The night was one of those rare clear and sweet-smelling London nights. Yianelle Shannon was enjoying the evening so much she couldn’t remember why she’d refused to date Leo for so long. But, he was quite a persistent and surprisingly charming man. In her few months at Mirapac, he’d asked her out at least once every week. Then, he’d shown up at the door of her flat everyday of the past week with flowers for her and expensive treats for Colby, her pedigreed black Siamese.
Leo, like most Mirapac employees, lived in the same building as her. In fact, all the employees who joined corporate headquarters from off-world were assigned flats there; it was required, but still an alluring perk of working for the far-reaching corporation. Mirapac was one of the Mars-shot corporations begun during the Twenty-First Century push to permanently colonize the Red Planet. The corporation had diversified and integrated into virtually ever peripheral industry around interplanetary travel and business. When you were hired by Mirapac, they conveniently handled every aspect of a move; basic moves were standard in a contract. Extras were billed by ironclad clauses extending your employment contract if you couldn’t pay upfront; In Yianelle’s case, that included an entire extra year for Colby’s clearance through customs and quarantine.
Yianelle would likely have never socialized with Leo or ever spoken directly with him at work. She knew who he was, but could never have approached him there. She was just a peon-illustrator – a board-ape – after all. But, his flat was a few levels above hers, in the same corner of the building. She’d often seen him, in the first few weeks after she arrived, as he jogged up and down the stairwell of that corner every morning before sunrise. She, herself, took the stairwell up the six flights to the company-airbus pad for the ride to work every morning. However, she’d never presumed to speak to him, and barely acknowledge his unfailing smile and nod as he would pass her in the stairwell.
On the morning Yianelle brought Colby home – leaving behind furious animal-transfer custodians nursing deep gashes where the unruly feline had made his displeasure known – the cat escaped from his carrier in her arms as she stepped off the lift, which she thought she must have been closed improperly. The cat made a yowling black streak, darting through the fast closing door of the stairwell. She raced after him and was brought up short when the door opened suddenly. There stood Leo, holding the cat firmly, but gently while making soothing noises at the wild-eyed animal. Colby was a known terror to anyone who tried to handle him who wasn’t Yianelle. Amazingly, Colby hadn’t clawed Leo.
“Oh! Thank you so much for catching him,” Yianelle gushed breathlessly. She wagged a finger admonishingly at Colby, scolding him, “Naughty, silly cat.” The cat responded by going limp in Leo’s arms, beginning to purr.
Leo, scratched where he held the back of the cat’s neck, and, in his lightly accented soft baritone, said to the cat, “You vworried mummy running avway like that, mijn ebbenhouten krijger.”
Yianelle, who hadn’t heard Leo speak before, blinked at hearing his unexpected accent and unfamiliar old-world language. She smiled, mildly confused, and gathered the mass of cat into her own arms. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that, what’d you say?”
A slight smile on his lips, he replied in a studied, yet friendly tone, “It’s old Dutch for ‘my ebony warrior.’”
Yianelle laughed lightly, wagging a finger at Colby’s nose as she said, “Yeah, he’s a warrior right enough!” The cat ignored her finger with studied disdain.“His name’s Colby.”
Leo clicked his heels together theatrically, inclining his head in a brisk nod to Colby, “Pleased to make your acvwaintance, Meneer Colby.” When Leo took hold of the cat’s paw to shake in greeting, Yianelle expected him to draw blood, as was his wont toward anyone not her. She was astonished when the cat seemed fine with it. In fact, it almost seemed to her that Colby inclined his head in return at Leo.
Speaking to the cat, Leo asked, “Meneer Colby, please permit me to introduce myself. I am Leopold von Münzhauser” To Yianelle’s ear it sounded like he pronounced his name, Leoh-po-ald vohn Moon-zchawz-er. Just as she was fretting she’d never pronounce ‘Leopold’ correctly, he looked up and met her gaze and continued with a disarming smile, “But, I hope you vwill call me Leo.”
Yianelle looked up at him and gave him one of her signature wide-eyed biting-lip smiles, “Hi, Leo. I’m Yianelle Shannon.” She could hear Anna at the back of her mind admonishing her about maintaining professional distance, especially with the higher ups.
He stepped over the tumbled mess she’d dropped when Colby escaped, and began picking it up. She thanked him as she opened the door to her flat, just across from the stairwell door. She stepped back as he leaned inside to set her collected things on the floor next to her, just inside the apartment. He invited her to join him for tea at someplace in the old quarter. Unable to shake Anna’s imagined disapproval, Yianelle declined. She stood in the doorway, holding the cat, and exchanged meaningless chatter a moment more, before disengaging with a polite, “Thanks, again. And, goodbye,” then closed the door.
