Chapter 7.24 – Life

Being a widow to the Logrus Estate’s sole heir would normally command a terrifying air of fear, power, and control.
 
But not this time. There are many sims in the Baltic Sea crime syndicate who have intimidated, threatened, bribed, sweet-talked, and even attempted to kill Amber Barimen; to dissuade her from divesting the Logrus fortune from its interests. But she survived Brand. And there is nothing any of them can do to approach the scope of what he had done to her. With their base of power, and now their money, gone, the organization dissolves into chaos and infighting. Amber takes some satisfaction in knowing that by doing this, many career criminals have been shut down; some of them permanently. The results are far more impressive than any law enforcement effort could ever have achieved.
 
Amber chooses not to view Uncle Ricky’s death as sacrifice made only to save her. She chooses to view it as a sacrifice made to save an entire town from the devices of a family that has victimized its citizens for generations. The vast manor, which has been a symbol of fear for so long, is given to the town as a gesture of healing and recovery. The towns-sims gladly accept, and renovate the ancient building into a historic tourist attraction and inn, for would-be travelers and adventurers to come and hang their hats.
 
Seeing what her husband’s sacrifice has accomplished, Aunt Sarah eventually forgives Amber. She gives birth to a baby boy, Richard Nava IV. Amber mobilizes her considerable, new found resources to set up trust funds for her aunt and both children. Nonetheless, Sara moves with her son and teen-aged daughter to the same Baltic town where her husband died; if for no other reason, than to take part in the joy his actions have brought to those sims.
 
 
Sarah does not need to say the words for Amber to know the real reason for her leaving. It does not matter how much progress has come from Ricky’s death, or that Sarah has forgiven Amber for the foolish exploits that led to his demise. The simple truth is that she wishes to never see or speak to Amber again. Aunt Sarah’s aloofness troubles Amber deeply. But it is the reaction of her own parents that demonstrates just how deep the rift sinks.
 
Thanks to the influx of new money toward their efforts, Ben and Lisa successfully bring together the disgruntled Grayswandir bandmembers. And the music they create together once again sets the music industry ablaze. Amber fakes her happy smiles, knowing  when the band begins touring, Ben and Lisa will live out their lives doing what they love; traveling and playing music. So when they say farewell to Amber before leaving on concert tour, she knows that this time, it is actually goodbye.
 
Ironically, it is Grandma Faith who comforts Amber when her parents are gone. She consoles her granddaughter, exactly as she had when her parents went on tour when she was a child. She also shares details about her own dangerous exploits, and those of her father, Ben. It is Grandma Faith who eventually brings her to understand that all sims have faults, and that this feud will not last forever. She reminds Amber that a sim’s character cannot be solely defined by what they have chosen to do in the past, but also by what they choose to do right now. Grandma Faith also points out that a young woman needs more than the unconditional love her “old granny” can provide.
 
And with some coaching from the same “old granny”, Wendell has become much more than Amber’s best friend. He stood up and risked his life for her. Amber has not thanked him with words, and she senses no such thing is required. To show her gratitude, she has done far better. She has displayed the same kind of patient and loyal love he has been demonstrating since she was a teen. She had been so fixated on “the mystery”, that she had no clue what being in love, romantically, felt like. She wishes now, that she had paid much closer attention.
 
The most painful part of healing, for Amber, is reconciling the conflicting emotions she still has attached to Brand. Knowing full well who he was and what he represented, she had willingly entered into marriage with him. There is no denying the unspeakable pleasure she felt that night with Brand. There is also no denying that the experience was as unhealthy as it was unnatural. And if that is not enough to keep her awake at night, there is another unsettling thought that does. If she were given the chance to experience it again in exchange for the same pain and loss, she is not sure she would have the willpower to turn the offer away.
 
Wendell has also gone through his own healing process. He and Amber have found that walking on the beach, and sometimes watching the stars together at night, are their favorite escapes from the stressful realities of life. He has told her the whole truth about the military injury, and about his clumsiness with both actions and words. Maybe it is that first, gentle kiss she gives to him after sharing his secret. Or maybe it is the weight that has been lifted from his conscience. Regardless, the limp that has hindered his movement for years, is now completely gone.
 
Setting aside the worry that Amber is young enough to be his daughter, Wendell finally finds the courage to speak those impossibly elusive words. On bended knee, he presents her with a ring (which he fumbles only slightly), and asks the love of his life to marry him. He knows the answer long before the ring even makes it onto her trembling hand. He does not know why, but her burst of tears afterwards seems only natural and fitting.
 
 —
 
Amber’s wedding with Wendell is held inside the chapel, surrounded by her family and loved ones, and is filled with the love of the Spirit. She does not agonize over the fact that her neither of her parents or Aunt Sara had been able to attend. There is also one empty space on the front row pew, which Amber had insisted be left unseated for the memory of Uncle Ricky.
 
 —
 
No measure of unnatural pleasure can ever compare to what she feels at that moment Wendell speaks the words, I Do. Dispelled by the cleansing power of her love for him, Amber purges herself of the tethers that Brand continued to hold even after his death.
 
And although her family’s wealth has now been restored tenfold, she and Wendell choose to continue living with only the necessary comforts inside their gigantic estate on the bluff. It reminds them both of what was lost, and what is most important.
 
It is not long after their wedding, however, that Amber kisses her husband and tells him that they will need to furnish at least one more room with those necessary comforts.
 
They laugh and cry tears of joy, and celebrate the new life that Amber carries inside of her; a life, together, they helped to create.

Chapter 7.23 – Iniquity

Had there been any doubts the stakes were high, and this was for real, they have been soberly dispelled by evidence of two dispatched thugs across the room.
 
This is not simply a matter of some fictional sleuth awaiting the outcome of her fate at the hands of an omnipotent author. It is survival; kill or be killed. When bullets started flying, Ricky was prepared, focused, accurate, and deadly. And it was over before Wendell even knew what had happened. Ricky grabs Wendell by the shirt collar in anger and warns him again to focus. Had those thugs been good shots, he’d already be a dead man.
 
Ricky sprints across the room, then gestures Wendell to follow. He attempts to run, but is immediately tripped up by a the corner of a flagstone raised slightly higher than the others. He manages to avoid a painful face plant, but not humiliation. If it weren’t such an ominous situation, it would be funny. Collecting himself, he joins Ricky next to the dead gunman. Ricky inspects a discarded gun then hands it to Wendell. He looks the publisher square in the eye and warns him not to shoot the good guys, or himself. Wendell’s shoulders sag, and he breathes a heavy sigh. The irony is sickening.
 
Under normal circumstances, Wendell would retreat into himself and begin to ponder his own misery. But these are not normal circumstances. A chilling scream of desperation resonates from behind a door atop a flight of stairs, and on the far side of the room. It was Amber, and she was calling Wendell’s name. Even before the echoes finish bouncing off of the ancient stone walls, Ricky has already sprung into action.
 
He sprints across a long dining hall, then bounds up the staircase to a balcony overhead; leaving Wendell scrambling to catch up. Wendell is only half way up the stairs when a pair of gunshots leaves Ricky staggering on the balcony.
 
A third gunshot sends him over the rail’s edge, landing with a hard thud onto the floor below.
 
Wendell stares in horror at Ricky’s unmoving body, and then at the spatters of his friend’s blood that have settled on his own face, hands, and clothes. He hesitates for what feels like hours, though in reality it is barely a second. He eyes the open door from where both Amber’s screams and Ricky’s death had originated. He is motivated by the knowledge that unless he reacts immediately, Amber will be next.
 
In his brain, his legs move fluidly up the stairs, where he then dives behind a sofa visible through the open door. But reality is not nearly so kind to Wendell. He trips up over the top step and bangs his forehead on the door frame. Then he spills into the room, momentarily delirious from the sharp blow to his head.
 
Of all the things he might have expected to happen next, being laughed at was not among them. He does not know the man pointing a gun at him, nor does he care. Wendell has been a joke his entire life, and he is thoroughly fed up with being a laughingstock. Seeing Amber lying on the floor causes something in his head to click. He did not come here to fail. He watched helplessly while Ricky was murdered. It is a gruesome vision that has already burned itself into his mind and will likely haunt him for the remaining years of his life. He must prevent the same thing from happening to Amber, or he must die trying.
 
Unsure of whether it is just simply the fight or flight instinct, or something else that empowers him, Wendell grabs the first thing he can get his hands onto and throws it with surprising accuracy; hitting the killer square in the face. It buys Wendell enough time to get to his feet. Gunshots fire harmlessly while Wendell struggles with his unnamed foe. When the gun is finally emptied, his opponent growls and comes on with the strength of twenty sims.
 
Wendell knows he cannot possibly fight against such unusual power. But he may not have to. For the most part, Wendell had always considered his time spent in the military to be a total loss. He had never successfully performed any of the hand-to-hand combat maneuvers they taught him, but he still remembers the techniques. Using his opponent’s unnatural strength against him, Wendell rolls smoothly along with his attacker’s momentum, then executes a perfect throw.
 
Glass and wood explode as though a mortar shell had struck the ancient window. Wendell simply stands in shock as the unusual man continues sailing through the window pane, into the open air, then onto the rocky ground, several stories below.
 
Tragic and heartbreaking. They are the only words that come close to describing the funeral for Richard Nava III. His widow, Sarah, is inconsolable. And, as depressing as it may be, she appears to also be pregnant.
 
Both Ricky and Amber had been rushed to the hospital when the local emergency crews arrived. But the owner of the manor, a Brandon Logrus, did not receive the same kind of urgent care. There was hardly any questioning on the part of the police. In fact, there was an odd sense of relief accompanying the fact that Brand lay broken on the rocks below the manor. It was disturbing and unsettling.
 
Nothing could be done for Ricky. He had likely been killed by the first gunshot, and was declared dead at the scene. His heroics afforded Amber the mere few moments that ultimately saved her life. She had suffered severe dehydration, and was debilitated from an extreme dose of some exotic neurotoxin. The poison Brand used on Amber was not intended to kill her. Rather, it was intended to induce terrible pain and paralysis. Amazingly, she will suffer no permanent physical damage.
 
