©2000, 2001,2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 Martha S. Robinson


"This place drives me insane," muttered Merrilee as she strode purposefully down the corridor of the huge airport in Atlanta. She and Bran had already ridden the airport tram for some distance, and gone up and down the escalator, taken the tram for heaven alone knew how far. She was almost ready to swear that theyíd been in the terminal for longer than the flight from Phoenix had taken.

"Itís better than it used to be," Bran pointed out as he shortened his stride to allow her to keep pace with him. He noted that she was having no difficulty with the high-heeled sandals that were part of the outfit sheíd donned. "A few years ago, it was a real nightmare." He kept glancing over at her, still trying to believe that the slender woman in the red silk dress could possibly be the woman Mike had described. It was impossible, he kept thinking. Mike mustíve been trying to set his mind at ease with the tale. But, no, that couldnít be it. Surely he wouldnít allow his own sister-in-law to go into a potentially dangerous situation unless she was capable of taking care of herself. And, if she was, why hadnít she just done something to him yesterday afternoon instead of crying and acting scared? Was everything just an act to her? Who was she, anyway? It bothered him that she hadnít leveled with him, but then, he certainly hadnít told her everything, either.

"Bran," came her voice, interrupting his thoughts. "Are you with me? Earth to Elliot. Come in, Bran."

"Huh? Oh, yeah. I was just thinking,"

"Glad to hear it. Tell me, how much time do we have?"

"Our connecting flight is an hour. That gives us just enough time to check in."

"With whom?"

"Backup." Damn him, anyway, thought Bran. Mike was coordinating this from a recreational vehicle in Savannah, with a couple of people on stand-by, but Bran didnít want to have to explain all of that. Besides, he thought irritably, Merrilee probably knew how all of this worked, anyhow.

"You mean we have back-up?" She walked along beside him, aware of his mood, but not the cause. Maybe it was nerves, or maybe he was upset about last night. Oh, well, she could appreciate either scenario. Sheíd had her share of misgivings, but it was too late to change things. The tension was growing, the adrenaline starting to flow, and sheíd have to do her part to lighten the atmosphere.

"Of course we have back-up. Iím expected to check in every three hours."

"Donít tell me that you have a little radio."

"I do, and you will, too, in a minute or so. Come on in here." He led her into a quiet corner of an airport lounge, and they sat down. He gave a little smile as he removed a package from his pocket. "Remember this little thing I got a few minutes ago from the desk clerk?"

"How could I forget? The clerk was drooling all over you."

"One of the hazards of this job."

"You poor thing, risking life and limb like that."

"Youíd be surprised," Bran said, opening the package. "Now, here we are." He pulled out three pieces, wondering what Merrilee would think of them. He figured that sheíd appreciate the small transmitter as one of the more interesting parts of the job. A little James Bondian touch, he thought, and then wondered if sheíd had a hand in developing it.

"The suspense is killing me," she deadpanned. "What do I talk into? My watch?"

"Youíve been watching too many spy movies. As Marilyn MacKenzie, youíve acquired a taste for fine, expensive jewelry. Observe," he commanded, handing a diamond pendant to her. "Look it over carefully."

Merrilee glanced down at the pendant, her trained eye taking in the minor design flaws that had been incorporated into it intentionally. A casual observer wouldnít see them, and had she not been looking for them, she might have simply dismissed the piece as ostentatious. However, she wasnít going to deprive Bran of the opportunity to tell her about them. "This pendant is a bit much. I mean, eighteen karat gold and set with diamonds is a little more than Iím used to wearing."

"As Merrilee, maybe. But, as Marilyn, just the thing. Itís also a small transmitter."

"Oh, yeah?" She sounded like she was beginning to enjoy this. "I assume that I have an unnaturally strong emotional attachment to it?"

"You never take it off. Maybe itís a good luck piece, or a token from a lover."

"Some well heeled lover," she quipped. "Tell me more."

"Be serious," Bran grinned, beginning to appreciate the humor in their situation. "The antenna is woven into the rope chain, and to activate the transmitter, simply depress the large diamond and speak. The microphone is very sensitive."

"With whom will I be speaking?"


"Nice and vague. How will they answer?"

"This is where it gets fun. Your ring."

Merrilee gave him a sideways glance and then added, "Okay, Iíll bite. Whatís so special about it?"

"Itís a mood ring."

"They went out of fashion years ago."

"I know that. Yours is different."

"What is it? A built-in libido barometer?"

That surprised Bran, and he shook his head and chuckled. "Nothing so exotic, though if anyone asks you, that might be a good answer. After all, you are Marilyn."