Leo… Leopold von Münzhauser… Yianelle played his name over in her head. It was a name that stood out; it still seemed mildly exotic to her ears. She hadn’t really paid attention before, but company scuttlebutt was that he had come from seemingly nowhere and in only a few weeks had replaced the division superior as senior vice-president of the Public Relations Division. Leo had replaced the much beloved former VP, Michael Summers, who lost his planetary work permit and was forced to return home to Mars Colony IV. The employees had been devastated when they learned the passenger cruiser, on which Michael had been traveling, suffered an “undetermined catastrophic systems failure” during reentry. The cruiser exploded in the upper atmosphere, killing all three hundred and seventy passengers and crew. Rather unfairly, Yianelle thought, the staff in the division blamed Leo for Michael’s tragic end. Yianelle, herself from Delta Colony on Mars, had joined the graphics department at the height of the turmoil. Coworkers still grumbled that Leo had been given prejudicial preference because he was born on earth, instead of any of the Outer Colonies. At least when you looked at it on the surface of it, there did appear to be a definite skew at the executive levels to earth-born staff.
With deliberation, Yianelle dispelled these ruminations. She’d been in Old London for nearly four months already and tonight was the first time she’d seen any of the sights. It seemed odd that Leo, who had told her he spent his childhood rather isolated in the Oostvaardersplassen region of the former Netherlands, seemed to know everything about Old London.
“Leo, how do you know so much about London?” she asked, during a pause in his tour-guide oration, “I mean, you said you grew up pretty isolated in a rural area and you’ve only been here since you started at the office, right?”
“I attended boarding school here for a time, in the last years of my youth,” Leo replied in his polished Dutch accent.
“That must have been very lonely for you,”
“Perhaps…” he smiled at some private joke. “…I never had a real home.”
Something in his voice… or was it his pale eyes? Something was suddenly very unsettling. Yianelle decided to change the subject. “Do you think the company’ll be able to fight off this take-over bid?”
“Come now, Yianelle,” he admonished cheerily. “vWe agreed to put aside vwork this evening.”
He really did have the most charming smile. And, the small scar on the side of his cheek added an air of mystery to his otherwise bland features. It wasn’t that Leo was unattractive. He just wasn’t her ideal. But, then, Yianelle reflected, So few are. They stopped on the Commons to watch another street performer, and it was then Yianelle noticed what a lovely head of thick dark curls he had, and his slender athletic body. He put his deceptively strong arm comfortably around her shoulder and pulled her companionably close.
The small crowd dispersed and the street performer moved on after collecting the few coins tossed out for her, leaving the couple alone. Yianelle, leaning against a tree trunk, allowed Leo to kiss her. There were no fireworks, but it was nice… Nice enough to try again, she said to herself. It is said Earth’s moon has always affected people that way. The ambiance was part of the reason she liked her job on Earth so much better than her last job on Grahams Colony, around Saturn. She distantly wondered what Anna would have to say when she told her about the evening.
Delta Colony – Mars
The interplanetary operator informed Anna Sinclair there was no answer on Yianelle’s line. Anna fretted as she cut the vid-call. She’d only asked the operator for assistance because there’s been no answer the times she’d dialed direct over the past few days. “Earth is too damned far away,” she announced to Brynn, her pedigreed Burmese, not coincidentally a gift from Yianelle, bought with part of her wrap-up bonus when she had finished her contract on Grahams Colony. The cat, as usual, responded with a contemptuous flick of her tail, never deigning to open an eye.
Anna resolved to board the first shuttle to Earth tomorrow if she didn’t reach Yianelle by then. She sighed and sank down at the table before her now cold dinner. Yianelle had deeply worried Anna when she told her of Leo’s obsessive-seeming behavior. For her own peace of mind, Anna had decided to check up on him. Discovering that obituary had been sheer luck. The obit had only run in the local news of a rather small college in a tiny rural village near Oostvaardersplassen, of old North Holland, on Earth. A Leopold von Münzhauser had lived in that tiny village near Oostvaardersplassen. That Leopold von Münzhauser had died fifteen years ago, on the very night of his college graduation. So, who was aggressively courting Yianelle in Old London?
Anna abandoned her dinner entirely, turned back to the vid-phone, and transmitted again. She was disturbed that there was not one picture of this Leo-person now an executive at Mirapac. Okay, Annie, she warned herself, you’re being overly suspicious. Calm down. But, if this Leo-person was involved in the take-over bid of Mirapac, what entity was behind it? And, what would happen to Yianelle? Would she be caught in the middle?
Was this an ordinary take-over bid? Or, was it another looming corporate war? It seemed like half the reporters in the Interplanetary Press Corp (IPC), where she worked, were covering the bombshell reports of Mirapac being the latest target of the shadow organization, dubbed ? waging the corporate wars. They always started as ordinary-seeming corporate leveraging, but ended leaving a trail of violence and death, and the breaking up or outright destruction of the target’s assets. Every hint of trouble lately had people talking in hushed, nervous tones. And the idea that Mirapac might be next had most folks throughly spooked. Mirapac was THE interplanetary corporation… the first, the biggest, the most widely diversified. Mirapac owned interests too numerous to catalogue – including the very news service for which Anna worked. Anna mused, Is this Leo-person involved? The more she researched and the more she thought about it, more sinister he seemed.