The minor, physical wounds Amber suffered were negligible. But her emotional trauma is severe. It is inconceivable, how close she came to death.  Added to the ponderous thought of her own mortality, is the knowledge of what she has caused. And the guilt of knowing consumes her spirit. Too many sims have suffered or died as a result of her selfish pursuit of “the mystery”. The irony, as it turns out, is that she’d always possessed the clues necessary to solve it from the beginning. But she stubbornly refused to consider the fact that the solution was, in fact, herself. In her mind, there is no way to atone for her recklessness impudence. There are some who may never forgive her. And that is a burden she will eventually carry alone to her grave.
 
Yet, Wendell still stays with her, ever loyal and patient; while she tearfully purges herself of the iniquity that has all but destroyed her family and kept her apart from the man she loves for far too long.

Chapter 7.22 – Petition

Ricky knew he should have come here alone.
 
Wendell’s unnerving limp has slowed down their pace, and aggravated Ricky to the point of wanting to go ahead by himself. Wendell apologizes profusely and does his best to keep the pace with a skip/hop/jog motion. Unfortunately, it not only looks ridiculous, but is attracting attention from the locals. The most frustrating bit about this whole thing, is that he actually needs Wendell. He knows Amber better than anybody, her parents included.
 
Having reached his limit, Ricky decides that something has to change. They sit down together to eat at a nondescript deli. Pointing to an item on a menu he cannot read, Ricky hopes he didn’t just order something gross. Then he impatiently turns to Wendel and asks about his limp, suggesting they find a local doctor take a look at it. Wendell shrugs and shares that he’s had a bum-foot for a long time. Ricky is wholly dissatisfied with the answer. Not being the sort that gives up so easily, he presses Wendell for more detail in hopes of finding a way to speed up their search.
 
Wendell hesitates. The injury happened a long time ago. Most of the time doesn’t even realize he’s limping. There isn’t any real medical reason for him to do so. It has just always emerged when he gets stressed out. Although he has always been honest about being accidentally shot during a military live-fire training exercise, he has never shared the fact that he had actually shot himself after getting nervous and fumbling the rifle. Wendell thinks of Amber. If she is still alive, she will need him to “man up” and focus.
 
Wendell ignores the texture and taste of the aromatic cabbage stew Ricky ordered, and eats it silently. When they finish, he finally speaks, telling Ricky to move at his own pace. He will find a way to keep up without the limp. And so, after resuming the search at a much improved pace, they cover good ground and finally manage to make a discovery. The address Amber had written down is neither a house nor a shop. Rather, it is the veritable fortress that sits atop the hillside, casting its shadow over the port town. A sense of urgency grips both Ricky and Wendell, raising their suspicion that Amber is somewhere inside. And worse, that she is quickly running out of time.
 
Still paralyzed from Brand’s poison, Amber has dug down deep and refused to give him the satisfaction of enjoying her agony. Countless hours of meditation have helped her to detach from her physical state and focus on her mental state. There may be no denying that the pain is unbearable, but she refuses to show it. Thankfully, her persistence has afforded her more breaths of life than she would have had otherwise. But it has made Brand furious. That is, if there is any Brand at all.
 
He does nothing but stand and fume for hours without moving. He does not eat, sleep, or relieve himself. He just stands, with the stink of evil swimming around him. When she did woo-hoo with Brand the other night, it was pure, primal, wanton lust. It was unspeakably gratifying, and supernaturally erotic. It occurs to her that Brand is not a sim at all, but something else; something terribly wicked.
 
Thinking back to her childhood, it now seems that Brand has always known exactly how to tempt her. Information and intrigue had become the drug she so desperately craves, and he has slowly increased her dependency until she could no longer resist him . Her attraction to Billy was no different. She knew what kind of sim he was. So many lives around her were being ruined, and she did nothing to stop it. In fact, she willingly embraced it. And now she is paying the price.
 
She thinks of Wendell and begins to cry. She does love him. She fell in love the moment she first saw him at the restaurant. Physical pain, she can endure. But the pain she feels now is more than she is able to suffer. Having finally broken, she cries out loud. And as she cries, she begs forgiveness. All those times she shut down her feelings to focus on pride and arrogance… it wasn’t emotion she was shutting down. It was her conscience.
 
Brand leaps from his unmoving pose and screeches his outrage. How dare she pray? He has allowed this to go on far too long. He wanted so badly to watch her writhe in pain. He gave her more pleasure in one night than most sims experience in a lifetime; and now she denies him this one, simple favor? How delightfully selfish of her. In the grand scheme, Amber is of little consequence. He is truly driven by the anticipation of finally killing off something that has been hunted for a very long time; or more specifically, by the reward for its bounty. Those who have tried before him: Corwin, Reid, Ali, Khaliq, and even General Buford, and countless others; they all failed. He laughs a sickening laugh, thinking of how he will live eternally in decadent pleasure after the deed is done.
 
He grabs silken pillows and covers her head so that her prayers are reduced to muffled cries. He debates with himself on how to conduct the act. Simply smothering her would deprive him of the proper climax. A hanging would be so much more satisfying. Brand nearly salivates with anticipation of the act, as he ties silk sheets together into a makeshift noose.
 
Gunshots from downstairs startle him and cause him to panic. It cannot be possible! He is too close to fail now! Brand growls a low guttural sound and tosses the knotted sheets over the rafters on the high vaulted ceiling. Then he pushes aside the pillows covering Amber’s head. He realizes all too late that she had stopped praying once the gunshots had gone off. Her piercing scream startles him again, and he drops her onto the floor before he can get the noose around her neck.
 

…WENDELL!

All the pain and agony over the past hours has built up and projected itself into that focused, deafening scream.
 
He is here. She doesn’t know how she knows it, or how he found her. But she knows he is here. Brand roars defiantly with rage. Now, he will have no time to hang her. But he is clearly not out of options. She hears the sound of a gun’s hammer being pulled back. Her heart races, as though trying to fit in as many beats as it can before the end. But he hesitates. Then he screeches wildly at her for falling too close to his favorite rug. It would be such a terrible shame to ruin it.
 
He angrily covers her head with pillows again, hoping they will contain the gory mess. Then he warns her through gritted teeth that she had better not bleed on his rug. Brand has clearly lost any semblance of sanity. Amber sobs, but not for herself. Wendell’s love has been steadfast throughout. She wondered why he never dated. She understands now it was because of her. He loves her. But she has been too self-absorbed to see it. Amber mumbles what might be her final prayer; begging forgiveness, and making a petition comfort for her family.
 
Then, a split-second before the sound of gunshots fill the room, she squeezes her eyes shut and contemplates what a fool she has been.

Chapter 7.21 – Dire

Author’s Note: Events of this post take place after 7.19 but before 7.20
Sunset Valley mourns as the news spreads that one of its most beloved celebrities, Hope Barimen, has died.
 
Faith and Jimmy remember Hope with a small family gathering at their house. Normally, such an event would have taken place at the estate. It was built when Hope was just a teen to symbolize the Barimen’s stewardship of the land. The building still stands, but it is now a vacant reminder of how quickly reversals of fortune can happen.
 
Hope’s story represents its own reversal of fortune, but not of the monetary sort. She progressed through childhood without her father, who had gone missing while working an undercover operation overseas. Her mother tried, but could not contain the spirited, young bottle-rocket. And her grandfather had just simply given up after suffering one too many losses during his lifetime. It was a unique combination of circumstances that afforded Hope a lack of boundries. And it eventually led to trouble for the outgoing and friendly girl.
 
Hope discovered that love and lust are easily confused, and they can often have equally powerful effects on a sim. She also learned that where love was food for her hungry soul; lust was a drug that only fed a wanton craving for more. She would have succumbed to the constricting grip of her unchecked desire. But she was saved by the miraculous appearance of a sim she had once described as a guardian angel. Curiously, in the end, the product of her indiscretion had produced a love unlike anything she had ever known. Her newborn daughter, Faith, had opened her eyes and changed her life.
 
Hope’s passing punctuates a frightening turn of events for the remaining Barimen family. Amber has not checked in from her overseas trip for days, and she missed her scheduled flight home this evening. Upon reviewing her itinerary, her parents find that she left one hotel, but failed to check into the next. For all practical purposes, she has just simply vanished. So, at a time when the family should be focused on their grief over losing Hope, they are instead focused on finding Amber.
 
Ricky Nava has managed to piece together her movements prior to leaving on her trip. He knew his niece would have covered her tracks as a force of habit. But it seems that she paid extra careful attention to obscuring herself on this overseas trip. Ricky curses to himself as another telephone lead in Europe comes to a dead end. If he does manage to find her alive, he’s going to rip her a new one.
 
It has been days since her last known location. Spending time tracking her movement overseas via telephone will only waste valuable time, so Ricky decides to focus on breaking down her last few hours in Sunset Valley. Perhaps he can find some clue as to where she may have gone.
 
Maybe it’s his lucky day, or maybe Amber’s. Either way, he hits the information jackpot. Not only does he learn that Amber had visited the Beachfront Bar before leaving, but the bartender informs him that the sim she was visiting with, is now sitting alone at one of the tables.
 
He is an ordinary looking guy, and appears to be quite a bit older than Amber. By the looks of him, he’s had a few drinks and is fairly upset about something. He spots Ricky, then hesitantly motions him over to sit. It is not terribly surprising to Ricky that this guy knows who he is. He is, after all, the Chief of Police. What Ricky does find surprising, is the detailed knowledge he seems to possess about Amber’s family; himself included. And even that is only mildly surprising, compared to the tale that unfolds over the next two hours.
 
Ricky and Wendell arrive at the vacant Barimen Estate later that night. In the weeks before he left on her trip, Amber’s parents had accepted her grandparent’s offer come live with them. They had urged Amber to join them, but she refused. It is still somewhat depressing for Ricky, to see the once palatial home reduced to little more than a deserted landmark. But if Wendell is correct, they may be able to find Amber’s computer and some clues.
 
How Amber was able to hide the fact that she is the brilliant mind behind author Barbi Meerman, is a wonder to Ricky. All the clues were there for him to put together, of course. Her books were well crafted variations of the Barimen-Jones saga. Even the name Barbi Meerman was a dead giveaway. It is a clever anagram of Amber’s name. He gives credit to his neice for managing to keep the alter ego without bragging. If Wendell had not told him, he would never have figured it out.
 