"So tell me." She looked down at the large, chunky ring that weighed down her left hand. It resembled a piece of Danish modern furniture, scaled down and done in gold, with a large, murky cabochon cut stone of indeterminate color nestled down between the heavy bands of the yellow metal. Even now, the color hovered between deep green and navy. Not exactly her thing, but it had possibilities. She already recognized the stone for what it was, but she knew that she wasnít supposed to be familiar with that high tech piece of crystal. "How does this tacky thing communicate with me?"

"Donít knock it," Bran chuckled, trying not to laugh. Merrilee knew quite well what it did, but he told her anyway. "Itís a temperature sensitive crystal, as you can see. Touch it and watch the colors change. There. Now, beyond that, it has a special receiver in it that causes the heat sensitive crystal to change far more dramatically. By varying the signal, back-up can vary the color. After you check in, the crystal will turn deep purple. If they need to contact you, it will turn a vivid green. That will tell you to expect a message via the locket within five minutes. That gives you time to find somewhere private to receive it. Should this prove inconvenient, simply depress the large stone and that once again turns on the microphone, alerting back-up to wait, and, listen in, if needs be."

"Neat. And you?"

"I get the fancy watch. Also, about the ring."


"If, by chance, it turns red, we get the hell out of there. It means that this endeavor has been aborted, and that for whatever reason, we are in deep.......trouble."

"Do you have a ring, too?"

"No--I have lights on my watch. Now, I have to phone in one last time for back-up to activate these things. They wonít do it until I call--just in case someone else got our package."

Taking a cellular phone out of his briefcase, Bran entered a series of numbers, and then waited. "Backup? Shadow and Sugar. Things......I see.....right.....out."

"Shadow and Sugar?" Merrilee shook her head in disbelief. "Give me a break! I mean, really!"

"It may not matter, anyhow. The agent that was missing isnít missing anymore. He turned up dead."

That silenced the laughter immediately. Merrilee looked at Bran. "Murder?"

"Possibly. Heíd been bitten by a rattlesnake, and from the looks of it, an Eastern Diamondback."

"My God! The ones I saw in Texas were big, but the Eastern Diamondback is the largest rattler in the United States. Those suckers get up to eight feet long."

"Yeah. Theyíre the most dangerous snakes in the country outside zoos or science labs."

"I know. My father and I worked with them one summer, milking them for research. The venom is highly destructive to blood tissues, and they have a very large volume of it. Their bite can be deadly or disfiguring."

"No kidding." Bran was appalled at the way this whole thing was going.

"So where did they find the body?"

"On a highway outside of town."

Merrilee looked up at her partnerís face and watched him struggle with a decision.

"Merrilee, the odds are that the agent was murdered and that it was made to look accidental He was good. Damned good, and was used to the outdoors. He was found without his transmitter, and without any snakebite kit. Knowing where heíd have been going, and knowing his cover as a birdwatcher, he would have had snakeboots and a kit. Heíd have called for help."

"I agree."

"Had he been bitten in the course of a trek through the swamps, heíd have called. He could have been picked up by a chopper within minutes."

"Didnít he have to check in every three hours like you do?"

"Yes, but since he wasnít actually inside the estate, they had no reason, nothing legitimate to allow them a search warrant. Besides, they were searching the marshy area where heíd been and they never found a thing."

"So what are you trying to say?"

"That perhaps we should cancel this little trip."


"Because we may be expected."

"I disagree. Look, Bran. If we donít go, itíll look bad anyway. Theyíll think that we know that they know that we know what is going on. That weíre on to them," she clarified.

Bran looked down at her, knowing exactly what she meant, and shook his head. "I donít want you getting hurt."

"If youíre concerned about snakes, donít be, unless itís the snakes youíre worried about." Merrilee paused, letting that twisted sentence sink in. "I mean, I was brought up roughing it, and have handled snakes of all sorts for years. I know how they behave, and what upsets them. Remember me? Dr. Micah Jonesí daughter. Other children had kittens and puppies, but I had chimpanzees and reptiles to play with."

"Iím more worried about the two-footed snakes."

"You may have cause to worry, but on the other hand, we have the perfect excuse to be there. We wonít be lurking about on the premises uninvited, spying on anyone with binoculars. We will be guests."

"You arenít listening. This is potentially dangerous." Even if youíve been in tight places before, he added, mentally.

"Do you want me to sign a release form that I wonít sue whoever it is that Iím not supposed to know about if Iím injured?"

"I think that youíre beginning to enjoy this."