Back on earth…
Later, Leo and Yianelle walked along the bank of one of the few natural ponds remaining in Old London. They walked and chatted under the clear moonlit sky. Leo held her hand firmly in the crook of his arm and talked about his passion for flowers; he was an avid horticulturalist. He talked for over two hours about the little garden at his dead mother’s house in old Holland. “The garden is really the only reason I’ve held onto the house,” he told her.
Yianelle was surprised he could make gardening interesting enough to hold her attention so long. She was equally surprised to find him such a warm and charming man, and maybe one of the most interesting she’d ever dated. Oh, I haven’t had this much fun since college, she thought. She thought then of what her friend’s reaction would be. Anna’s not going to believe this.
She was so caught up in Leo’s tale of his antics at boarding school, that the man marching directly toward them barely registered at first. But, as he quickly drew nearer, she thought there was something odd about him… something wrong.
Three shockingly loud bangs rang out in rapid succession. Yianelle’s world narrowed to the three crimson stains spreading across Leo’s crisp starched shirt as he fell, and the hand now pointing the antique gun at her. That’s what’s odd about him, came the thought, from some distant detached part of her. She flinched at a loud pop, thinking the hand had fired the gun again. But the man at end of that hand fell to his knees, blood pumping across his chest and spilling from between his lips. He swayed a moment on his knees, blood pooling about him, then fell over, his lifeless eyes frozen in an expression of dismay.
Yianelle swirled around in time to see a needler fall from Leo’s limp fingers. Did he have that all this time? “Leo,” she pulled his head into her lap, unable to remember moving to sit on the ground next to him. Oh, God! Her mind reeled, So much blood! Yianelle didn’t know why she was crying, only that she couldn’t stop. Bystanders had stopped running and screaming, and gathered around the stricken pair. What will Anna say when she finds out I was out with a man carrying a needler? And then thought to herself, What a stupid thing to worry about.
All the while, she also heard herself as from a great distance, yelling in a hysteria-tinged voice, “Somebody get a med-evac!”
She didn’t know if anyone did so or not. Yianelle took off her peacock-blue sweater and as best as she could, covered Leo. He was shivering severely. His shirt was now a flood of red. He coughed painfully, sending a flood of red past his lips, into her lap, across the pale iridescence of her silken dress. Her sweater, wrapped across his chest, was now blood-soaked. The brilliant blue and green beads in the intricate pattern on the delicate edging down the front the sweater stood out rather bizarrely to her vision at the moment. Yianelle felt she was seeing and hearing everything from outside. She felt distant and detached. She knew it was happening, that she was living this nightmare even as she felt she was watching in some sense from outside herself.
Leo opened his eyes and met her tear-filled ones, briefly. “I always thought…” he said in a barely audible, rasping whisper, “…I’d die alone, unmourned among enemies. Thank you.”
She saw herself fretfully adjusted the blood-drenched sweater rather futilely. She heard herself yammer meaningless comforts to him, “Sh-sh, the med-evac is on the way. You’ll be fine.”
Raising his other hand, Yianelle saw he still held the packet of leftovers from their restaurant meal. “I think mijn ebbenhouten krijger will miss his leftovers,” Leo said, watching it fall from his grasp. He grasped Yianelle’s hand as he continued between ragged, rasping breaths, “Keep Colby with you always.”
What an odd thing for him to say now, she thought.
“Promise me,” Leo insisted.
“I promise,” she said what she hoped was a soothing tone. “Just like still and quiet now until the med-evac arrives.”
He shuddered violently, his entire body wracked convulsively. Great large tears flowed from her eyes and fell on his cheeks. Leo looked into her eyes again and said, “I thank you for your tears.”
She cried al the harder and he reached up and touched her wet cheek lightly with blood-stained fingers. Will I ever be able to wash the stain from my face? Leo sighed a huge, rattling sigh and smiled up at her – Was that relief in his smile? – as he died, his vacant black eyes boring unseeingly into her memory forever.
Anna Sinclair paced the length of the passenger lounge of Delta Colony’s shuttle port on Mars. How had Yianelle ever gotten into such a mess? The Inter-Planetary Press (IPP) reports from earth had been so vague. One thing was certain, the assassin would’ve killed Yianelle too, if this Leo person hadn’t killed the man first, before then dying himself. Thinking about it, Anna couldn’t quite suppress a shudder.
She was relieved when the shuttle began disembarking and composed herself forcefully. She greeted Yianelle with her best smile and a warm hug over the pet carrier and carry-on luggage with which Yianelle was weighted down. As she relieved her fried of half her burden, Anna noticed the raw place on her cheek, barely concealed by an apple green scarf, draped artfully across that side of her face.
“Yiani, I’m so glad to see you!” Anna said with studied enthusiasm, as they headed toward the exit nearest the parking structure.