The publisher’s theory, is that Amber has already begun writing her new book. If they can find any part of what she has already written, it may lead them to where she has wandered off. Wendell had also shared something else he was hesitant to divulge. He figured it might be relevant, and he was right. Amber had left Wendell a text message just yesterday. She apologized for leaving him at the beach, and told him not to worry about what he said. She understood what he had been trying to tell her, and promised she would talk with him when she returned to Sunset Valley.
 
The important part was not what she wrote, but the time she sent the message. It came days after her missed hotel reservation. If Ricky had not already been furious with Amber, he would now be absolutely furious. This proves to him that she purposefully strayed from her travel plan with intent to conceal her whereabouts. What he doesn’t know, is why.
 
It seems strange to Wendell that such a huge place could be so completely empty. The Joneses had literally stolen the shirt off of the Barimen’s backs, forcing them to sell anything of value to pay their legal bills. What little remained had gone to finance Ben and Lisa’s new music release. In the spirit of positive thinking, Wendell comments that their job of searching the home should be fairly simple. Ricky appreciates the sentiment, but finds himself oddly annoyed by the remark.
 
Amber’s bedroom is the only place in the entire building containing furniture. Even then, it is just a bed, a desk, and a chair. She had evidently been dressing herself from the pile of clothes lying on the floor by her bed. It seems almost absurd, really, living so minimally inside such an enormous structure. Ricky finds Abmer’s computer and collects it for the forensics guys to look at. Satisfied, he prompts Wendell to leave. But the publisher hesitates, verbalizing his suspicion that they are missing something important.
 
Wendell talks through his thought process with Ricky. Amber is incredibly smart about stuff like this. The computer was strategically placed to be found if somebody came looking for something in her absence. This leads him to believe there is something else that she does not want to be found. And if she wanted to hide something, it would be concealed in plain view.
 
Wendell limps throughout the estate, attempting to channel Amber’s fictional sleuth. Remembering Amber’s passion for marital arts, he asks Ricky to show him where she practices. Like all other rooms, the dojo is empty of any furnishings. Only a worn, wooden training dummy and two blocks of stone remain. Or perhaps not. Wendel eyes a dull-looking frame hanging on the wall by a straw mat. It is hanging eye-level for a sim who might be kneeling, or possibly meditating. It is mounted on a wall opposite the entrance. Wendel limps to the spot, noticing that it has been chosen for its lack of window lighting. Hidden in plain sight.
 
The man depicted in the painting exudes a charisma of his own. And Wendell can almost sense that he desperately wants to speak. Gently lifting the portrait from the wall, Wendell feels a bulge behind the frame. In his excitement, he fumbles and drops the portrait, shattering glass and breaking apart the old, wooden frame. Normally a detriment, his clumsiness may have just become the single most important asset in the quest to save Amber’s life. Because tucked neatly under the broken frame, had been a neatly folded stack of papers.
 
Wendell requires only a few moments of reading Amber’s notes to understand what she has done, and to also understand that the situation is far more dire than anybody could have imagined.

Chapter 7.20 – Mistake

Many years ago, Corwin Barimen vanished from his hometown on the Baltic Sea (Author’s Note: see Chapter 1.21 – Guardian).
 
None of his rivals were saddened by the loss. And, not surprisingly, neither were any of his beneficiaries. Nothing was ever done to find out what happened to him for fear that he might actually be found alive.
 
As time went on, the name Barimen became better known for the good deeds being done in Sunset Valley. With their reputation of fear and power at stake, one of Corwin’s female heiresses made the decision to assume the name Logrus; the surname of her soon to be late husband. She eliminated her other siblings and cemented hold on the family’s Baltic Sea estate.
 
Barimen was soon replaced with Logrus, as the name that strikes fear into the locals. And as the generational march proceeded, it was eventually all but forgotten. That is, until a young man born into the Logrus family became interested in seizing power from his older brothers. He instinctively knew that information is equivalent to power, and so he went in search of answers. That is when he learned about Corwin and his own Barimen  ancestry.
 
Brand wielded the knowledge to eliminate his older brothers. The eldest brother made the stupid mistake of trying to kill Brand, but it didn’t turn out so well for him. The other brother had taken on the alias Jones, and moved to Sunset Valley with intent of laying claim to the Barimen fortune there. Thanks to Amber, it didn’t work out so well for him, either.
 
Brand sits back and shows his approval of Amber’s intuition with dramatic applause. He compliments her ability to put the story together with only scraps of information. After having been here only a few days, she has managed to infer the details of the account perfectly. She blushes and thanks him using the local language, which she has quickly mastered, and now speaks perfectly without accent.
 
Visiting this place has been like living in some kind of fantasy kingdom from the storybooks; complete with an ancient Baltic manor made from stone and mortar. Brand has treated her like a queen during her stay. And though he has not made any romantic advances, Amber feels herself being drawn to him in a way unlike any other sim before him.
 
He seems to have all the right answers when she subtly probes him for information. He talks about restoring the Barimen name to its rightful status here. And though he has never mentioned it, she understands it will require marriage to make it happen. She has no idea if this “feels” right or not. She has buried her feelings, along with the emotional tangle of knots that comes with them. Isn’t this how fairy tales end? It wouldn’t be terrible, living the life of privilege that Brand can provide for her.
 
So, at a formal dinner hosted by Brand one evening, Amber plays the part of the lady to his lord. She studies the other wealthy aristocrats. And she mimics how the husbands and wives interact socially together, and with others. Brand catches on immediately, enthusiastically playing along with her game. By the end of the evening, Amber has only one thought in mind. The last guests cannot leave soon enough.
 
Like everything else Brand does, the affair is wrapped in extravagance and painstaking elegance. Not wanting the appearance of being in a hurry, he entices her with a warm bath together in a heated, stone basin; surrounded by candles and drinking hundred-year-old nectar. Then, when he is sure that she cannot contain herself any longer, they retire to an amazing bedroom filled with the aroma of exotic incense. It is furnished with the most expensive linens and comforts she has ever seen. She feels no hesitation accepting his proposal of marriage. The silent ceremony of exchanged rings seems almost ancillary, as they sink together into the down-feather and silk pillows; where she is treated like royalty until the morning sun peeks through ancient windows.
 
Amber’s dreams are disturbed and troubling. There is a tiny cabin on a small spot of land; her land. She feels a sudden and desperate imperative to get back there . She has made a terrible mistake. Now something within cries to be returned to its home, but it cannot go there alone.  It needs Amber. It is dependent upon her. Amber is not pregnant, at least not in the ordinary sense. This is something altogether different, but at the same time, not. It occurs to her, that she is a kind of existential host for something very, very old.  It has been incubating and readying itself for a long time, and it is nearly ready to emerge. But it cannot; not without being at that place. And now, because of her, they may both die.
 
She wakes the next morning and knows immediately that something is wrong. Pain in her head pounds in rhythm with her heartbeat, and she cannot move her arms or legs. The indescribable sensations of ecstasy from last night have completely vanished. It was  as unnatural as it was arousing; like pure pleasure being fed into her soul by a fire-hose. It felt amazing, but at the same time, wrong. Now, those unnatural sensations have been replaced by panic and fear. She senses Brand standing over her and tries to reach out to him, or speak. But all that comes out is a cry of pain.
 
She focuses her eyes on his face, which, oddly, she finds to be smiling. He crouches so that she can see him more clearly, and she is immediately sorry that he did. Brand has transformed from being just creepy, into something demonic and evil. He informs her that the poison he has administered is going be excruciating, and that watching her suffer will be quite delicious.
 
A tear falls down Amber’s face and onto the silk pillows as Brand apologizes that he cannot allow her to live. He does reassure her that there is nothing personal against her at all, and that their evening together was quite memorable. He informs her that she missed a very important detail in her solution to the mystery. All he and his brothers ever really wanted, was the land her family owns in Sunset Valley. Now, with the marriage contract in hand, it is his. But there is one small, dirty job still left to perform.
 
Unfortunately for Amber, it requires that she fall victim to a very tragic ending.

Chapter 7.19 – Ancestor

Cold fog has settled over a nondescript port town nestled into the Baltic seaside. This is where Amber Barimen can be found, doing what she does best.
 
Blending invisibly into the general population can be difficult and tricky under any circumstances. Attempting to do so in a foreign country, where the surreptitious sim does not look, act, or speak like the locals, is nearly impossible. With the  notable exception, perhaps, of a sim whose ability far exceeds normal sims. Amber Barimen would be one of these uncanny few.
 
Though she does not realize it, hers is not a learned skill; but an ability or gift. It has manifested itself among her ancestors in many different ways and has been passed along for many generations. And, if Amber survives this latest adventure, she too will pass it along to her first-born child. Surviving, however, may become more of a challenge than anticipated.
 
The zesty aromas of Slavic cooking swirl around Amber in the discreet markets and store fronts where she has found she can watch without being noticed. She learns quickly to perfectly mimic the other young women who bustle about the busy warehouse district. Being a port town, there are visitors and goods always coming and going and moving from one spot to the next. But Amber keeps her focus carefully attuned to one particular sim.
 
She moves from shop to shop to follow him as he makes his rounds. He is given a wide berth by most sims who encounter him. Other sims, who likely work for the local “business”, exchange sly smiles in greeting. There is no mistaking that he is a feared authority figure in this place. And considering the fact that this town is the ancestral home of Corwin Barimen; it leaves little doubt that it has been like this for a very, very long time.
 
It also leaves little doubt that Amber has been played for a fool.
 
The job Brand sent her to do is complete. But there are no photos to take, and no observations to record. Surely, Brand must have known she was going spot him here. Was it some kind of test to see if she would keep up her end of the bargain? Or is there some other plot brewing?
 
Once again, Amber has been having trouble processing all of her conflicting emotions. It seems to happen any time romance enters the equation. Wendell’s botched confession of love that night, ranks among the classic blunders (most famous of which, is Never get involved in a land war in Asia). But thanks to Amber’s ability to read body language, she understood what he was trying to tell her. Nevertheless, she had left, confused and angry, and without speaking to him. She has not been able to think clearly since then. Does she love him? Honestly, she’s not even sure what it feels like, to be in love, romantically.
 
She thought she was in love with Billy. He forced her to stay sharp and was always a source of fascinating new information. And now, admittedly, she has been feeling something similar for Brand. For her, solving he unsolvable is far better than woo-hoo. Brand has provided her with more intrigue than anybody, and Amber finds she simply cannot resist the tantalizing promise of more. But is it love?
 
