at the conference table." Dr. Michaels and I looked at each other across the desk and he nodded. "After you," He said, gesturing toward the door.

Everyone else was already seated when Dr. Michaels and I arrived. Tom and Kyra looked a little anxious and I realized they were all more than ready to get back out in the field, chasing down artifacts rather than sitting around the office. Maybe Jack had someplace for us to go, but I had a hunch his purpose was otherwise. Once we were seated, Jack cleared his throat to get everyone's attention.

Jack said, "You all know we are behind on this one. We don't even know what we're looking for or where and when it's from. We've had our successes and failures in the past and I'm sure we've got more of each ahead of us, but right this minute we can't afford another failure. "

A glance around the table told me it was Jack's version of a pep talk, only it lacked any pep. Somber faces all around me and we all had work to do, although, I remained uncertain of my own role, particularly since Jack seemed unwilling to trust me in a leadership role. Kyra, Tom and Dr. Michaels all had definitive points to focus on that were specific to their skills, but Jack and I were a little less specialized in what we brought to the table which made me wonder if he ever felt like I did; Pulled in a dozen directions without any focus.

He said, "Ms. West is returned to active status now that her stint in disciplinary duties is over and although she remains on probationary status for the time being, I have decided to have her resume her former role, allowing Gene to focus on other priorities."

Dr. Michaels nodded and I found myself smiling, almost giddy that life was starting to get back to normal. Tom and Kyra seemed to approve as well, but my guess is they were just tired of Dr. Michaels smugness breathing down their necks from a position of authority. Give it a week and they will both be tired of my hanging over them as well.

Jack said, "Tom, you're working on tracking down Stratford and Kemp?" Tom nodded and Jack turned to Dr Michaels. He said, "Gene, stay on those translations. Ms. West," Jack turned his head to look at me, "You will coordinate with Tom and Gene, provide whatever assistance they need and if you have any additional avenues you think we should pursue I would like to hear about it first." I nodded. Jack continued, "Kyra is working on a finding a pattern that may narrow our search and I'm pursuing a few other possibilities with the assistance of our diplomatic contacts abroad. With a little luck, we'll be back on the trail in no time."

January 25, 2010

Spank & Correct: Deceptive Truths

Monday morning came none to soon and after my requisite trip over the table, I was delighted to learn I could drive myself to work and back home. I had half expected him to want to accompany me into the office so he could get confirmation directly from Mrs. Anderson in regards to forwarding records of any discipline I received at work. Apparently, he was willing to trust me enough to do it on my own and assumed he could simply call and verify with Mrs. Anderson directly which was technically true.

She was my first stop at the office because I was afraid if I delayed any, I might forget. Mr. Foley looked mildly paranoid when he saw me step off the elevator. I think he was afraid I might follow through on my threat, but much as I might like to chastise somebody, anybody just to know how it feels to be on the other side, it would not be fair.

"Good morning," I said, attempting to sound cheerful and nonthreatening as I stepped up to his desk. "I need a moment of Mrs. Anderson's time if it could be arranged."

"Of course, Ms. West. Give me just a moment to see if she is available," He nervously said. Punching a few keys on his keyboard he stared impatiently at his screen and then looked back to me with his big, brown eyes. "She can see you now," He said.

I knocked softly on her office door before entering. The office was empty and it should not have been surprising really but for some reason I had expected to find another poor soul bent over her desk getting their bottom warmed for some offence or another. Mrs. Anderson stood up as I walked inside and closed the door, the look on her face suggested she was less than happy to have me back in her office.

"I need to make an arrangement through you," I said, deciding it was better to be direct than spend five minutes dancing all around the point.

She raised an eyebrow and said, "What type of an arrangement?"

I said, "My father has requested to receive notification in the event Allison Beaumont is disciplined at work." I stressed my name purposefully, expecting her to catch on that anything regarding Virginia West was to go unnoticed so far as my father was concerned.

She said, "I take it you mean this as a formality only and don't intend for any actual information to be passed along?"

"Correct," I said.

Mrs. Anderson said, "I can make the necessary arrangements, you will need to sign for it, but I feel obligated to point out that deceiving your parents further than you already have will do absolutely nothing to correct the difficulties between you."

I smiled at her, but there was nothing friendly about it as I said, "The intricacies of my family relationships is not of your concern and I do not expect I need to explain myself or the deceptions necessaries to maintain the security of my position with this company."

She kept her face neutral and with a nod of her head said, "Of course, Ms. West. I'll see to it personally and notify Mr. Beaumont accordingly."

I returned the nod and said, "Thank you."

From there, I headed directly to Mr. Candle's office for another necessary conversation of the morning, although slightly less pressing, it would not do to delay. The express elevator stopped on the thirtieth floor and I stepped out wondering if Mr. Candle would object to the unannounced visit. He was sitting at his desk apparently lost in thought and nearly toppled his chair as he jumped up upon seeing me. I laughed.

"Sorry to interrupt," I said, walking toward his desk, "I need a quick moment."

"What can I do for you?" He asked, standing beside his desk and straightening his already perfect tie.

"A promotion and a raise," I said.

His eyebrows rose into receding hairline territory. He said, "If that's supposed to be a joke, I'm not laughing."

I said, "It's no joke. I told you before you sent me off to that training camp something would have to be done about Allison's job and we agreed to deal with it later if you recall." I stopped a few feet from him and rested my hands on my hips as he blinked and stared at me, giving me the impression I had awaken him from a deep sleep. "Later just became now," I said.