“I’m glad to be seen,” Yianelle replied softly, with a rather dreadful attempt at a smile. The painful seriousness in her green eyes – somehow paler than remembered – screamed deafening volumes to Anna.
In awkward silence, Anna led the way in the parking structure to her little blue RXJ-7 convertible hovercar. As she glided the hovercar smoothly into the air-traffic, Anna tried to start a light conversation. “How was your trip?”
Yianelle’s only response was a slight shrug.
Anna continued determinedly, “Your boss must be really generous to give you six months paid leave.”
Yianelle just looked at her searchingly, seeming to want to respond, but remaining silent.
Anna squeezed her friend’s hand, hoping to communicate, It’s alright. You’re safe now… not alone anymore. Aloud, she said as cheerfully as she could muster, “I’ve really missed you!”
Yianelle adjusted the scarf to better obscure her raw cheek. “I’ve missed you too…,” she began, then trailed off with, “…you don’t know how much.” Her expression was disturbingly drawn and furtive.
A plaintive meow drew her attention. She seemed to push back a dark curtain and smiled warmly. “You remember Colby,” she said, indicating the pet carrier. “I just couldn’t be away from for six whole months. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. But, I don’t know how Brynn’l take it. She’s rather a snob.” Anna warned.
“Yianelle laughed – Anna wished it had been more convincing – and replied, “Colby’ll win her over!” Everyone loves him. Why the last thing Leo said…” Yianelle trailed off into a silence that discouraged any attempts at conversation.
They rode in uneasy silence the rest of the way to Anna’s modest condo in an upscale suburb of Delta Colony. As they unloaded the luggage, a puttering, old hovercar emitted an explosive popping sound as it rose into the air for take-off. Anna glimpsed the flash of gold eyes and black blur of the Siamese escaping the pet carrier when Yianelle dropped it. As she dropped it, she whirled around with white-rimmed, panic stricken eyes looking for assassins with ancient twentieth century guns aimed at her. Anna captured Colby as he leaped from under the car, suffering only one painfully deep slice across her forearm from those classic Siamese razor sharp claws.
Yianelle’s eyes were shut tight against a very personal terror, as she sank to the pavement beside Anna’s hovercar. Anna hurried around the car to where Yianelle sat on the tarmac, her knees tightly drawn up with her arms wrapped around them, and her head pressed face down against them.
“Yiani?” Anna laid her hand gently on her friend’s shoulder. The cat yowled in protest at his mistress as Anna repeated her name urgently.
Yianelle lifted her eyes, fixated momentarily upon her scarf as it fluttered away in the constant breeze of the air-return near Anna’s assigned parking space. She continued her stricken gazing into the distance for several more seconds.
Yianelle laughed hollowly and began in a distant voice, dropping her stare to some empty, personal distance, her waist-length red-gold tresses obscuring most of her face, “It’s all an illusion, y’know…”
“What is?” Anna reflexively asked.
“The idea that we have any kind of control.” Yianelle looked up then here eyes wide and fixed, looking directly into Anna’s eyes. “The illusion can be stripped away in less time that it takes to look at your watch…” Yianelle sighed, the expression in her eyes was lost, adrift in a sea of terror, as she continued, “It can be stripped away in the time it takes to die.”
Yianelle began softly crying. Anna sat on the ground beside her. The cat reached out a paw to his mistress’s arm, mewing softly. Anna let him climb into her lap. Yianelle wrapped her arms around the cat and sobbed huge, wracking sobs. Anna sat there patiently, holding a cloth over her scratches, and listening to the huge ragged sobs… the beginning of healing.
Anna and Yianelle were separating their laundry in the basement. They both had to fend off Colby, who was determined to shred every pair of stockings he saw. Brynn had not deigned to accompany them, hiding the moment she saw Yianelle with Colby’s leash and harness. Yianelle shook her finger admonishingly at Colby to scold him for trying to shred their stockings. He batted at her finger playfully and she ended up kissing him on the nose – which he charmingly held up to oblige her. After several weeks, Yianelle was much improved. At least, she could be alone in a room now. And, the late night terrors had lessened in both severity and frequency. But, in the mildly confined space of Anna’s one-person condo, the ladies had begun getting on each other’s nerves.
Anna shoved a pile of clothes in the sonic washer. Abruptly, she stumbled back, startled, when the machine expelled the lot explosively and a yowling black streak flew past her head. Yianelle was laughing… honest, genuine laughter for the first time since her arrival. Anna scowled at Colby. He hunkered across the room under a table, at the limit of his leash, scowling back at her. Yianelle’s laughter turned to a titter, something by which Anna was always annoyed. She turned the full force of her scowl on Yianelle, who covered her mouth and tittered before she could squelch her laughter. Anna saw the mirth dancing in her green eyes and her annoyance evaporated. She sighed and chortled companionably as she turned and picked up the scattered laundry and put it back in the sonic-washer.
Anna noticed Yianelle watching her her through her lashes, a mildly sly expression on her face that always preceded something Anna would find a ludicrous request. After a moment, Yianelle began falteringly, “I was wondering…”
Here it comes, Anna thought.