A squabble between two panhandling musicians provides the distraction she needs to catch Brand by surprise.
 
The plan works better than expected, summoning a pair of thugs from among the shadows to protect their “boss”. Preparing to take the pair of them down alone, Amber strikes a fighting stance. But Brand quickly intercedes and tells his bodyguards to relax.
 
They finally back off, but only after Brand srugs and tells them to go ahead and take their chances with Amber; adding that he will not be paying their medical bills or reimbursing them for lost wages due to the grievous bodily harm they are about to incur.
 
Brand turns to Amber and compliments her for remaining completely invisible despite the considerable number of sims looking out for her. The creepy smile he wears while commenting that her ability seems almost supernatural, sends needles of ice down her spine. Not knowing how to react, Amber says nothing. Thankfully, Brand continues with a less creepy demeanor, and invites her to come see his home.
 
But the creepiness only intensifies when a new realization hits Amber with blunt force trauma. She stares at Brand in complete dumbfounded shock as the bits of information begin to align in her head. Brand’s home is Corwin Barimen’s home, which means that he is a Barimen too.
 
Seeing that Amber has figured out his surprise, Brand tsks and calls her a spoilsport. Then, with a dramatic bow, he re-introduces himself as her very distant relation (fifth cousin once removed); with Corwin Barimen being their common ancestor. Appearing to enjoy the look of deep concern on her face, Brand offers his hand in an exaggerated gesture of friendship.
 
His cunning eyes sparkle when he implores her to lighten up and enjoy the long overdue family reunion.

Chapter 7.18 – Obtuse

Excited about her new idea for a new book, Amber immediately calls Wendell and asks if he will be able to meet her somewhere before leaving on her overseas trip.
 
Wendell sounds happy to hear from her, and insists that he has no other plans, outside of reading new manuscripts at the library. There must not be much going in his social life outside of work, if he has nothing else to do on a Friday night but proofread manuscripts. Actually, it seems kind of sad and a little bit pathetic. Surely, a good looking guy like Wendell has a girlfriend to keep him distracted from work. Or does he? She has known him for years, and spoken to him countless times over the phone, but she cannot remember him ever mentioning being in a relationship, or even dating for that matter. Honestly, she doesn’t know much about him at all.
 
Pondering this curious new facet of her friendship with Wendell, she arrives at the beachfront bar. She finds him sitting alone, sipping on a drink. She greets him with a friendly hug apologizes for the short notice. Now distracted from her earlier train of thought, she gets swept away with a new influx of creative energy. Wendell listens intently, as he always does, and keeps the conversation carefully on track when she does finally begin to stray toward his social life.
 
Amber smiles. That’s how he does it.
 
He talks about work, sports, books, and even his time in the military. But he always manages to dodge the topic of his love life by slipping into a funny story or tall tale. Maybe that’s why he has always been so easy to talk to. The conversation has always been safe, innocent, and nonthreatening. He has no agenda and seems platonically disinterested in her. Amber sits back, troubled, and listens to his voice. But she does not hear what he is saying to her. Ever since she was a teen, he has treated her with absolute respect; almost parental, really.
 
While she doesn’t make a point of flaunting, Amber is quite aware of her physical attributes. Sure, Wendell is old enough to be her father, but he is still a male. He is definitely hiding something from her; something subtle. She would have sensed immediately if he were not attracted to women. And his body language would have given away any tragic loss of love in his past. There is nothing quite so obvious at work here. She becomes instantly frustrated that he has managed to conceal a mystery from her for so long. She is so frustrated, in fact, that she interrupts him mid-sentence with a very direct, personal question.
 
Wendell stammers, fills the silence with an extra-long pull on is nearly empty drink, then cocks his head and nervously asks her to repeat her question. It was simple enough, really. Amber asks him again if he is dating anybody. She studies his response; his rapid breathing, his lips twitching with hesitation to speak, and genuine distress in his eyes.
 
Feeling terrible for the discomfort she has caused him, Amber reaches over and touches his hand, apologizing for being so inconsiderate. Wendell shakes his head and smirks, commenting that she does know how to change the subject with gusto. Amber shrugs meekly, unaware of what he had been saying to her for the past few minutes. Wendell stands, and invites her to walk with him, commenting that he’d like to get some air.
 
As they walk, Wendell resumes his conversation from earlier. But his tone is tentative and his speech is jumbled, as though he were trying read aloud from a moving book. She had never seen him so awkward and scattered before now. And as he talks, he strikes all the wrong chords with her. Wendell knows that most of what she wrote about in her first books came from her own experiences. He points out that this new story idea raises the stakes for her female sleuth. Then he wonders out loud if there may be any other less dangerous mysteries for her to solve. They both know Wendell is talking about Amber and not Amber’s fictional heroine. Just like that, he has turned situation around so that she is now on the spot.
 
Amber stops and eyes him defensively, asking him to get to the point of what he wants to say.
 
When it comes to love and romance, Wendell just cannot verbalize his feelings without tripping all over his words. He wants to say that he loves her too much to let her go off on a deadly game of cat and mouse. He would rather publish fifty losers, than see any harm come to a single hair on her perfect head for another best-seller. He wants to be with her; not just now, and not just tonight, but forever. And if that means breaking off the professional relationship to make it happen, then so be it.
 
Of course, those are not the words that eventually emerge from his mouth. He hears himself saying something about deadly, then something else about losers, then something about breaking off the professional relationship. He’s quite sure it sounded profoundly obtuse, if not downright insulting. The hurt look on Amber’s face confirms it, and feels worse than any other response she could have given him. She leaves for the airport without saying goodbye.
 
And Wendell remains, standing alone, agonizing over yet another self-inflicted romantic disaster.

Chapter 7.17 – Tools

Word of Amber’s beat-down on Billy Jones quickly spreads through the murky, criminal underground in the months following his murder conviction.
 
Brand capitalized on the power vacuum left by the Joneses, establishing himself as the undisputed “boss” of the warehouse. Since then, the rumor mill has painted Amber as being Brand’s elite and deadly bodyguard/plaything. Obviously, there is absolutely no real truth to the rumors. All the same, there is not much to gain by dispelling the illusion.
 
It has afforded her the intimidation factor needed to bring an end to the blatantly criminal activity conducted at the warehouse. Along with Brand (or despite him), she has cleaned up most of the garbage and forced them to move on to other places. For the first time in a long time, the warehouse is just that; a warehouse.
 
Of course, Amber is not so naive to think that all crime has been completely stomped out by her presence. But she knows that it has been severely hindered. She is also not so naive to think that Brand is the model citizen he presents himself to be. There is something decidedly sinister and sneaky about him that rubs her the wrong way. Billy was no angel, but at least he did not hide behind a facade. He was just Billy.
 
Amber keeps Brand’s words about loyalty in the forefront of her mind whenever she has to deal with him. And she is extra careful to keep him at arm’s length. His sudden appearance in Sunset Valley happened to coincide with the Joneses coordinated financial attack against her family. This seems more by design than pure chance. Something still itches in the back of her mind to find out who he is and where he came from. But most importantly, she feels driven to discover why he came to Sunset Valley in the first place. It may be just a hunch, but whatever Brand is up to, Amber suspects it will involve more trouble for her down the road.
 
Then there is the portrait of Julian she found inside an abandoned part of the warehouse. She can’t help but think there is some connection between Brand and the valuable painting. Criminals do not usually leave a paper trail, so gathering information about Julian has not been easy. Even the oldtimers are not old enough to remember him. As best she can tell, he had been a drifter for many years, with arrest records in a dozen towns. Then, for some reason, he finally settled in Sunset Valley right around the time of his adult birthday.
 
She has been able to dig up a few precious clues, however. Julian Barimen was not just a criminal, but the most accomplished thief of his time. He was born to the same McAllister family who had settled this property and acquired a military trust to protect it. The centuries-old journal of a young Moira McAllister, given to her by Grandma Faith, does little to help shed light on Julian’s ancestry. The entries are pedantic and oftentimes rambling. In fact, the girl’s odd fascination with a complex mathematical algorithm completely obscures any useful information Amber might gain from the ancient diary.
 
What Amber does find useful, is the information about Julian’s father, Corwin Barimen. He vanished soon after Julian’s son, David, was born. By all accounts, Corwin was evil personified. He was owner/kingpin of CB Imports, a monstrous entity which was later revealed to be a front for organized crime. Although he conducted his “business” in Sim City, Amber learns that Corwin was born somewhere in the Baltic region. He continued to live there, making frequent “business” trips to Sim City until his disappearance.
 
Armed with the name of a town and an address where Corwin lived, Amber feels the sudden urge to travel. But finances are still strained for the family. Amber has not done any more writing since taking a job at the warehouse. Wendell calls her every few weeks to check on the status of her “creative juices”. But unfortunately, just like her family’s finances; they’re just not flowing. With Paul recently growing up and moving out to start a family with his high school sweetheart, there is no real steady income.
 
Ben and Lisa did finally manage record and release some new music, but it was costly to produce, and only received a cool reception. The poor showing was very discouraging, and proved they face a tough uphill battle in rebuilding their once ravenous fan base. What fans really want, is a Grayswandir reunion.
 
Amber tries to convince her parents that it is exactly what they need to recapture the magic. She has already solicited Aunt Sara’s commitment to manage the band again. Ben admits to giving the idea some thought, but he is not sure the other members would even speak to either he or Sarah. With Lisa’s gentle encouragement, Ben hesitantly agrees to reach out to them.
 
After they toast, and drink to a successful reunion, Amber tells Ben and Lisa about her plans to travel. There is no leaving out the detail that she had spoken to Brand, since he had agreed to pay her expenses. But the arrangement came with a stipulation that she do a small bit of side work for him while she was away. When Ben and Lisa panic, Amber assures her parents that there will be no crime involved. This business trip will be for gathering information about another company; or more specifically, another “boss”.
 
The stern warning she receives from both parents does not come as much of a surprise to Amber. When Ricky Nava told them about Amber’s role in busting up the Jones gang, they both had similar reactions. And it wasn’t pretty. She does understand their concern, given the seedy history behind the warehouse. Amber sooths their worries and promises that she will not be doing anything illegal. She will just be taking pictures and jotting down notes about her subject’s habits. She will not even be in contact with him.
 