"This was for your mother's benefit?" He said.

"It was," I said, pausing to stress the past tense of the statement, "Now it's for everyone, including you."

"Now, I'm confused," Mr. Candle said with an unamused chuckle, "How is promoting Allison and giving her more money going to benefit me?"

"Because by doing so, you insure I'll be part of your team," I said, enjoying keeping him off balance for change.

"You're threatening to quit?" Mr. Candle said shaking his head, "Then quit. I won't be blackmailed."

I said, "It's your call. However, it's not me blackmailing you. I'm more than happy to go on working here, but you see the complicated situation you created at my home has reached the boiling point and if Allison doesn't get promoted, her parents aren't going to let her work for your company."

"You do realize, you are Allison?" Mr. Candle said.

I laughed. "I haven't forgotten," I said.

Sighing, he shook his head at me and said, "What is it you expect me to do, precisely?"

"Give Allison a managerial position and a salary commiserate with the position," I said.

"You realize this will call attention to you?" Mr. Candle said.

"So would the simultaneous departure of Allison and Virginia," I said.

"You believe this is the lesser of evils then?" He said.

"Don't you?" I asked.

"Perhaps," He said, retreating behind his desk, "It would be better to find a less conspicuous solution."

"I'm all ears," I said.

"I'll get back to you," He said, sitting down.

"Just don't take too long. They aren't going to wait forever," I said.

He nodded and I turned back to the elevator, leaving him alone to figure out whatever solutions he could. I found his excuses a little lame, but decided there was no point in disclosing the fact to him. If he wanted me to stay, he had to fix it, and if not then there was something more going on that met the eye and it would probably be in my best interests to be gone. Why is it every time I leave his office, I have more questions than when I entered?

"You're back," Kyra said as I walked through the door, entering Q5.

I smiled at her almost friendly greeting, pausing a moment to glance around the office. It felt like it had been much longer than a long weekend since I had stepped freely into the office, I decided to set my course for Kyra, seeing that Jack was busy and no one else was in the immediate vicinity. I joined her at the central table where she was working. She had her display space maximized with data from all of the team's most recent quests being sorted and scanned.

"Looks exhausting," I said, nodding at the information displayed in the air above the table.

Kyra said, "Yeah." She looked tired, exhausted actually, and I had the sudden impression she was carrying the weight of the world, or at least Q5, on her shoulders. No doubt, someone like Jack had decided she had the best chance of picking of the trail and getting the team back on track. Considering their past failures, it probably was not the first time.

"Any leads?" I asked.

"No," She said, shaking her head and turning her attention back to the display. "Tom told me you thought everything was connected so I've been running analysis trying to find the common thread, but if there is one, it's too complex for the software."

"Or you don't have the necessary data," I said, resting my hand on the back of her chair.

Kyra looked up at me from over her shoulder and said, "What are you thinking?"

"Mr. Candle is the connection," I said.

"Only after the fact," Kyra said.

"True but if you take time out of the equation, maybe the rest of the threads will become more apparent," I said.

Kyra said, "That's crazy."

"In case you haven't noticed," I said holding her accusing gaze with my own, "this entire operation is crazy."

"If you say so," Kyra said and began tapping on her keyboard to remove the time constraints on her search. "It will take awhile to recompute the data," She said.

"I'm not surprised," I said, watching the information flash up on the screen and scroll into infinity.

"I guess you heard about the leak," Kyra said, spinning her chair to look up at me.

For a second I thought she was talking about Patrick Hughes and Tom, but then I recalled she had been involved with the Mrs. Elliot affair. I nodded and said, "Yeah, what did you think about it?"

"I was pissed," She said a faint rose color rising to her cheeks.

It took a moment but then the reason clicked. I said, "Oh, I didn't realize."

Kyra shook her head ruefully and said, "You aren't the only one to step out of line. After my last time I've been a bit more cautious, which is why I've kept my distance from you ever since you practically asked Jack for disciplinary measures in Italy."

I blinked, trying to figure where she was coming from. "I wasn't asking for anything but a little respect," I said.

Kyra choked on a laugh and said, "You got some weird ideas about respect because where I come from having my bare ass waving in the air ain't a sign of respect."

"They weren't listening to me and I was right," I said, defensively.

"Everyone could see you were right and they should have listened, you sure didn't need to go waving their faces in it," Kyra said.

"I wasn't," I said.

"And that's why Jack put you over his knee," Kyra said with a smile barely holding back laughter.

I shook my head at her and shrugged. It was all true, although my perspective was slightly different, I really could not argue with hers. I returned the smile and a moment later we were both laughing. It felt good to laugh with her again and the tension between us was completely gone.

"Friends?" I said, holding out my hand to her in a peace offering, I sincerely hoped she would accept. She nodded her head, took my hand, and said, "Friends."

Kyra turned back to the computer studying the displays for a moment and ignoring me. I decided to let her work and was about to head over to Jack and find out what he had decided when she said, "I discovered your secret."

I turned back toward her, my heart thudding as I wondered just what she meant. She said, "I won't tell anyone, you can count on it."

"What are you talking about?" I said, hoping she would explain without me having to guess.

Kyra said, "You aren't Virginia West. I don't know what your real name is, but you are definitely not Virginia West."

I sighed and said, "Tom already knows." She tilted her head at me obviously surprised. I said, "Virginia West was created to protect my family. My real name is Allison. Allison Beaumont."