Yianelle cleared her throat nervously and began again, “I was wondering… um… would you mind… um…” Yianelle looked up at her friend and rushed on rather breathlessly, “Would you mind if I invited Paul Ecart to dinner this weekend at your place?”
Anna stared at her, utterly dumbfounded. “Don’t you remember the last time you got involved with someone like him? And! Don’t forget I got dragged into the middle of that mess!”
“I didn’t get ‘involved’ with Johnny. Besides, Paul’s nothing like him,” Yianelle said with that most annoying defensive whine of hers.
Anna cringed theatrically. “He turned out to be psychotic, I might add!”
“Oh… please! He wasn’t,” Yianelle rolled her eyes. “Johnny’s cop instincts just made him a bit too intense.”
Her lips tight and her eyes widening to their incensed maximum, Anna argued the point, “Pardon me for not seeing the distinction. After all, he only tried to throw me in jail!” By the end of the statement, she was nearly shouting.
“He just wanted to know where I was,” Yianelle whined defensively.
“If you’re going to whine like that…” Anna began threateningly.
“I’m not whining,” Yianelle whined.
“And I suppose you never titter either!” Anna retorted.
“I s’pose you’re perfect!” Yianelle shouted.
Trying to calm herself, and pulling a strand of her hair and chewing on it, Anna began, “I never said…”
Yianelle shrilled, “If I see you chew on your hair just once more, I’m going to scream!”
“Wouldn’t you rather beat me up?” Anna asked in her most scathing tones. “That would be just your style.”
Glaring, Yianelle tossed her thick, flame colored hair furiously, “At least it’s better than waiting for something interesting to happen to me.” Yianelle rushed on, over Anna’s retort, “Or, maybe you’d rather wait for it to happen to someone you know so you can write about it!”
Stung, Anna glared at her friend through squinting eyes, and said in her most withering tone, “Your life is right on track, then, is it?”
“At least I have a life! I’m not sitting around writing about a life you only wish you had, haven’t the courage to reach for!” Yianelle, eyes narrowed and glaring, her tone vindictive and calculating, wasn’t shouting any longer.
Hurt by words too close to the truth, Anna shot back, “Yeah… I’m really pining to date a gangster and be shot at!” As soon as she said it, she was angry with herself for letting her tongue had get ahead of her brain.
Yianelle flinched, her hand drawn reflexively to her cheek, still tender from so many vigorous washings. Yianelle didn’t look up at Anna as she asked, quietly, “Boss, what are we doing to each other?”
Colby meowed inquisitively nervous, watching them from where he was still hunched under the table. Both women laughed nervously and Yianelle retrieved the cat from under the table, petting him and muttering to him soothingly.
Then, Anna said, “I don’t know, Yiani. Maybe we’re feeling a little crowded. Maybe I feel a little guilty about Leo… I might’ve been able to stop you from going out with him if I hadn’t hesitated so long.”
Talking over the last statement, Yianelle said, “Anna, you shouldn’t feel guilty about any… wait… What? How?”
“Everything you told me about him made me nervous. So, I checked up on him.”
Yianelle’s face was a study in conflicting emotions. “You mean you investigated him?”
“Um…” Anna wasn’t expecting Yianelle to take this well. “Yeah, I kind of did. I found out some stuff a few days before your date.”
Yianelle exhaled in frustration and confusion, and asked with trepidation, “Do you always investigate the guys I date?”
“God no!” Anna hurried to assure her. “I only looked into him because it’s looking like Mirapac may be the next target in these corporate wars.”
“Then, why didn’t you just tell me?” Yianelle asked rather plaintively.
“I wanted to be sure of my facts… and that it was the right thing to do. But, I dithered too long.”
“What kind of ‘stuff’ did you find?”
“It doesn’t matter now.”
There was along pause while they pretended to concentrate on their laundry. Yianelle broke the uncomfortable silence, “Look, I don’t know if it matters now or not,” she began timorously. She continued with conviction, “But, I think I need to know what you found out.”
Anna thought it through, studying her friend’s expression, then told her everything she’d discovered about Leo and Mirapac, and what her colleagues at IPC suspected. Yianelle was stunned to learn “Leo” wasn’t who he’d claimed to be. But, she reasoned to Anna, whatever he’d been involved in couldn’t have anything to do with her. She proclaimed, “I’m just a board ape.” She didn’t have any access to any information in which anyone would be interested. And, she’d never laid eyes on Leo before he’d moved into her building and only had that one date. The only thing exceptional about all her interactions with him is that he was killed. Her estimation was reasonable and seemed to comfort her, so Anna let it seem to assuage her own worries for Yianelle’s sake.
They chatted lightly while waiting for the clothes to finish. When they were folding the finished laundry, Yianelle interjected, “If you really don’t like Paul…”
“It’s not that. I don’t know him,” Anna said, talking at the same time.
Yianelle continued as Anna spoke, “…I suppose we could keep going out somewhere else.”