Amber will spend the majority of her time vacationing in quaint towns along the Baltic seaside. Of course, she leaves out the few minor details about finding the birthplace of Corwin Barimen. In the interest of keeping her investigation quiet, that particular activity has been mindfully omitted from her written itinerary. After all, something so simple couldn’t possibly lead to any kind of intrigue for the young author.
 
Having finished packing for her trip, Amber regards the portrait of Julian. She recovered from it’s hiding place in the cellar after everything else of value in the house had been removed. He has given her so much inspiration, that he could almost be considered her muse. Amber quickly writes some story ideas down, along with her notes about Julian and the address for Corwin Barimen. She folds her notes into a bundle, then tucks them into Julian’s frame. She winks at Julian and blows him a kiss; promising that her next book will be one he is sure to be proud of.
 
And though she may not know it, Julian would be immeasurably proud of her. Of all his descendants, Amber is most like himself. She is smart, aware, and focused; not to mention devastatingly beautiful and dangerous in a fight. Though at the same time, she lacks streetwise and understanding of the criminal mind. Paranoia, resentment, narcissism, and angst are necessary tools of the trade for any sim who freelances in the “business”.
 
Frozen in time, Julian stares into space as Amber leaves, missing those important tools. Forget about getting the job done; she’ll be lucky to keep herself alive without them.

Chapter 7.16 – Revenge

Police swarm the warehouse with such numbers, that a passerby could easily liken them to angry hornets who’d just had their nest poked with a stick.
 
The packet of papers Amber lifted off of Judge Arlington contained falsified court documents. But they were not just any documents. Based upon her examination of these papers, Amber has discovered that, for the past few years, the Jones’ have been buying up small businesses and using them as fronts to sue the Barimen family. Normally, such frivolous cases would never see the light of day. However handwritten notes attached to each document contained instructions for Judge Arlington on how drag out the case as long as possible, as to hinder the defense with “maximum financial burden”.
 
But this was not the worst of it. Also contained in the packet were two documents that sent Amber into an emotional spiral. The first was a marriage license with her forged signature, witnessed by Mrs. Jones, and officiated by Judge Arlington. If this were to have made it to City Hall, she would have been a married woman without knowing it.
 
The most chilling discovery was a will; Amber’s signature had been perfectly forged. It also was witnessed by Judge Arlington. The will dissolves the military trust protecting the Barimen property, and gives all remaining assets, including the land, to Billy Jones. Amber knew then, that the problem had grown bigger than her. She needed help; and quite probably, protection.
 
Amber had become a walking bulls-eye. Her only option was to go again to her uncle, Ricky Nava, with the whole story. Ricky had become Chief of Police, and was sure to be furious at Amber for not coming to him sooner. Unfortunately, going to him was the only sane action to take. She arrived at his house to find he was not there. Aunt Sarah informed her that he was working a call. Evidently, an important judge had just been found dead in his home; purportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Ricky was there to secure the scene.
 
Paranoia took over, and Amber feared even taking a taxi. She finally made it to the police station on foot, and waited there for Ricky to return. There is no chance that Judge Arlington’s death was simply a suicide. He was silenced, in much the same way Mr. Dworkin was silenced.
 
Her hunch was right. Amber had never seen her uncle angry. His reaction to the packet was directed in two places. The brunt of it was directed at the Jones family for perpetrating such a bold criminal endeavour under is watch. But some of his anger was also directed torward Amber for putting herself into harm’s way without backup. She shared her belief that both Judge Arlington and Mr. Dworkin were murdered by Billy. After listening to her account, viewing the photos, and seeing the documents, Ricky quickly called in the cavalry.
 
The warehouse roundup is conducted with unforgiving forcefulness. Mrs. Jones had taken refuge here with her gang of hoodlums, who open fire on the first few officers to enter the building. Thankfully, there are no deaths, but plenty of gunfire. Amber knows Billy will be able to hide indefinitely inside the maze of shipping crates and containers, and never be found by police.
 
But she also knows that he cannot hide from her.
 
She moves with the silence of a church mouse, the stealth of a cat, and the senses of a predator. It might be fair to say that not even the dust is unsettled by her passing. She spots him crouched behind a stack of crates, and speaks up toward the high rafters to mask the location of her voice. She congratulates him for nearly pulling off a flawless misdirection. He jumps from being startled, and looks around to find her.
 
Amber continues to speak, using the weird acoustics inside the warehouse to mask her location, and moves imperceptibly toward him. Knowing that her audience is a captive one, she begins to scold him for betraying their friendship, and exchanging love for greed. He shouts obscenities into the air, calling her every insulting name in the book. She ignores him and continues.
 
Drawing slowly and silently nearer to his location, she reveals that she was the one who turned in evidence that convicted his father to serve fifty years in prison. And she will personally see to it that he also pays his debt to society, for the murders of Mr. Dworkin and Judge Arlington. She calls him by his full name, William Martin Jones, and confesses that she loves him.
 
She steps out into the open, and faces him. Leveling her determined gaze into his eyes, she states that regardless of her feelings for him, she will fight stop him from victimizing any more sims. Billy smiles his crooked smile, mistakenly believing his charm will once again give him the advantage. He draws a gun from his pocket pulls the trigger as soon as the gun sight lines up between her eyes.
 
But it is not good enough. Amber’ senses have become as focused as a laser, and she has somehow tapped into a nearly supernatural reserve of ability. The gun goes flying after a simple snap-kick to his hand. The weapon lands with a loud clattering on top of a nearby shipping crate.
 
Perhaps he should have paid more attention during their martial arts lessons. She lands strike after strike to his head and body with sharp, painful cracking sounds. She shouts out a laundry list of his offenses, landing another terrible strike while speaking each offense. This continues until he is left bloody and staggering from the pummeling.
 
The final three blows, the most viscous of them all, send him sprawling unconscious onto the ground. They are accompanied with three bitter and emotionally charged words that erupt from her as she delivers the pulverizing strikes;
 
FOR 
 
MISTER
 
DWORKIN!
The fourth and final book in the mystery series by “Barbi Meerman”, climaxes with betrayal and revenge for its heroine. Deprived of her own happy ending, Amber leaves her fictional sleuth sad and alone, picking up the pieces, and wondering where to go next.
 
Wendell can easily sense the change in Amber. He now knows the drama which had unfolded between the two families, including the corruption of Judge Arlington, were all recorded within the pages of her popular mystery novels. But it had been written and disguised so artfully, that there would be no chance for a causal reader to put the two together. Knowing what he knows about Amber, Wendell cannot help but feel pity for the heartbroken, young women; both the fictional one and the real one.
 
Due to the high profile nature of his crime, Billy Jones was quickly tried and convicted of murdering Judge Arlington. His mother was also convicted of numerous crimes, including fraud and blackmail. Once the most feared family in the criminal underground, the Jones’ now find themselves faced with the real possibility that their lineage will disappear along with Billy, in a cold prison cell.
 
Amber spills her sorrows over dinner with Wendell. She is understandably not in the mood to celebrate.  So rather than a fancy meal, he treats her to some comfort food at a quaint country-style restaurant with a relaxing outdoor patio. Wendell just listens and does his best to follow her emotional roller-coaster; bantering with her at the peaks, and listening intently to her at the dips.
 
They spend some time talking about her future as an author. She wants to continue writing, but feels it is time so shed her pen name. It may also take time for her to find the creative inspiration for another novel. Wendel nods his understanding and assures her that she will always have a spot on his bookshelf.
 
He wishes he could find a way to tell Amber that she will always have a spot in his heart as well. Unfortunately, his success with women has been less than stellar. His clumsiness is not reserved only to his physical movements, but his lack of verbal prowess as well. When it comes to romance, his words somehow become mangled between his brain and his mouth, and he just ends up sounding like a complete loser. It has become a learned behavior for him to just keep his mouth shut when it comes to matters of the heart. So he remains silent.
 
And Amber remains completely unaware of his feelings when she excuses herself to do some thinking alone; and to figure out where to go next.

Chapter 7.15 – Judge

An impending sense of danger had seized Amber’s chest as though it were a massive boa constrictor, soon after Billy answered her question regarding marriage.
 
And during that moment, she could almost feel somebody else speaking through her when she berated him; demanding a proper and elegant proposal in place of his woefully deficient effort. The glare he shot at her seethed with murderous indignation, and he retreated wordlessly from the estate wearing that same expression.
 
She could not get over her profound sense of fear that night, and slept at the foot of Peter’s bed in the sleeping bag normally reserved for his friends. Even then, it was a restless sleep with one eye focused on the only entrance into the room.
 
The bits and pieces of clues she had gathered inside her head over the years have been swimming about with no catalyst to pull them together. It has nearly driven her mad with frustration; until now. She had not ever considered Billy to be part of the entire mess. He was always just a bystander, or maybe even a victim. The inexplicable attraction she feels toward him wrends her heart as she slowly concedes that he may not share her sentiment; or worse, that she represents little more than physical amusement to him. But why marriage?
 
Undoing her emotional tethers to Billy will not be easy. Who knows, it may not even be possible. But she will not let them get in the way of her investigation. Perhaps she can harness the emotion to assist her. But it will have to wait for at least one more day. The ending of the third book in her mystery novel series sees her teen heroine becoming a young adult, and going to work for the mysterious well-dressed gentleman.
 
Wendell has again invited her to celebrate over dinner. She finds that talking with Wendell always brings her back down to earth. There is no information to extract from him, and he has no ties to the ongoing real-life mystery causing so much drama in her life. Since he is the only sim who knows the identity of the best selling author, “Barbi Meerman”, she also enjoys the chance to talk about writing.
 
Their second meeting amid countless phone conversations gives Amber the much needed opportunity to let her hair down and relax. The earnings from her books have been surprisingly strong, and Wendell is quick to show humble appreciation for the work of his best selling author.
 
Their conversation continues in a light-hearted exchange until an innocent question posed by Wendell catches Amber by surprise. She had not considered how she would explain where she gets her ideas, or that he would ever ask.
 
The question is simple enough, but Amber finds herself unable to fabricate a plausible lie. After a lengthy pause, one which causes Wendell to take notice, Amber searches his eyes, hoping to find a way around the question. His confusion is evident.
 