"Protect your family?" Kyra said obviously confused as to what they would need protection from, "Who are you?"

It was a good question and one I had been asking myself ever since I discovered who the mysterious little girl really was. The conclusion I had come to sounded arrogant, even narcissistic to my own ears, but I had nothing better to offer. "I'm what you've been searching for, the prize, the trophy, the undefinable treasure this entire team was assembled to find," I said.

January 22, 2010

Spank & Correct: Therapy For Walls

"The walls won't wash themselves," Mom said and I sighed.

Beside me, a bucket of hot, soapy water steamed my naked leg while a large yellow sponge floated on the surface. I glared at the white walls of the dining room because glaring at Mom was a bad idea. It was not my first stint scrubbing white walls whiter, but I could not recall doing it in my birthday suit before and the last time was years in the past as well. Of course, Mom was correct, the job would not get done on its own and I had no intention of trying to explain to Dad why it was not done.

I grabbed the sponge and winced as the hot water stung at my hand. Wringing out the excess water in the sponge, I chanced a glance at Mom and she was, as I expected, still watching me. I slapped the sponge against the wall and began the tedious process of scrubbing in small circles, working my way out from the corner and then down the wall to the floorboard. A stepladder would be required to reach the height of the wall, but that was for later.

As I toiled away, Mom finally stopped watching and went about her own chores, vacuuming the carpet and dusting off the furniture. It was all boring work, but it kept me physically occupied while my mind wandered through the mysteries of my life. I wanted to ask Mom about Joseph Candle, but I expected she would either not answer or answer in just as elusive a manner as Mr. Candle employed himself. The relationship is probably not of great importance anyway especially since I have already determined he cannot be trusted, not fully at least.

On the other hand, Tom seemed the sort to trust and I hoped my instincts were right, because I had trusted him with everything. With a little luck, he was putting the pieces together in regards to Patrick Hughes and something told me that was one puzzle which held the keys to many others. My grandmother seemed absolutely certain he was the dangerous leak to the man in the shadows and I have no reason to doubt her veracity, but if my impressions of the man are correct, Patrick is only dangerous because of the things he knows, not because he intends harm. Trying to reconcile the two perspectives was enough to make my head spin.

My grandmother is another head spinning matter of her own. Dead, alive, involved with the famous Joseph Candle and condemned to an ethereal life in the form of a young girl who walks on water, air and right through walls. It sounds like an exciting life until you think about how lonely her existence is, with no more than a handful of people on the entire planet who can even see or hear her and most of them are inclined to ignore her for fear of losing their grip on reality. I probably should have clung a little harder to that fear because the way things are going, I am finding reality harder and harder to accept.

Which brings me to dreams. I have had weird dreams all my life, they are nothing new, but these dreams lately are somewhere between outright nightmares and paranormal predictions of a murky future. Are those coming from my multi-talented grandmother or just a sign of exactly how fragile my hold on reality is becoming? Maybe I am not insane quite yet, but what the hell was I thinking to actually slap my father?

All things considered, the simple monotonous chore of wall scrubbing was exactly what I needed. Nothing too complicated, soak sponge in soapy water, wring out excess water, scrub in simple circular pattern, moving slowly along the wall to ensure even coverage. There is a life lesson in all of this; Everything goes in circles and when the patterns are complete, everything is covered. I guess it also means every path intersects another path which could be interpreted as everything is connected. Now that is the problem with mindless tasks, they make you think too much about other things which can lead to headaches, confusions and total insanity. I have definitely acquired two out of the three and I bet by the time I am done I will be three for three.

I had just managed to focus my mind on the task at hand when the doorbell rang. Glancing back at the door, I just hoped it was no one I knew or would ever know on the other side of it. Mom was upstairs running the vacuum, but Dad was kicked back on the sofa watching reruns of sitcoms. He muted the television and made his way to the door almost slow enough to make me think he dreaded opening the door almost as much as I dreaded it being opened.

Turning back to the wall, I tried to ignore the possibility my red butt was going to be seen by a total stranger. My hand flattened the sponge against the wall as I poured all my nervous energy into the scrubbing as I tried not to listen to the turn of the deadbolt, the click of the latch, or the squeak of the hinges signifying the opening of the front door.

A familiar voice said, "Mr. Beaumont, I don't know if you remember me," and Dad finished the sentenced for him saying, "Of course, Mark. Won't you come in."

My heart stopped. My hand stopped moving. All the blood in my body rushed to my face and stayed there. Of all the people in all the world why did it have to be him standing at my parents' door? I should not be surprised I guess seeing as all things do indeed seem to be connected. My first instinct was to look over my shoulder and stare at the unwanted intrusion hoping he would get the hint and leave, but I realized it would not happen that way. Instead, looking back at him would only mean having to see the smirk on his face looking back at me while pretending to have business with my father.

I forced air back into my lungs, kick started my heart with pure willpower and set about the business of whitening white wall with a warm and soapy sponge still in my hand. Behind me, I could hear the men shaking hands, feel the eyes of Mark fall upon my naked back and backside and in my vivid imagination the two exchanged a knowing nod with a tilt in my direction as if to say, "Yep, she's a handful and needs constant supervision not to mention regular discipline."

"The hell I do," I muttered to myself as I continued scrubbing the same spot of wall I had been scrubbing for the past several minutes. Dad cleared his throat making my eyes grow wide as I considered the unfortunate possibility my muttering had been overheard. Dad said, "Did you need something. Allison?"