Still talking at the same time, “What concerns me is you don’t know him either.”
They stopped talking at the same time. Yianelle smiled sentimentally at her and then surprised her by giving her a quick hug. “Thank you for caring about me so much. I’m so lucky to have a friend like you. Truly, the sister of my heart.”
Anna admitted to herself that did feel like Yianelle was a sister to her too. But, she just didn’t know what to say to such fulsome praise, no matter how genuine and heartfelt. So, she hugged her back and muttered, “Thanks.”
“Y’know, Anna,” Yianelle said in her I’m-being-very-reasonable-right-now tone, “Actually, Paul and I have been going out over a month now. I think I know him pretty well. He’s told me about his life and his struggles, especially when his mother left them. He doesn’t like his job, but he gives it his best energy and attention because he believes his diplomatic work matters.”
“He’s in government?” That was news to Anna. “What government?”
“Ours, silly,” Yianelle rolled her eyes at her friend. “More importantly, I’ve seen him always be kind and compassionate to strangers. He’s considerate of the service personnel wherever we go. He’s even patient with bumptious children when we’re out,” she finished in a dreamy sort of voice.
“You really like him a lot, don’t you?” Anna asked. She’d been at a loss to see what the attraction could be. But, Yianelle’s account of him was reassuring. She made an effort to see Paul through her friend’s eyes, and conceded, “I suppose he is rather handsome, in a grim sort of way.”
Yianelle sighed dreamily, causing Anna to shake her head. “You always did go for the power-guy type.” I cannot believe what I’m about to say, she thought. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt…” she began.
“Yianelle squeaked in delight and clapped her hands, “Who’re you gonna invite over to dinner?”
“Er… me?” Anna responded, nonplussed.
“How about that nice Eric Spengler? He’s really into you. And, he’s a doctor… a surgeon. And, he’s super cute!” Yianelle urged, all in one breath.
But, you loathe double dates, Anna reflected to herself about Yianelle. “How do you know he likes me?” Anna asked aloud.
Yianelle rolled her eyes, “Anna. Nobody… but, no-body borrows that much sugar!”
“Maybe he’s severely hypoglycemic.”
“Yeah… right. And, maybe he’s running a still.”
“Yiani, you can’t base a conclusion on such flimsy evidence,” Anna said quite reasonably, she thought.
“Okay, what about all those scraps he brings for Brynn?”
“Doggy bags from his incessant string of dates with vapid individuals.”
“Still, he brings treats for Brynn. And, he always hand feeds her.”
“Maybe he likes cats.”
“Doesn’t bring Colby anything. And, Colby never tried to bite or scratch him like Brynn does, either.”
“Brynn is more discerning than Colby. He likes everybody.”
“Bullshit! He likes you. Colby is an anti-social terror and you know it!”
“Maybe Dr. Spengler prefers long haired cats… or female cats.”
“Huh!” Yianelle snorted. “Female neighbors more like.”
Grinding her teeth, Anna began, “Yianelle…” She noticed the determined gleam in Yianelle’s eye and began to feel trapped in a set up.
Yianelle added, “What about your holovid projector?”
That one surprised Anna by making her smile, “He made it worse!”
“Okay… bad example. What about the flowers?”
“They were by way of apology for the holovid. And, he pulled them up out front and didn’t even shake the dirt off the roots,” Anna laughingly grumbled.
“You’re being deliberately obtuse.”
“Yiani… I hardly know him.”
“That’s what dating is for, to get to know someone.”
“Not with a first date in my own home.”
“Okay,” Yianelle relented. “So… invite someone else,” she suggested, knowing full well Anna didn’t know anyone else she could invite for a double date – especially on such short notice.
While preparing the tea tray, Anna peered through the slats of the plantation shutters closed across the pass through from her modest kitchen to the main living area. Eric Spengler shifted uncomfortably on her sofa. He’d seemed delighted when she’d asked him to make a fourth for dinner. But, Paul Ecart was obviously making him nervous. Ecart sat comfortably and determinedly silent, defeating Eric’s faltering attempts at conversation. In fact, Anna realized, while he’d been perfectly charming toward her, Ecart had not deigned to look at Eric all evening. When Eric tentatively cleared his throat, Ecart’s eyes flicked in his direction, settling on him like twin lasers. She knew it was just her imagination, but Eric almost seemed to writhe under that intense gaze. Anna decided they should get back to their guests before the evening took an unfortunate turn.
Turning back to Yianelle, Anna said, “Let’s leave the rest for later. Our guests are getting restless.”
With alacrity, Yianelle put down the pan she’d been about to wash and ran her hands through the sonic hand washer. “Well, I did try to say when you insisted on cleaning the dishes right away…”
“I know, I know. But, Eric is just so…”
“Charming?” Yianelle raised an eyebrow suggestively at her friend. “Cute? Sexy? Disarming? Into you?”
“Familiar.” Anna’s tone discouraged further comment.