"Maybe a little," she admitted. "And, though I wouldnít admit it in front of my father, Iím rather fond of snakes. If this agent was murdered, the Eastern Diamondback just got a lot of undeserved bad press. Theyíre actually very important to the ecological balance of nature."

"Youíre nuts."

"The whole family is," she smiled back at him. "It only gets worse with age. Now, come on. Weíve got a plane to catch."

By the time theyíd exited the plane in Savannah, Merrilee was well into her role as Marilyn MacKenzie. She flowed into the limousine that had been sent to convey them to the deSilva plantation, bestowing a dazzling smile on the driver who began having fantasies of his own. She generously autographed a copy of her latest novel, The Virtuous Vixen, ostensibly for his sister. It was, Merrilee thought, one of her best, and she wish that sheíd actually written it. Sheíd enjoyed the mainstream novel about a lady spy who had acted a Mata Hari role in order to find the mole in her organization. It was a serious story, but done with Marilynís flair for the unusual.

Bran was doing his best to act as the attentive secretary, sitting close, and whenever possible, touching her. An arm around her shoulder, a hand on her thigh, anything to demonstrate intimacy. Anything to drive him nuts, he decided.

The drive to dissolveís estate was relatively short, the chauffeur having been instructed to bring Miss MacKenzie straight there. It was with a growing sense of excitement that they arrived at the mansion, a rambling house built to overlook the Savannah River.

"Itís beautiful," Merrilee gushed, as deSilva greeted her just inside the door. She swept past the butler, making a grand entrance. "Mr. DeSilva."

"Miss MacKenzie."

"I hope you donít mind if I look around," she said, her eyes sparkling with interest. "Iíd love to use your home as a setting for my next book."

"Iíll be your guide," he drawled, his Southern accent grating on Branís nerves. Drake gave Merrilee an openly appraising look, taking in the way the scarlet silk dress clung to her curves. Drake smiled, offering her his arm, and effectively excluded Bran from the remainder of the conversation. "Iíll show you anything you want to see."

"Iíll bet," Bran muttered, darkly.

"What was that?" asked deSilva, turning to him. The exporter gave Bran a quick, sharp look.

"Iíd better help with the luggage," Bran smiled, considering the pleasure heíd take in punching deSilva in the mouth. "Miss MacKenzie?"

"Yes, Bran?" Merrilee turned to him, smiling, and then told deSilva with a smile, "I hope you donít mind an extra guest. Bran is my, uh, secretary."

"I see. Very well, Bran. Take the suitcase in, and Matthew will show you to your quarters." DeSilva then smiled at Merrilee and led her into the house. "Iím so pleased that you decided to accept my invitation."

"It was so kind of you to extend it. May I call you Drake?"

"Only if I can call you Marilyn."

"Iíd be disappointed if you didnít. Drake, the drive here was simply gorgeous. I never dreamed that Georgia was so lovely."

"You should see it in the spring, when all the dogwoods and azaleas are in bloom."

"Is that an invitation?" she asked, coyly.

"Of course. A gentleman always offers a lady anything she wants."

"You read me so well," Merrilee told him. "You know, Iíve never written a book with a Georgia setting."

"But Whistliní Dixie was Southern."

"That was in South Carolina. Thereís something about Georgia that I like. A sensual, sultry sort of feeling that Iíd like to capture on paper." Actually, she thought, the humidity was miserable, but it wouldnít have done to mention that.

"You do very well on paper."

"I do very well on satin, too." Good heavens, Merrilee, she chided herself. Donít overdo it! She gave him a very inviting look and then smiled slowly. "Perhaps we could work on this story together? I could use some input from a true Southern gentleman."

"Iíll look forward to it."

My God, Merrilee, she told herself. You all but propositioned that man. This Marilyn MacKenzie stuff is getting away from you. Merrilee followed Drake up the huge double wide staircase that looked like it had been lifted straight out of Tara, and allowed him to lead her to her room.

"I was going to give you the peach suite, but since weíll be working together, possibly late into the night, Iím putting you into the suite next to mine. Itís done in antique gold and I think youíll enjoy the king-sized waterbed."

"I love a waterbed," she murmured. Sheíd never in her whole life slept on a waterbed, but she lied glibly. "Theyíre so sensual."

"My feelings, exactly. And the sheets are gold satin." He gave her a meaningful glance.