"No, sir," I replied quickly without daring to look back.

They walked into the living room, leaving me in peace and relieved that whatever Dad had overheard from me, he did not find it necessary to offer reproach in front of Mark. The sat down and I heard the click of the television being turned off surely indicating Dad expected Mark to be staying more than just a few minutes. Needless to say I was disappointed. Still, I kept my nose to the grindstone, or the wall as it were, and continued scrubbing while pretending not to be eavesdropping.

"What brings you by?" Dad asked.

The opportunity to see his girlfriend in a state of submissive mortification perhaps? Or maybe he heard about all the spanking the other night and wants his turn? Does it really matter? No, I think the fact he is here is quite sufficient all on its own, but then I am the one in the embarrassing situation.

Mark said, "I stopped by Allison's apartment because she has not returned any of my calls in the last few days. I wanted to make sure everything was alright, I wouldn't stalk her if she doesn't want to see me anymore, but I haven't heard anything of the sort from her so my thoughts ran toward other possible explanations. Then I found out from the manager she had moved back home which I guess explains the silence."

Dad said, "Yes, she's grounded at the moment and I've taken away her phone outside of work hours."

Mark said, "I'm sure her behavior warranted it, but Steve has made me aware you don't approve of me dating your daughter. I thought it might be good if we could talk about it."

"There really isn't much to discuss," Dad said.

Mark said, "She is your daughter and if you don't want me to see her anymore, I'll leave and that'll be end of it, but I would appreciate the opportunity to defend myself. I'm not sure what I've done to sour my reputation in your eyes."

Here we are living in the twenty-first century and my boyfriend thinks he needs my father's permission to be my boyfriend? I do not have anything against traditions and all so long as they make sense, but someone please explain to me why my father is better suited to choose the men I date than I am. I know, I know, my rant would sound a lot better if it were not coming from a girl with a freshly spanked and brightly red bottom.

Dad shifted in the sofa making it squeak a little and then said, "To be honest Mark, I think your self-employment status is an admirable goal, but at your age it feels a little reckless and recklessness is already a problem for Allison. I really don't like the idea of you encouraging her in that arena."

I could practically hear the cogs turning inside Mark's head as he nodded and assembled his argument. From personal experience, I knew there was no convincing Dad that self-employment was not only a viable choice, but a wise and forward thinking one as well. In the modern age of ├╝ber-corporations and government sponsored bailouts, the only thing any of us can really count on for our future, is ourselves. To me that is smart, not reckless.

"I started out working for a company, much like where Allison is," Mark said and a sideways glance revealed him leaning forward to sit on the edge of his chair, "I was there for two years and then my entire department was sold off to another company and the first thing the new owners did was layoff everyone from the old company. I realized then, the security I thought came with a big company was just an illusion."

Dad said, "If you work hard, do your job right, the security is real. I worked thirty years for the same company and survived every sale, merger, and layoff during all that time because I handled my career responsibly."

Mark said, "With all due respect, sir, the corporate world does not play by those rules anymore. I work in a field where every business requires my services, but if I do my job responsibly and accurately, they only need me for a short time. I strive to the best in my field and my references, like your son, can tell you I have a reputation to match. I am not a reckless man. I did not choose my path without careful consideration and I promise you, I could not agree with you more when it comes to handling reckless behavior and your daughter is already aware of that."

"Is that so?" Dad said, sounding annoyingly curious to know the details of my private life.

"I have a firm hand and I'm not afraid to use it," Mark said, making me blush even more than I already was, recalling the one and only time he used his firm hand.

"I can't say I'm overly encouraged," Dad said, glancing back at me, "In the time the two of you have been dating her behavior has slipped back to the worst I've seen since her high school days."

Mark said, "Allison's work schedule has prevented us from spending much time together and in fact we've only had two dates, but I'd like the opportunity to have more."

"You think you can tame her?" Dad asked and my head snapped over to look at him sitting on the couch.

Tame me? Like I am some wild animal in need of a good whipping to keep me in line. I ought to take this bucket of dirty warm water and throw it right over his smug head. Nearly growling, I dunked the sponge back in the bucket and brought it up wringing it out and almost twisting it in half in the process. You would think if they were going to talk in such a way, they would at least have the decency to do it where I could not hear.

Mark said, "With your permission, I would like to try."

Dad said, "As long as she lives under my roof she will abide by my rules and be disciplined when she fails to do so."

"I whole-heartedly approve," Mark said.

He would not think so highly of Dad's methods if it was his own ass on the line, but of course it was mine and not his. The really funny thing, is he actually thinks I will still want to date him after listening to him and my father talk about me like my thoughts and opinion do not even matter. He can date Dad if they get along so well because it will be a snowy day in Laguna Beach before he ever lays another filthy paw on me.

Dad said, "I like you coming here and standing up for yourself and still showing respect for me and my family. It goes a long way in my book and it's possible I misjudged you previously. Allison has typically surrounded herself with immature friends and when she seemed to take a liking to you, I just assumed you fit in with that group."

It is so nice to know what your father thinks of you and your friends without any editing at all. I mean that kind of honesty really makes you proud and feel good about yourself and the choices you make. If you bought that, I have this bridge up in San Francisco for sale, it is made of pure gold and because of the economic times, you can have it for a steal of a price.

"If I may," Mark said, pausing for a nod from Dad I suppose, "I think Allison took a liking to me because I'm not like her other friends. She knows she can share private things with me and trust that they stay just between us."