Yianelle was undiscouraged. “Admit it… at least to yourself… you like him too.”
Anna opted not to respond, but thought, It’s being set up I don’t care for. She gathered up the tea tray and stepped through the swinging kitchen door. Yianelle followed on her heels. As Anna set out the tea tray before their guests, Yianelle announced superfluously, “That’s enough of dishes for now.”
Eric’s relief was palpable at their return to the room so that he was no longer alone with Ecart, even as he was compelled to rather clumsily follow Ecart’s example and stand when the ladies entered. There was a minor scuffle over the only other armchair in the sitting area. The smirk on Ecart’s face when Yianelle won the chair, leaving Anna to share the sofa with Eric, did not go unnoticed. She also noticed a knowing glance pass between Ecart and Yianelle. Her eyes dancing mischievously, Yianelle raised a hand to artfully cover a smirk in answer to the almost squinting glare Anna focused upon her.
Eric cleared his throat again, and Anna hadn’t quite dispelled the glare when she turned her gaze on him. He just waggled his eyebrows a couple of times at her with an almost smirk of his own. I’ll get you for this, Yianelle Shannon! Anna fumed silently. She kicked herself figuratively for being out maneuvered by Yianelle. It was irritating, but what really angered her was that Yianelle had enlisted Ecart in her matchmaking scheme.
Composing herself, Anna sat on the couch, close enough to where Eric had been sitting before he stood, just to be polite, but far enough away to let Eric know that dinner was all was on offer this evening. Ecart resumed his seat, as Eric stepped neatly sideways and sat right next to Anna. He would, she thought as he settled an arm across the back of the sofa behind her. She glared at the smug little smirk on Yianelle’s face and thought, I’d like to wipe that smirk off your face with a brick.
Yianelle, with mildly theatrical elegance, took care of the tea service, handing around cups to each of them. A few awkwardly companionable minutes passed in relative silence as they sipped their tea.
Eric set his cup on the table and turned slightly toward Anna. “Dinner was great, Annie,” he enthused.
“My name is Ann-a,” she corrected him, with an excruciatingly polite smile. Only she was allowed to call herself Annie.
Eric nodded acknowledgment. “Great. Good to know. Anyway, Annie,” he stressed the nickname, “dinner was really great.”
Anna favored him with what she hoped was a frosty smile. But, she must’ve gotten it wrong because his return smile was dazzling – so dazzling she lost the thread of the conversation for a heartbeat.
“…ful and a great cook too,” he was saying.
Is he leering at me? Anna wondered at his expression. She wasn’t sure.
“Yiani is the cook,” Anna said as she shifted further down the sofa, ostensibly to make use of the arm rest.
“Great cookin’, Yiani,” Eric said without missing a beat, as he moved right up next to Anna.
“Don’t let her fool ya,” Yianelle drawled, “She might be a better cook than me.”
“Thanks, Yiani,” Anna said as if gratitude was the furthest thing from her mind at the moment. I’m really gonna get you for this, Yianelle Janeece Shannon.
“Anna made the dessert,” Yianelle continued ruthlessly, thinking to herself, You’ll thank me one day soon. “…oh! And the cocktails… she made those too. Not to mention, I used her recipe for the lamb.”
With a charming smile, Ecart turned the conversation to the annual “Art of Mars” festival. Anna relaxed as the company discussed the exhibitions and festivities that, this year, would be a kick off to it’s first interplanetary tour. She was actually covering the event for the IPC and had hopes of landing the exclusive for the exhibit’s tour on Earth.
As they discussed it, Anna became quite animated about the tour. She was caught off guard when Eric slid his arm off the back of the sofa, across her shoulders. She stiffened and stood abruptly, picking up the tea tray and covering her discomfort with hostessing duties. “Would you gentlemen care for a nightcap?” She asked, determined to steer the evening to a close.
“I’ll have a ‘White Virgin,’” Eric said.
“You mean a ‘White Lady’, don’t you?” Anna corrected him.
“Do I?” He leered, with a brief waggle of his eyebrows.
A wary eye on him, Anna asked sweetly, “Yianelle, would you help me with the drinks?”
Yianelle cringed inwardly and looked hopefully to Ecart for escape from Anna’s looming vengeance. Without looking at Yianelle, Ecart stood to go and said to Anna, “Another time, please. I must be going.”
Crestfallen, Yianelle bit her lip, musing, I thought he was enjoying this set up…
Anna worried they had somehow insulted Ecart. Then, he turned to Yianelle and pulled her to her feet, kissing her hand and said, “Thank you for a delightful evening, Yianelle.”
“You’re welcome and thanks for coming, Paul,” Yianelle replied, trying to remember anything she’d done or said to make him leave so abruptly. I thought things were going so well too… that maybe tonight would be OUR night.
“I’ve got an early day tomorrow, myself,” Anna said, looking pointedly at Eric. He had remained comfortably ensconced on her sofa and, of course, didn’t take the hint. In fact, he chose that moment to stand beside her and place his arm around her waist – rather proprietarily, she felt.