Amber looks away when she finds Wendell reading her own eyes. But it is too late. He sits back in his chair, stunned by the sudden realization that there may be more fact than fiction woven into her mystery novels. Then, he gently asks if she is in trouble. The sincere concern she hears in his voice almost causes her to scream yes; but she instead shares a good laugh with him, and insists that most of it is just made up.
 
After dinner, they take a short walk to a beachfront bar with the intent of finishing the evening with a late-night drink. During their walk, she learns that Wendel’s pronounced limp is caused by an old injury. He was in the military some years ago, and was accidentally shot in the foot during a live-fire exercise. He received a medical discharge and has been working with authors ever since, admitting that his first real love is for books.
 
When Amber hugs Wendell, laughing, she tells him how lucky she is that he was shot. He finds himself wishing the hug were not quite so friendly. He resists drawing her in to a more intimate posture, out of fear of how she might react. Instead, he takes the humble road, and insists that he only stocks bookshelves. Then he compliments her gift for writing.
 
He remains at the beach, lost in thought, long after Amber has gone home. And he watches the first rays of the morning sun reflect on the calming seawater before leaving to get some sleep.
 
Brand had asked Amber to find whatever information Mr. Dworkin had discovered before his death, by snooping around the Jones mansion. She feels strongly it is not going to be found inside their home. Amber had been shown all around the mansion by Billy, but nothing stood out to her. The limo parked in front of the house that day, however, had sent off signal flares in her brain. Whatever is going on with the Jones’ is directly related to that visitor.
 
Amber spends the next morning across from the Jones mansion, staking out for anything unusual. With any real luck, she may be able to follow Mr. Jones to a good lead. Persistence and patience are requirements when it comes to observation work. She had spent so much time doing it as a child, that it comes second nature to her now.
 
Luck is on Amber’s side today. It is shortly before lunchtime, about three hours into her stakeout, when the limo pulls up. At first, she dismisses it as Billy, but immediately scrambles to action when she sees a balding, heavyset man exit. Using her telephoto lens, Amber begins to snap pictures at high speed. This is no ordinary visitor. His name is Andrew Arlington, and he is a District Court judge; one of the most powerful men in Sunset Valley and beyond.
 
Amber moves to get a better view of their activities through the bedroom window and manages to contain her revulsion long enough to get incriminating photos. Amber does not fancy herself a peeping sim, and is tempted to wait until the judge emerges again to continue her surveillance. She’s glad she stuck with it, but not for the obvious reason. Just as the judge is getting dressed again, Amber observes Mrs. Jones handing him a packet filled with papers.
 
Amber’s heart races as the neurons in her brain fire with excitement. This is what Mr. Dworkin discovered. The Jones family has its own, personal judge-in-a-pocket. Amid her excitement, Amber realizes that she needs to get those papers. Searching frantically, Amber locates an old newspaper laying on the doorstep of the house she is using for her stakeout, then pilfers it. Excitement transforms to nervousness as he readies herself. She has only one shot at this, and it needs to be perfect.
 
The limo pulls back up to the Jones house just as Amber crosses the street. Putting on her best distraught act (running makeup, tears, and all), Amber runs with a full head of steam toward Mrs Jones and the judge, crying inconsolably about wanting to reconcile with Billy. Just as planned, she barrels directly into the judge, nearly toppling him over. She throws her arms around him to keep from losing her own balance, and makes the switch with nobody being the wiser.
 
Blubbering with tear-filled eyes, Amber apologizes and walks toward an outraged Mrs. Jones with her arms open, in the same manner a toddler wanting a hug would go to her mother. The woman’s screeching voice startles Amber. She screams blasting insults at her, and demands to know how she dare come to the house without announcing herself first. She continues, spitting that Amber is not a Jones yet. Spinning on her heal, she continues to screech obscenities all the way into the mansion.
 
Judge Arlington had vanished during the exchange, most likely fearful of being recognised during the altercation. The taxi Amber had called shows up with perfect timing as a frantic Mrs. Jones emerges again from the mansion, running down the walkway furiously toward Amber. She tells the driver to go, leaving a panicked Mrs. Jones standing in its exhaust. Evidently, Judge Arlington discovered the old newspaper in place of the package Amber now carries under her jacket.
 
Amber’s mood swings from elation to purified shock when she opens the packet and glances its contents. She repeats the word No, over and over as she flips through the pages, then eventually breaks down into a sobbing mess. The sudden mood swing prompts the driver to ask Amber if she everything is okay.
 
Amber nods, collecting herself enough to speak, then weakly asks to be dropped off at Officer Nava’s house.

Chapter 7.14 – Loyalty

Amber’s experience with Billy that afternoon rekindles their romance in much the same manner a bucket of water rekindles a campfire.
 
Her conscience steers her to visit a place normally reserved for Sunday mornings. She has never been very active in the church, but has always enjoyed the weekly sermon. Maybe guilt motivated her her to come here after the deed, or maybe not. Regardless, she has made this her destination almost every day after school since then. Talking to Billy about her feelings has proved frustrating. He has made pretty clear he’s not interested in her crazy beliefs. In his eyes, she’s already crossed the line, so it shouldn’t be a big deal any more; not that it ever was.
 
Amber had not been prepared for the floodgate of emotion that followed woo-hoo with Billy. The days afterwards had been tense and nervous while she contemplated the possible consequences of their dabbling into the reproductive process. Again, Billy was completely unmoved when when she relayed the news that nothing had become of their activity that afternoon. His only reaction was to complain after she refused to do it with him again.
 
Billy just doesn’t seem to understand. Thankfully, Tina is there when Amber needs her. Even though they now live across town, she is still Amber’s best friend. Tina had figured out what happened while talking with her “sister” the next day at school. They went to the church together later that day and had a wonderfully candid and private conversation. Tina talked about her own struggles, successes, and failures. The best a sim can do, she told Amber, is to do their best. All sims have moments of weakness when it is easy to stumble or give in to temptation. Tina faults Billy for exploiting Amber during an emotional time, more than she does Amber for letting her guard down. Amber and Tina both reach the same conclusion that day. They have much more in common than either had imagined.
 
By sharing these tentative steps into adulthood together, she and Tina have cemented an unbreakable friendship that will last throughout their lifetimes. They celebrate their voyage together into adulthood, along with Tanya, at Faith and Jimmy’s new house. During one of their talks, Tina shared that has been having a wonderful dream of being surrounded by her own children and grandchildren. She also divulged that both she and and her boyfriend want a house filled with kids. Amber doesn’t quite understand the lure of that particular ambition, but she’s pretty sure that they’ll manage it quite well.
 
Tanya couldn’t be more different than her sister (or Amber for that matter). She has worked head-down throughout school and graduated at the top of the class with honors. She had been heavily recruited by the Llamas to play on their team, and by Fort Gnome to enter into their astronaut program. But Tanya follows both her parents on a long list of Barimens to work at the science facility.
 
When it is Amber’s turn to shed off the restrictions of childhood, she does so with a sigh of relief. Certainly, the innocence that sims associate with children had helped her to some degree. But more times than not, it has hindered her ability to get the information she needs. The cheating scandal, Mr. Dworkin, Brand, Billy’s dad, the warehouse, the painting of Julian, and even the limo in front of Billy’s house that day; they all fit together somehow. And she knows exactly what she must do next to find out how.

Amber Barimen (Loves the Outdoors, Perceptive, Disciplined, Kleptomaniac, Unflirty)

But first, birthday cake.
 
Not long ago, Brand had asked Amber to assist him regain control of the warehouse. She had not given him an answer after their invigorating sparring match that day. Everything about the meeting was weird, including his request for help. Although it makes absolutely no sense, her gut tells her that this is the where the scent trail leads. And for this reason, she decides to take him up on his offer. She assumes he has been keeping an eye on her movements. To test this theory, and to gague how crafty her potential employer is, Amber arrives early one afternoon at a small, wooded park to practice chess. It does not take long for her to hear the engine of a finely tuned vehicle purring softly to an idle, followed by the muffled sound of a gently closed car door. His footsteps are nearly imperceptible, as to be carefully silenced with intent.
Amber smiles but does not turn from the chess table. She speaks out toward her chess pieces when she assumes he is some fifty feet away, announcing that she has decided to accept his job offer. She turns to find him smiling, almost exactly fifty feet away. No longer masking his footfalls, Brand occupies the chair across from her and compliments her senses; adding that he was wise to not underestimate her ability as others have.
 
Amber’s mood changes instantly when she finds his eyes focusing on a spot about a hands-width below her chin. Amber frowns and wonders out loud if this was a bad idea, and begins to leave. Brand stands and apologizes, complimenting her striking beauty and decrying his own lack of manners. With is eyes now focusing more appropriately, Amber is somewhat taken aback by the sincerity of his apology. She had not expected it. She knows when a sim is lying, and his apology was no fluff. Slightly confused by this, Amber cocks her head and listens to what he has to say.
 
Brand suspects that before his death, Mr. Dworkin had been on the cusp of breaking something big that would have worked toward accomplishing two mutual goals. First, to break the senior Mr. Jones’ death grip on the former teacher; and secondly, to give Brand complete control of the warehouse. Mr. Dworkin’s accident was no accident. Brand warns her that what he is asking her to do may offend her sense of loyalty. He also warns her that in this line of work there is absolutely no loyalty to any sim, but to one’s own self. He suggests sternly that she would do well to remember this.
 
Amber sits on the floor with her brother helping him with a homework assignment. The estate is cold and vast, having been stripped bare of its former comforts. She has worked to mend the rift between Paul and their parents. He admitted to taking out his anger on them, while knowing they were helpless to do anything about it. They have been spending more and more time away from home; working to write and record music for a new record in an attempt to pay the bills.
 
Paul thanks her for helping him, then goes off to call his girlfriend, leaving Amber to her own thoughts in the cavernous room. Brand had asked her to find what Mr. Dworkin had discovered. And he asked her to look for it at the home of Billy Jones and his mother. Brand was right. The request stunned her, and she almost walked away from the deal. But, again, something inside nudged her to investigate. She remembers her strange feeling about the limo parked in front of Billy’s house that day. Could Brand be on to something she had not considered?
 