"I tell you what," Dad said, leaning forward on the sofa, "Allison is off restriction next weekend, why don't you come by on Saturday and we'll have a barbecue out back and get to know each other a little better."

Great! It will be just like the good old days, you know when men made fire and clubbed their women over the head so they could drag them back to the cave for a night of passion. After a week of spankings and restricted living at home, it sound like just the perfect way to unwind. I wonder if I am really good, maybe they might let me serve the drinks and clean up after them. Ooh, I can hardly wait.

January 19, 2010

Spank & Correct: Everyone Says I'm Sorry

Dad said, "Did you sleep well?"

I nodded entering the kitchen and feeling especially exposed with my clothing from the previous day still resting on the back of my chair. It was even odder noticing Mom, wearing nothing more than an apron as she went about her otherwise normal morning routine. Shaking the thoughts from my head and pushing passed the point of embarrassment, I grabbed a mug from the cupboard and poured myself a hot cup of coffee. Dad continued to watch me as I sat down at the table, across from him and his morning paper.

"Not feeling like throwing another temper tantrum are we?" Dad asked over the rustling of the paper as he folded it up and set it aside on the table.

I said, "No, sir," and sipped from my steaming cup.

"That's an improvement," Dad said carefully watching my face for any signs of rebellion, "I called Mrs. Anderson to confirm your story about being off for the rest of the week."

"I thought you might," I said keeping my attitude as nonchalant as possible and pretending to be more interested in my coffee than anything Dad had to say.

"I also told her you'd be giving notice on Monday," Dad said his eyes hardening their stare as if to say the point was non-negotiable.

It took a bit of effort to remain calm, but after a couple of deep breaths I managed it. I said, "We should discuss that."

Dad nodded and sipped from his own mug before he said, "I realize you only took this job because I was pushing you and in hindsight, I realize it was a mistake."

I knew where the conversation was going and I knew I had to somehow change his mind, but the path to that end was murky at best. If I came across as too defensive it would not be to my benefit and if I came out as too encouraging, it would be just as bad. A middle line was required and they have never been strong suit.

"You did push me," I said, carefully agreeing with him, "But I'm glad you did. I know you probably don't understand it, but I like my job."

"After what they just put you through?" Dad asked, his face telling me exactly how incredible he found it to believe.

"It was my fault," I said, biting my lip and staring into the darkness of my mug. Eerily, it reminded me of my dream as I saw my face reflected back at me. "I stepped out of line and was appropriately disciplined for it."

Mom banged a pan against the stove top and turned toward me as Dad and I looked over to her, startled. She bristled at me and said, "You can accept the cold, unfeeling discipline of a corporate giant and yet when your own father attempts the same out of love and concern you see fit to attack him? You'll forgive me if I find your explanations a little hard to accept."

"They aren't trying to control every little detail of my life," I said seething with barely contained anger.

"Neither are we," Dad said defensively.

"Maybe not," I said regaining control of my anger, "But when you go and take away my apartment without even discussing the matter with me, it feels a lot like my life is being managed for me."

Dad stared at me for a long quiet minute while responses filtered through his head. I picked up my mug to take a nervous sip, but just before it reached my lips, he said, "I'm sorry." I nearly dropped the mug. Without words, I blinked surprise in Morse code or at least it could have been. Of all the things I expected him to say, wanted him to say, an apology had never even entered my thoughts.

After a long sip of his coffee, Dad continued, "I stand by my decision. You have not acted responsibly enough to keep that apartment, but it was rash to cancel the lease without telling you first."

"I can't say I completely agree with your assessment, but I can understand your perspective," I said struggling with a twinge of guilt evoked by his unexpected apology. "I'm sorry I slapped you. I was angry, understandably so I think, but still it's no excuse."

Dad smiled at me for the first time in a long time and it felt warm like the sun was finally shining down on me. He said, "Now there is the daughter I raised."

I returned his smile with a blush coloring my cheeks, but not of embarrassment. It was a mixture of humility and pride surging through me because in his eyes I could see he was pleased with me once again and as much as I might want to deny it, part of me craved his approval. I said, "I know you've got reason to discipline me and whatever you decide will undoubtedly be fair, but I would be most grateful if you could see fit to give me another chance with my job. I know it's not the most glamorous of positions and certainly it falls short of your expectations, but I honestly believe I'm making progress toward a future and a career that will make it all worthwhile."

Mom said, "How long should we wait, six months, a year, five years? At what point are you going to stop chasing fantasies and start living in the real world?"

I turned toward her with an angry response on the tip of my tongue but before I could speak, Dad said, "I'll thank you to let me handle this and you would be smart to focus your energies on your own responsibilities if you know what's good for you."

Mom and Dad stared at each other for a moment until Dad started to push himself back from the table with obvious intentions. Mom quickly said, "Yes, dear," and returned to her cooking without further comment or sideways glances. Dad watched her for at least a minute before scooting back up to the table and turning his attention back to me.

"This job really means that much to you?" Dad asked.

In his eyes I could see I had the briefest of chances to convince him and all I had to do was not say the wrong thing. I considered my words carefully and then said, "I made a mistake when choosing my major in college and that mistake has consequences. Putting in my time at Quondam can help make things right by giving me work experience for a major corporation. Even if I fail to gain a promotion into a better position at Quondam, the work experience can help counterbalance my poor choice in degrees."

"Quondam is not the only place you can gain work experience," Dad said.