Drake opened the door to the suite, allowing her to enter ahead of him. She walked around, trying to school her expression to show pleasure, instead of shock. As far as Merrilee was concerned, the room was appalling. The carpet was a very thick, deep gold plush, the walls were covered with ecru silk, and the draperies were deep gold silk. She headed into the bedroom, where she discovered, in the middle, a huge platform waterbed, elevated, it appeared, on some clear substance. Could it be crystal? And, with a mirrored ceiling over it. The push of a button opened the curtains on the outside wall, revealing glass doors and a glass wall. The doors opened to a balcony which was shared with Drakeís suite. As she walked into the bathroom, she exclaimed with what she hoped sounded like delight. "Itís really incredible. Iíve never seen anything like it."

"Of course not," Drake said, smugly. "I designed it, myself." He motioned to the fixtures. "Solid gold and crystal. How do you like the bathtub?"

Merrilee turned to look at the item in question, and her eyes widened. "It looks like crystal."

The bathtub was huge, like the bed, on a platform, though this one appeared to be of the same crystal as the tub, possibly carved from the same crystal. It was also quite transparent. And, as sheíd come to expect, there was a large mirrored ceiling. In fact, a large portion of the bathroom was mirrored, and what was not was either windows overlooking the river, or lush vegetation in an enclosed garden. She walked a little father, inspecting the shower which had two shower heads, one on either end of the large, transparent compartment, and the remaining plumbing fixtures which awed her.

"Will this suite do?" Drake asked her. He looked so proud of his own designs, so totally positive that he had just what she would enjoy, that Merrilee was incredulous. However, she remained in control of herself.

"Very nicely," she answered, barely trusting herself not to burst out laughing. Exiting the room, she walked past the immense bed and into the sitting room. Predictably, it was done in gold and ivory, accented with crystal and mirrors.

"My parlor adjoins yours though this door." He motioned to the door, discreetly concealed by a bookshelf. "No sense waking the rest of the house late at night."

"Oh, right," she agreed with him, nodding almost violently. "Show me how it works." Obliging, he demonstrated the hidden lever that activated the door, and how to lock it from her side. "It allows for complete privacy."

"Good," she smiled, suggestively. "Oh, that must be Bran with my luggage." Turning quickly, she hurried to the door. Drake watched as Bran carried the suitcases into the room, and then said, "Iíll send a maid to unpack for you."

"Oh, that wonít be necessary. Bran will do it for me."

Drake shrugged, then said, "Cocktails will be served at seven." He exited the room, closing the door behind him. Locking it, Merrilee turned to Bran and took him by the hand, leading him into the bedroom. The totally stunned look on his face was worth any price she had to pay.

"What kind of pervert designed this place?" he demanded.

"Wait till you see the rest of my suite."

She led him into the bathroom, and collapsed in giggles as he stared at the huge crystal tub. "Oh, my God!" He walked into the bathroom, and with the same curiosity displayed by Merrilee, inspected the toilet and the bidet. "Thank heavens thatís not transparent! This guy is kinky!"

"He thinks I am, too."

At that, Bran stopped laughing. "You stay away from him."

"Weíre going to work together late into the night," she told him, innocently.

"Like hell you are."

"I believe youíre jealous."

"Hah! Iím just not letting that perverted sonofabitch get his filthy hands on you."

"And how are you going to stop him?"

"Sleep across your doorway?"

"Thereís a secret entrance that connects our rooms via the parlor."

Bran uttered something so crude that Merrilee gasped, then snickered, "I wonder if Drakeís thought of that."

"Probably even tried it. Listen, babe. That guy eats little girls like you for breakfast."

"No doubt."

Bran made a face at her, then snapped, "You donít have to act like the wanton author around me. I know who you are."

"If I keep getting in and out of character, Iíll forget who Iím supposed to be. Marilyn can handle Drake, but Merrilee might have problems."

"I donít like this. My room is on the third floor in the opposite wing of the house."

"What are you grumbling about?" She stopped talking for a moment as he took something from his pocket and walked around the room with it in his hand. Then, he walked the other room, and returned to Merrilee. "No bugs?"

"Clean, thank goodness. I almost forgot."

"Some secret agent you are."

"I told you, this isnít my usual thing." And beside, he added to himself, you keep distracting me.

"It doesnít matter. Anyway, since Drake stuck you up next to the attic, you can assume that he isnít suspicious of you. That should make your activities less difficult."

"I still donít like it."

"What do you want me to do? Move you in with me?"

"Yes. That will keep Drake at a distance, and..."

"And how will you get anything done? Bran, I can take care of myself Drake will show me anything I want to see, and I can get a guided tour of the house whenever I want."

"Starting with the bedroom, no doubt?"

"Yes, starting with the bedroom." She gave a chuckle and then wondered aloud, "If my bedroom is this outrageous, I wonder what his is like?"