She had not seen Billy since the graduation ceremony, where she was unable to do much of anything, given the army of reporters all swarming around her parents. Therefore, she is understandably startled by the sight of Billy’s limousine pulling up to the estate’s front gates early that same evening. He emerges with his bodyguards, or entourage as Billy calls them. The sight of Billy as the new warehouse boss is both reviling and arousing. He lets himself in through the front door, demonstrating a sense of power and authority that she had not seen from him until now.
 
 
Billy stops mid-stride and turns to his entourage; then after a few seconds clears his throat loudly. The goons grumble and file back out into the courtyard. He then turns back to Amber and smiles his greedy smile. He says nothing as he scoops her up into another of his amazing kisses. Even after all this time, she still melts like butter when he kisses her. When they eventually part, Amber can hear the goons outside whistling and cheering Billy on. He rolls his eyes and asks if there is somewhere private they can talk. Amber nods, wondering what he might be getting at, and leads him upstairs to the old “treasure” room.
 
Billy has never displayed much charm, subtlety, or affection. It, quite honestly, just doesn’t suit him. He is all about power, money, and living life on the edge. And when he asks her to marry him, it is no different. He presents an enormous rock for her ring finger, and tells her that the wedding is planned for next week. No bended knee, no heartfelt proposal, and no discussion. Like so many of his other possessions, he has decided to acquire her.
 
Confused, hurt, and unable to speak, Amber stammers for something to say. Although he is as thick as a brick, Billy does sense that his delivery was, perhaps, less than spectacular. He scratches his head and regards Amber. Getting onto one knee, Billy reluctantly shows a tiny bit of romance by taking her hand and asking her to marry him. Then, through confused tears and racing thoughts, she asks him breathlessly if he is ready for them to be together for the rest of their lives.
 
Billy pauses, smiles that sly and sinister smile she finds so mesmerizing and says, simply, till death do us part…

Chapter 7.13 – Comforting

Amber watches in disbelief as workers remove everything of value from the Barimen estate.
 
If the building itself were able to be sold and moved off the land, they would do it. She had hidden the portrait of Julian under a floorboard in the now-empty wine cellar just in time. It remains hidden with the box of old newspaper clippings and journals for now. Other than the property itself, the painting is the only thing of value she has remaining.
 
The family is broke. Paul, her younger brother, does not handle the realization well. He shouts at Ben, who seems defeated and detached. And he grimaces at Lisa, demanding to know how they let this happen. Lisa attempts to calm him and explain that it was out of their control. They had spent millions on legal defense. At the same time, all rights and royalties to their music had been stripped from them. Even their business investments were targeted and the assets from them frozen.
 
Whoever is behind the attack knew how to quickly cripple their income and drain their finances. Any counter-suit they attempted, failed. And the bleeding still continues now; with lawsuits being filed from all manner of sims, organizations, corporations, and businesses. Paul storms off, still unconvinced that the problem was unavoidable. Normally, he would have driven away in his sleek performance racer. But today he is forced to call a taxi.
 
Amber hugs and kisses her parents, but cannot hide the welling tears. She tells them each she loves them and thanks them for being such perfect parents. Lisa hugs Amber as the teen asks her mother’s permission to go see Billy, adding that she cannot bear to watch any more. Lisa hesitates, hugs Amber close again, then nods but says nothing.
 
The taxi ride gives her a short moment of quiet. The glut of information has started to become a problem. So much has happened, and there are so many clues and leads to sort through, that she finds herself unable to think clearly. If she can just get a chance to process it all, her mental log jam might just clear up. It should all make sense, but it doesn’t. The information just keeps flowing in, leaving her wishing she could take a break and “turn off” her senses for a while so she can sort things out.
 
The taxi pulls up to the Jones’ mansion just as somebody climbs into a waiting limo. It appears as though Mrs. Jones is eager to have the sim leave before Amber arrives. Amber attempts to peer through the tinted windows as the limo passes the taxi, but cannot make out any details. It is probably nothing, but all the same, she makes a mental note to “forget” to call ahead next time she visits.
 
Billy is there also, waiting for her to arrive, and he greets her the instant she steps out of the car. Mrs. Jones can barely contain her amusement, and stares down at Amber over her hawkish nose. Amber learns where Billy gets his cruel side when Mrs. Jones spins on her heel and comments that it is a pity, what happened to her family. The snide remark is followed by a scoffing laugh as she leaves the two teens to be alone.
 
Billy says nothing after the awkward jab. The smile he tries to conceal does not help her to feel any better about the situation. After his mother is out of earshot, Amber asks Billy who the limousine was for. He only shrugs and tells her it was probably one of his mother’s boyfriends. Amber again falls silent after the weird comment, and decides not to push any farther for details. She debates telling him about her encounter with Brand, but decides not to do that either. Maybe this visit wasn’t such a great idea after all. Amber finds herself wondering if Tina’s shoulder might have been a better choice to cry on.
 
She feels a tugging at her consciousness, as though some detail is wanting her to notice it. Was it something about the limo? Was it something about his mother? She knows she is missing some critical piece of information, but her senses are just too overstimulated for her to focus. It feels a lot like drinking from a fire hose, and it will only get worse unless she can figure out a way to filter out some of the information being fed into her brain.
 
Amber smiles at Billy, aware he had been saying something to her. But she had been completely gone. He scoops her up in another amazing kiss, and she returns it, pressing herself against him with a vice-grip hug. She knows he is not a big fan of the hug, but she needs to be comforted. He wriggles like a caught fish, but she hangs on tight. Finally, she lets him go and begins to speak. But he interrupts, telling her that she should come inside with him.
 
He shows her around the Monticello style mansion, and she marvels at the riches inside. She had no idea the Jones’ were so incredibly wealthy. But theirs is not like the Barimen fortune, which was earned through generations worth of paychecks and skilled business moves. Rather, the Jones family wealth is the result of theft, extortion, and ripping off other sims’ hard work. Amber feels suddenly kind of sick, and finds herself wanting to leave. But Billy senses the change and whispers that the stuff she sees will be theirs some day.
 
He kisses her repeatedly as he leads her room by room through the impressive mansion. She is nearly absent as the tour takes them to his bedroom, and she finds herself kissing him more passionately than ever before. She is like a rag-doll in his arms, and Billy enjoys her sudden lack of resistance. Stepping back, he regards her with his devilish grin and asks why she is here.
 
Amber can barely think as the impulses from her body begin to take charge of her actions. She shouldn’t do this. She’d promised herself she would wait. But his kisses… They’re so… incredible. Unable to catch her breath, or take her eyes off of his lips, she can barely speak. But she finally manages to say that she just needed some comforting.
 
Billy’s mouth curls into a treacherous smile as he leads her willingly to his bed; which she finds to be very, very comforting.

Chapter 7.12 – Anger

Billy fails every sparring match with Amber the afternoon he finally decides to visit the estate.
 
Amber shouts at him out of frustration over his lack of effort. But Billy just stares at her with an unimpressed expression, and states he did not come over for any flower-power training. But if she can show him how to break a sim’s neck, then he’ll be impressed. Amber grimaces at the morbid comment; and frets over the smile he wears on his face as he makes it.
 
Exasperated, Amber takes him on a walk around the estate. She shows him the now empty rooms which, at one time, contained amazing artifacts from all around the world. They pause to kiss on the western breezeway, which causes Amber to immediately to forget about Billy’s troubling statement from earlier. She rubs his chest and shoulder where he had been shot. Even over his shirt, she can tell he has been working out pretty intensely.
 
She complements his quick recovery and tries to keep things from advancing any farther by stepping away. He moves to prevent her from escaping his embrace, but remembers the episode with his broken fingers and gingerly steps back from her. Amber’s frustration chooses this moment to peak, and she unloads on Billy. With tears in her eyes, Amber demands to know, other than the obvious reason, why he bothers with her when any of his other girlfriends would gladly satiate his needs. Somewhat shocked that she knows about the other girls, Billy begins to explain.
 
To her amazement, his twisted logic sounds almost plausible. He tells her that nobody understands him like she does, not even his mother; and certainly not those other girls. He admires that she looks past his flaws and accepts him for who he is, no matter how bad that might be. He does not feel like he has to become a “better sim” to be with her. He can be his own wild and rampaging self without worrying about losing her, and he loves her because of it.
 
Amber wonders why she is not disturbed by this revelation. His use of the word love reminds her of the kind of love a guy might have for his fancy watch or favorite sports car. If she knew what was good for her, she’d dump him on the spot. But before she has a chance to speak,  Billy grabs her again, and sends her swooning with another amazing kiss. In the silence that follows, he states glibly that he knows she’s the kind of girl who wants to wait for marriage. He walks away with the upper-hand, commenting that it had better be worth the waiting.
 
Amber burns off her frustration by jogging around town while contemplating how much of a jerk her boyfriend is. He’s crazy if he thinks he can toss around the “M” word like that. He’s exactly the kind of creep that would tie the knot to get what he wants, then split. Amber digs in, and pushes herself at a sprint to work out the anger, frustration, and anxiety that has been building up.
 
She reaches the park with plenty of energy remaining to burn off, but with no means to rid herself of it. She tries meditation, but she cannot clear her mind. So, while sitting lotus style on the ground, she gives in to a good, long, and cleansing cry.
 
Tentative footfalls in the grass alert her, and bring her back to her senses. She wipes the tears from her eyes and controls her breathing, then stands to greet the approaching sim. She turns to face whoever it is coming to check on her, and nearly falls over in panic when she sees Brand standing only a few paces away. He recognizes the panic in her eyes, and shows his hands while smiling a disarming smile.
 
He speaks first, saying how he has been waiting for her to come here. He used to see her here every day, but now this is the first time in weeks. Amber eyes Brand suspiciously, readying herself to make a run for it. Brand shakes his head and tsk’s his disappointment at her distrust.
 
Amber lets her defiance get the best of her. She growls through her teeth, asking what he expects after nearly killing off her boyfriend, then actually succeeding in killing off her former teacher. Brand’s eyebrow raises in amusement. He tells her with a half-chuckle, that her information could not be farther from the truth. Her boyfriend was found planting damning evidence into his office; evidence that would have ended more than just his career. As for Mr. Dworkin, she could not be more wrong.
 