I said, "I know, but I've already started with it there and cutting it short now will only set me back. I just want to finish what I've started, one way or another."

"Alright," Dad said nodding his head, "I'll let you continue there for now, but I want you to put a definitive goal down in writing by the end of the weekend and if you can't meet it in a reasonable time frame then we are going to revisit this conversation and make some changes."

I held back my excitement and relief, although I was certain I could arrange whatever was necessary to appease my parents through Mr. Candle. It remained necessary, in the meantime, for my parents to believe it was still going to be a difficult achievement or else they would begin to suspect deception. I said, "Thank you. I won't let you down, I promise."

"There is one other thing," Dad said, "I will speak with Mrs. Anderson and I expect you to approve whatever is necessary so that she can and will notify me of any trouble you get yourself into at work. I'm sure you would rather keep those things private, but I will not allow you to disgrace yourself at work without consequences here at home as well."

I nodded my head in agreement. He was right, I would have preferred to keep him in the dark, but it was also my intention to avoid further embarrassments at work so it should not matter in the end anyway. Of course things rarely go quite as planned and a spanking here and there is not entirely unexpected, hopefully Dad would be reasonable if and when such things happen. I said, "That's perfectly reasonable and you have my word to do what is necessary to arrange it."

"Then it's settled," Dad said.

I said, "Ah, just one little question though. What do you consider a reasonable amount of time?"

Dad pondered the question while sipping from his mug. I took the opportunity to sip away nervously at my own as I noticed Mom scooping breakfast onto plates. Dad sat his mug down with a clunk on the table and I turned back to him. He said, "I think six months is sufficient to see significant progress toward your goals, don't you?"

I swallowed as if the short time made me nervous and bit at my lip before nodding. I said, "Yes, I think, I ah, can manage that."

"Good," Dad said and Mom sat down breakfast plates in front of us. A moment later she joined us with a plate of her own and we fell into a familiar silence eating the morning meal. I even momentarily forgot I was sitting naked at the table until I dropped a crumb of hot bacon in my lap. Still, it almost felt like life was getting back to normal on the home front.

After breakfast and while Mom was clearing away the dishes and cleaning up after us, Dad cleared his throat and returned his gaze to me. I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable with the attention and certain it was not favorable. Dad said, "I've given a lot of thought on how to deal with your behavior from yesterday. As we've already mentioned my own actions while not excusing your behavior did in fact negatively influence it and I think it is only fair to consider that as well."

I returned to chewing on my lip and wished my cup had not run dry. The odds of him letting things go without my bottom being reddened at least once more were extremely slim to the point of non-existence. It also stood to reason the more I said in my defense, the deeper I would dig myself into trouble. While his relaxed style of oral consideration seemed to invite comment, I knew better than to make any suggestions and remained silent.

"Obviously striking your parent is entirely unacceptable and storming out of the house was nothing short of a childish antic, proven by your return and subsequent apology," Dad said and I nodded giving the appearance of agreement if not consent for him to continue.

"And then there was your behavior during dinner, appalling," Dad said, shaking his head at the memory. I looked down at the table wishing I had at least had the common sense to take things seriously the previous evening.

"I think last night's spanking was probably sufficient for that though," Dad said much to my relief, "On the other hand while washing your mouth out was certainly a step in the right direction for your earlier behavior it definitely falls short of fair correction."

"I think a week of being grounded is reasonable, don't you?" Dad said.

It did not sound all that bad to me. I nodded and said, "Yes, sir."

Dad said, "That means you don't go anywhere other than work and when at home you will be kept busy with plenty of chores. There will be no entertainment, no phone calls without my approval and a good, sound spanking after breakfast each day."

I told myself it could be a lot worse and tried to be pleased it was not, but still it felt a little bit unfair to me, not that I would ever say so to Dad. I said, "Yes, sir. I appreciate your leniency."

"Then it's settled," Dad said with a curt nod. "Go and get the leather paddle from the table and bring it to me and we'll get your first spanking over with."

I took a deep breath and nodded. Pushing back from the table, I said, "Yes, sir," and stood up. Much as I wanted to drag my feet, I walked quickly to the living room a picked up the implement from the where it laid discarded from the night before. Returning to the kitchen, Dad had moved my chair out of the way and was standing beside the empty place at the table waiting for me. He took the paddle from my hand with an almost sympathetic smile which almost had me thinking he was dreading the spanking as much as I was. Of course, I'm sure it was just for my benefit.

"Over the table," He said, gesturing toward it with the paddle.

I forced my hesitant feet forward and leaned myself over the table grasping the far end. A moment later the paddle slapped against my still tender buttocks, reawakening the previous evenings discomforting sensations. I stared ahead at the window looking out to the side of the house and counted myself lucky the blind remained closed. Bracing myself, I waited for the next swat to fall as Dad positioned himself for a better vantage.

Just when I thought he might have decided to stop with a single swat, unlikely I know but when you wait so long logic has a way of twisting itself, the next one fell. I jerked against the table at the surprisingly efficient sting imparted by the soft paddle. Dad raised it again and swished it back down at high velocity, obviously tired of waiting. Each swat followed the previous with barely time for a thought between. I squirmed against the table and gripped the edges until my knuckles turned white as the sting steadily increased. Tears began to drip from eyes and my thoughts increasingly turned toward pleas for mercy. I steeled myself against them, but the tears fell anyway.

My butt burned with the shame of a badly behaved girl and no doubt had the blush appropriate of such shame as well. When Dad finally laid on the last swat, I burst into sobs and my voice broke as I said, "I'm sorry. I'm so so sorry. Please no more."

Dad's rough hand slipped through the stray hands of my long hair as he said, "There, there it's all over for now." His strong arms lifted me from the table and then enveloped me in a hug. I sobbed into his shirt and wrapped my arms around him seeking comfort and forgiveness. In my ear he whispered, "I know it hurts, but that's what happens when you behave like such a bad girl."

"I'm sorry," I said clutching him and wiping my crying eyes on his shoulder. He patted my bare back and said, "I know. It's okay, I still love you."

January 16, 2010

Spank & Correct: Trust & The Trusted

"I hardly recognized you with your clothes on," Jack said, grabbing my arm as I walked through the door into Q5.

"I always thought you were looking somewhere other than my face," I said. Jack steered me into his office and closed the door giving us the semblance of privacy from the rest of the team. "What's up?" I asked.

"I should ask you," Jack said circling around his desk and gesturing for me to be seated. "As far as I know, you are the first person to ever be released from disciplinary duties early."

I did not intend to be cocky, but a sideways smile flashed across my face as I sat down. Jack shook his head, taking his own seat and resting his hand on the desktop. I said, "I'm sure you know the relevant details."

"To be honest, I don't really care," Jack said watching me with a studious eye. "You're still on probation for the next month and that means if I even get the tingle of a feeling you might be thinking about causing trouble, I'll have you out of your suit before you can flutter your pretty little eyelashes."

"And here I was beginning to wonder if you had even noticed," I said smiling mischievously at the thought of sitting naked across from him.

"Notice what?" Jack asked, either playing dumb or being a complete fool.

I leaned forward resting my arm on his desk while fluttering my eyelashes and said, "That I'm pretty. That is what you said isn't it?"

Jack leaned back in his chair, a faint pink coloring his cheeks as he swallowed. "I also said you were trouble."

"Are you tingling?" I asked leaning a bit closer. "Should I undress for you?"

Jack cleared his throat and said, "Fortunately for you, we have more important matters to discuss, unless of course you would prefer to be naked?"

I leaned back in my chair still smiling and said, "So, what's up?"

Jack glanced down at his lap and then pulled himself closer to the desk. Like a typical guy, he did not think I noticed, but it was hard to miss. I played nice though and kept my thoughts to myself. Jack cleared his throat again and said, "You'll be working under Dr. Michaels until further notice."

"Whatever makes you happy," I said.

Jack said, "Gene has fallen behind since taking on your responsibilities as my second. I need the two of you to get the translations completed from Easter Island and quickly because they may be our only chance to get back on the trail."

"Wouldn't it make more sense to just put things back the way they were so Dr. Michaels can focus on the work requiring his expertise?" I asked.

Jack said, "If I could rely on you, it would. Unfortunately, I'm not willing to trust you with the safety of this team."

"Get over it," I said, the smile disappearing from my face, "The longer you mess around, the further we fall behind and when it comes right down to it, you know Dr. Michaels isn't the right man for the job."

"I trust him," Jack said.

"So do I, but that doesn't make him a leader," I said.

"It's my decision and I've made it," Jack said.

"Then you're a fool," I said.

"You must really not like wearing clothes," Jack said.

"I'm not afraid of you Jack," I said, staring straight into his eyes, "What I'm afraid of and what you should be too, is what will happen if we lose this race to the man in the shadows."

"And just by being my number two you are going to stop that from happening?" Jack asked incredulously.

"Without me, your team wouldn't have found much of anything lately," I said shrugging, "My track record speaks for itself."

"So does Gene's," Jack said narrowing his eyes, "Unless I'm mistaken he saved your butt in the Arctic."

"True enough, but his decision was rash and endangered his own life as well as everyone aboard that helicopter," I said.

"And you've done better?" Jack asked with a raised eyebrow.

"If you'd stop fighting me and start working with me, then I wouldn't have to take rash actions to get the job done," I said.

"So you're blaming it all on me?" Jack said.

I shrugged and said, "If the shoe fits."

"Antagonizing me isn't the best tactic if you want me to change my mind," Jack said.

"I don't really care what my technical position is on this team so long as the lines of communication are open and you don't dismiss my thoughts just because they don't fit into your neat little box," I said.

"Fine," Jack said pushing back from the desk, "I'll think about it. In the meantime, Joe tells me you have some family problems that need resolving."

I frowned at the thought of Joesph Candle revealing anything about my personal life to Jack Barker. "Nothing I can't handle," I said.

"I'm sure it's not, but I need you focused when you're here," Jack said, standing up.

"Not a problem," I said.

"Good," Jack said, stepping toward the door, "You can go home solve your personal problems and be back Monday morning."

"Excuse me," I said, looking sideways at Jack as he opened the door.

"You heard me. Go home, fix the family stuff and I'll let you know what I've decided for you come Monday," Jack said.

I blinked at him.

"Go, get," Jack said, "Unless you want a spanking first?"

I stood up and straightened down my skirt, as Jack watched impatiently. Walking out of his office I kept my eyes on him wondering why, with all the rush to get back on the trail, he would send me home. There was definitely something more going on, but Jack was not going to tell. I sauntered out and headed toward the exit feeling Jack's eyes watching my every step until the security door slammed closed behind me.