Mr. Dworkin had been working for him since the cheating scandal, and he was on the verge of a major breakthrough against the Jones’. His death was quite untimely, and coincided with the Jones family wresting control of the warehouse back from him. Brand shrugs his shoulders and admits that he finds himself suddenly out of a job, and was hoping that he might convince her to assist him.
 
Amber does not have a chance to process the new information, before Brand speaks again. He has seen the anger and confusion in her expression and stance, and also noticed that she had been attempting to mediate. He asks if, perhaps, a friendly sparring match might help her to work through some of it. After all, anger that goes unharnessed, is anger gone to waste. Amber knows she’s taking the bait, but she agrees nonetheless.
 
After changing, they meet at the center of the park and face off. Amber smiles when she sees that Brand is quite skilled in a form she is not familiar with. She finds the challenge to be exhilarating. She is forced to tune her senses to his every breath, every muscle contraction, and eye movement. She absorbs his form and style, and in a matter of only a few minutes, she is demonstrating them with the skill of a sim who had been practicing for years.
 
Amber brushes the side of Brand’s cheek with the heel of her foot and takes the victory. Brand did not throw this match. He may not have shown her everything he knows, but he fought hard and tried to win. She stands erect after bowing to her opponent and finds it impossible to hide the broad smile that forces its way to her face.
 
Brand returns the smile and comments, with a hint of sarcasm, that this appears to be the beginning of what could turn into a beautiful friendship.

Chapter 7.11 – Publisher

Confusion and fear win out over sadness and grief in the emotional gambit that plays out in Amber’s conscious after Mr. Dworkin’s unexpected death.
 
The timing of his death, coupled with the unusual circumstances of the accident that killed him, leave her with a dreadful feeling that Brand is somehow responsible. Mr. Dworkin’s chilling warning that night has left her feeling nervous and edgy.
 
He had mentioned that his role had been played out. Was it a foretelling of his own death? And what did he mean when he said that she was a prize?
 
Her second mystery novel ends with the sudden demise of the teacher from the first book. Her publisher, Wendell Colt, has invited her to a celebratory dinner at the bistro. She has spoken with Wendell countless times over the phone, but has never actually seen him. This fact alone is the only reason she decides to keep the appointment. She wishes she cold tell him that she has nothing to celebrate. But he is completely clueless that these stories are based largely in fact. He does not even suspect that she is grieving for the real sim behind her fictional, deceased teacher.
 
She does enjoy Billy’s reaction over the phone when she tells him that she has a date tonight. Their relationship has been strained somewhat by the fact that she is only allowed to see him at school or at the estate. Sure, there have been a few short walks through the park. But for the most part, their romance has stalled, since he refuses to comply with the “insane restrictions” her “overreacting” parents (or wardens, as he has become fond of calling them) have imposed.
 
Amber wants to make a good impression on her publisher. If he sees a young, professional author and not just some silly teenager, she may be able to work full-time as a writer when she finishes school. Considering how the family finances are being drained, she is not guaranteed the same easy life she had as a child. She promised Grandma Faith that she would carry the family legacy forward. But she may have to do it with little more than a plot of land. Having a publisher in her side pocket will definitely help.
 
Amber finds that she fits surprisingly well into one of her mother’s older dresses. She lets her hair down and lazily brushes through it, then finishes applying her makeup. She is completely finished and ready to go long before her appointment. Considering how long it always took Tina so long to get ready to go out, it leaves her wondering if she’d forgotten some crucial “getting ready” ritual. Amber shrugs, checks herself out in the mirror, and uses the remaining time to relax and clear the clutter out of her mind.
 
The stunned comments from both her parents and brother, cause her to blush and think twice about meeting an older man for dinner. She had told them she’s going on a date, and that it wasn’t Billy; but she omitted the detail about him being an adult.
 
 
Arriving by taxi at the bistro, she checks in with the host, who shows her to Wendell’s table. He is not at all what she expected. She had pictured a pudgy, balding, middle-aged man who might have looked like a young Mr. Dworkin. Rather, Wendell is thin, younger than she expected, and carries himself with a swagger that suggests there is more “Colt” than “Wendell” in his personality. He stands and takes a few steps toward her, attempting to hide a pronounced limp.
 
 —
 
She smiles, still somewhat unsure how to process this new information about her publisher. She apologizes, and states plainly that he is not at all what she expected to see. Wendell chuckles as he pushes in her chair, then sits across from her. He confesses that he gets a lot of that. For some reason, sims don’t generally see him as the “bookish” type. He raises his eyebrow and suggests that she is not exactly what he had pictured, either.
 
Dinner goes well, with Amber telling Wendell about her new book. He listens in awe and tells her that she’s got another best seller on her hands. Their conversation is easy and stimulating, like many of their prior phone conversations. The only uncomfortable patch comes when he expresses his disbelief about what is being said about her parents in the news, and how they are being dragged through the mud by the various media outlets. The tabloids have been particularly viscous. Amber quietly agrees, pondering his observation.
 
Many sims who have known Amber, sometimes forget that she is just simply a teen. She carries herself in conversation better than some adults. She has sharpened her observational skills to focus on interactions with other sims. Even the slightest change in body language speaks volumes to Amber. Most of the time she doesn’t even realize she is doing it. And it certainly catches Wendell off guard.
 
It takes a moment for him to comprehend when she announces she needs to get home before curfew. Wendell stands, ashamed for not doing better to respect the fact she is a minor. He walks her to the patio, overcompensating with a fatherly tone and keeping at least a full pace distance between them. Amber smiles with understanding, and reassures Wendell that she is not offended. The fact of the matter is that she has always been able to relate easily with sims older than her.
 
She hugs him, perhaps knowing that it will make him squirm some, and thanks him for dinner. She gives him a thumbs-up through the window and holds up three fingers; presumably to indicate that she’s moving on to her third book. Wendell nods, still feeling both an electric attraction and an awkward shame, and watches the tail lights to her taxi disappear around a corner. The meeting with his best-selling author was everything he expected it to be and at the same time, nothing. But it did leave one matter abundantly clear to Wendell.
 
He REALLY needs to get out more.

Chapter 7.10 – Masterpiece

Amber has discussed the family’s growing legal and financial problems many times with her mother, but she had no idea things were this serious.
 
Moving boxes and furniture litter the foryer as movers load valuable family herilooms carefully into waiting cargo vans. Grandma Faith, the woman who raised her; and for the first few years of her life seemed more like a mother than grandmother, is moving away. She and Grandpa Jimmy make a special effort to talk to her alone about the move.
 
Amber is suprised by the sadness that overwhelms her when they break the news. Jimmy calms his granddaughter and explains that the family has been forced to liquidate most of their assets. They will proceed to re-invest out of harm’s way. But he and Faith must move out of the estate in order to protect what they can. If they don’t, then they risk the chance of losing everything. The mansion, much of the real estate, and even the rights to Ben and Lisa’s music are still threatened and could very well be lost.
 
The news is sobering. Jimmy explains that the property itself is untouchable. After much research, he and Faith have discovered a protected military trust, set up by the homesteaders who first settled Sunset Valley. It is forever bound to the family. And according to the rules of the trust, the land now belongs to Amber.
 
Faith hands Amber an old box and tells her granddaughter to handle its contents with care. Generations worth of family history have been preserved inside. Some of it goes back to the earliest sims to live on the property. Faith winks and says she just might find inspiration for a good book from it.
 
Still numb, Amber asks who would do such a thing. And more importantly, why? Jimmy shakes his head. If they knew, they would stop it. There is no legal way for them to prevent sims from filing lawsuits. The mountain of litigation against them has been mostly unsubstantiated, even bordering on bizarre. But without proper representation, any one of these lawsuits could blow up in their face. The family must still pay for defense, and the cost has been astronomical. One thing is clear. Somebody has been working hard to erase the Barimen fortune.
 
The estate is a big, empty, and lonely place for Amber without her lifelong companions, Tina and Tanya.
 
With her brother, Paul, recently becoming a teen, she at least has some company. But Paul has become quite popular on his own, and is usually out gallivanting with friends. She has taken to studying the box filled with family historical artifacts. Among them are old photos, letters, newspaper clippings, and even an old diary from a teenaged girl who lived her hundreds of years ago.
 
But one item in particular has captured her attention. She stares at an old newspaper clipping and finds herself reeling from its contents. So much has happened over the past few days, that she finds herself having difficulty making sense of it all. Between Billy being shot at the warehouse, Mr. Dworkin’s weird warning, and the family financial crisis. She finds herself with too much to process. Now she has one more thing to add to the pile.
 
BREAKING NEWS!! Authorities have solved a mysterious string of high profile robberies overseas. Julian Barimen, of Sunset Valley, was apprehended in the act while attempting to steal the wolds largest diamond at a museum near Paris. Information taken from the computer in his rented flat show transactions that implicate him in the theft of dozens of priceless artworks and artifacts. These transactions have lead authorities to what they believe is the source of these robberies; none other than the influential Corwin Barimen of CB Imports in Sim City. The Valley Post has obtained an exclusive, inside report that Julian Barimen has been offered clemency in exchange for testimony about the alleged criminal operation behind CB Imports…
 
Julian Barimen, her grandfather six generations removed, was a criminal. The portrait hanging in the warehouse, the same one now sitting on her desk, is a portrait of Julian. The unnamed masterpiece had been stolen from the Sunset Valley museum many, many years ago. It was painted by Bebe Hart, the woman who would eventually go on to marry Julian and become one of Sunset Valley’s most renowned painters. Although it is small, it was one of Bebe’s first paintings. And it is worth a fortune.
 
Mr. Dworkin knew, somehow, that the man in the portrait was Julian. But how did he know? Did he also know how valuable the painting was? He had told her last week that he would no longer be so honest with her. But even just a few scraps of details he might offer would help. She needs answers, and he is the only source of information she has.
 
Arriving for her weekly visit, Amber is intercepted by one of the nurses on staff at the retirement community. She recognises Amber as one of the only sims who had visited Mr. Dworkin during his stay. Confused at first, the nurse realizes that Amber has not yet heard the news, and is here for her weekly visit.
 
Her voice is sweet and sympathetic, as she gently informs Amber that Mr. Dworkin had fallen down the stairs in the dark after she left last week. His injuries were grave, and he fought hard to come back. Unfortunately, he suffered a setback late yesterday.
 
He died early this morning at the hospital.