The elevator doors slid open to reveal Tom Clark. "Leaving so soon?" He said as we stared at each other from opposite sides of the threshold. His lopsided grin and teasing eyes said a lot more, but left me unsure how exactly to respond. Obviously, he was as in the dark as I was about Jack's plans. I stepped inside the elevator.

"Jack's sending me home," I said.

Tom hesitated in the doorway, keeping the doors open. With a sideways glance he asked, "What did you do this time?"

I laughed. Tom raised his eyebrows clearly not understanding what I found amusing, but then he was assuming I had done something. I said, "Beats the hell out of me. It felt more like Jack wanted me out of the office for some reason or other."

"That doesn't make any sense," Tom said.

I said, "No, it doesn't. Walk me out?"

Tom glanced at the door to Q5 and then looked back to me before shrugging and stepping back inside the elevator. I pushed the button for the ground floor and waited for the doors to close. "What do you know about Patrick Hughes?" I asked.

Tom's head tilted as he looked at me and said, "He's been with Quondam as long as I have. Started out working the reception desk to HR and now he's one of the top people down there. I think he works acquisitions."

I nodded listening to Tom's summary. Patrick Hughes was something of a conundrum. If my guess was correct, he was in trouble and in his own way he had asked me for help. The problem was figuring out who could be trusted and exactly how to help without making matters worse. Out of all the people at Quondam, I trusted Tom the most because he was simple. His actions and motivations were transparently clear without the shroud of mystery surrounding everyone else around him.

"I need your help," I said looking him straight in the eye, "But you have to promise to keep it just between us."

Tom nodded, the grin disappearing from his face and a solid touch of seriousness glazing over his eyes. "What can I do?" Tom asked.

"Outside," I said as the elevator came to a stop. The doors slid open and I hooked my arm into Tom's allowing him to lead the way out. I caught him off guard for a moment but he recovered smoothly enough and smiled once more as we walked through the lobby and out the front doors. A few people took notice of us, but none said a word.

We stopped in the middle of the garden on the path to the parking garage and being late morning there was no one else around. It occurred to me the planters might be bugged, but it was a chance I had to take because there was no place I could be completely certain of in any case. Tom seemed to understand although I doubt he shared my paranoia.

"You are aware of the leak caused by Mrs. Elliot's activities?" I asked.

Tom nodded and said, "I understand that's what got you off duties early."

"Right. Unfortunately, I don't believe that was the leak at all," I said, pretending to look at the flowers.

Tom said, "Kyra proved someone was hacking in through the device."

"I don't doubt it, but it's a feint," I said.

"What do you know?" Tom asked.

"Patrick Hughes is the real leak," I said, turning to look at Tom and hoping he would read the seriousness in my eyes.

"Are you certain? He doesn't seem the type," Tom said, skepticism written all over his face.

A gentle breeze rustled through the garden making me look around, nervously tracking every noise. I shook my head feeling silly, but I could not shake the feeling we were being watched. Tom stepped closer to me, his own eyes darting around the surroundings. My gut told me we could not both be wrong. I wrapped my arms around his neck and planted my lips next to his ear.

"He's in trouble," I whispered, "You have to find out what they have on him, how they are manipulating him."

Tom's arms wrapped around my back and pulled me in closer to him. His hot breath tickled my neck as he leaned down and brushed his lips against my ear, his cheek brushing aside my hair. "I'll help because I trust you V," Tom whispered, "but it might be a little easier to put it all together if you trusted me enough to tell me why you suspect he's in trouble."

"Alright," I said in his ear, "He mentioned Allison Beaumont to me, very cautiously, very specifically and at first I thought it was a threat but in retrospect I think it was his way of asking for help because it seems he's kept that knowledge to himself."

Tom pulled back, just enough so our eyes could meet and I could read the absolute befuddlement on his face. "Who is Allison Beaumont?" He asked.

"Me," I said.

The memory faded to obscurity as the window in front of me solidified back into view. The feeling from the garden remained though, the prickling sensations running up and down my spine screamed about the hidden eyes watching me from some distance. Dad was still pacing the floor, shaking his head, obviously lost for more scolding words, but still trying to find something relevant to say. If I were not so tired and sore, I might have smiled, amused at the situation, but under the circumstances it was best to remain contrite or neutral at worst.

Dad stopped in his tracks, staring straight at me and said, "It's late and I'm tired of looking at the three of you. Allison, get upstairs to your room and go to bed. We'll talk about the future in the morning."

I did not too much like the sound of the impending discussion, but I was more than happy to lower my tired arms and walk up the stairs to my bedroom. As I went, Dad continued dismissing everyone, sending Mom to their bedroom and Steve and Jenny home. Behind my closed door, I watched through the window of my dark room as Steve and Jenny walked to their car and drove away. I no longer felt the prying eyes upon me and as I laid down to sleep I wondered if the eyes were still out there waiting for me to reappear someplace more visible or if they were following Steve and Jenny. If Mr. Candle was right, following Steve and Jenny would lead them to Geoff and if they discovered Geoff....

It was more than I could worry about for one night. I closed my eyes on what felt like the longest day of my life. Sleep came without much effort despite the relative discomfort my backside throbbed from even the lightest touch of the bedsheets. I dreamed of mountains and caves with reflections that were not quite reflections, but somehow a view into another world. My grandmother was there, two halves of a whole fighting for freedom and dominance and when they looked to me I realized I would decide who would win, but was it my choice or the woman's staring back at me with an evil grin from the other side of the dark water.