Ecart was still holding the hand he’d kissed, his gaze still locked with Yianelle’s. “Walk with me, Yianelle,” Ecart invited as he led her towards the door, holding her gaze with his own. From his manner, Anna was certain a walk was not his intention. From Yianelle’s worshipful look, Anna could see her friend knew precisely what Ecart’s intentions were. She hasn’t even been here two months and has new lover! Well, at least she waited a month with this one.
“I’ll uh… see ya later, Anna,” Yianelle breathed, waving indistinctly over her shoulder, as she let Ecart lead her out the door with him, never breaking eye contact. It’d be so easy to lose myself in your beautiful ebony eyes, Yianelle thought.
“See ya,” Eric grinned, as Anna removed his arm from her waist. He turned the motion into lifting it for a cheeky wave at the parting couple and lifted the same arm across Anna’s shoulders. Anna glared at him as the door closed. But, he only waggled his damn brows at her again. “Now that Ol’ Dragon Puss is gone…” he began suggestively.
As he was talking Anna thought, He is definitely leering at me.
Eric continued, “…we can have some real fun.”
“Um…” Anna replied intelligently. She ducked from under his arm. “Well, she began, “I couldn’t miss those signals. Yiani won’t be back tonight.” She found she was heading in the general direction of the kitchen in retreat and stopped herself. She was certain she shouldn’t be giving ground. So, to cover and to encourage him out the door, she asked, “We have more than half the pie left… would you like to take it with you?”
“Sure… Love to,” he waggled his brows again.
Almost endearing, that, Anna thought. Passing into the kitchen, she knew he wasn’t thinking of French Silk Pie. He bounded into the kitchen after her. I might kill you for this, she swore silently at Yianelle. But she felt herself losing her vehemence.
“Your friend is somethin’ else…” Eric grinned, leaning casually against the edge of the counter across from her. “I don’t know how you kept yourself from letting her have it for that set up.”
“You caught that, did you,” Anna replied as she packed up the rest of the pie for him to take home.
“She’s not the most subtle of folks,” he smirked.
Anna snorted mildly. “Subtle she’s not…” she replied. “Obvious as an elephant in a china shop… often.” On a kinder note, Anna continued, “I guess she can’t help it. Yiani’s the most straightforward person I know.”
“Whatcha see is whatcha get, eh?”
“She’s quick to trust… often too quick. But, I’m not sure I’d want her to change. I think it’s part of what makes her who she is… maybe because she’s always been completely loyal and honest as long as I’ve known her,” Anna added kindly. “But, when she pulls something like she did tonight,” Anna mimicked grabbing someone and shaking them, “I just want to shake her.”
“Ain’t friendship grand!” Eric chortled merrily. Laughing, he turned to the rest of the dishes and offered, “Before I go, let me help with the rest of the clean up.”
Several Days Later…
Late in the afternoon, Anna arrived back at her building, weighted down with work. As she got into the elevator, Eric, crossing the atrium, called out to hold the door. Dressed in scrubs and with a day’s growth of stubble and red rimmed eyes since she’d seen him just last evening, he was obviously just coming off work at the medical center. Anna held the door for him. When the doors closed, as they rose the 101 levels to his floor, he began with an apology for abandoning her at the restaurant, “I’m really sorry for leaving you in the lurch.” Then, he took in her neatly tailored, rose colored pantsuit with navy piping and a silk blouse in matching navy. “You look nice,” he told her.
“Thank you,” she said. “You look beat.”
“It’s been a very long night,” was his weary reply.
She looked at him, with mild consternation, “Did you go straight to work from the restaurant last night?”
“Yeah. I was needed to cover in the ER,” he replied, failing to suppress an expansive yawn.
“Was it because of the explosion at Arctic Terraforming Station B?” She asked.
With a tired smile, he replied, “Yeah. Boy, the IPC is on top of all the news, aren’t they? Mirapac just went public with it as I was leaving the center.”
“We try,” she shrugged.
“It was rough last night.” He scrubbed his hand up and down across his stubbly chin. “We lost nine people in ER and the four on site med-staff are still missing.”
“Our guy on the ground suspects sabotage,” Anna told him.
Eric’s eyebrows beetled, and he warned, his voice dropping to an almost gravely tone, “That’s a dangerous suspicion to put out there.”
“It is, but it’s not one responsible journalists make lightly,” Anna defended her colleague.
With a relaxing huff, Eric conceded, “I know… but stuff like that sets people on edge since Reid’s Colony. And, ramps up the severe anxiety traffic in ER.”
“All the more reason to get out in front of whatever caused the tragedy at the Pole,” was Anna’s response.
He sighed a releasing breath, and changed the direction of their conversation, “This scruff itches like you wouldn’t believe.” He scrubbed at his chin again, “I want my vibroshave, a shower, a meal, and bed… in that order.”
“Tell you what,” Anna smiled, “While you shave and shower, I’ll bring you down a plate of something and leave you to your rest.”
He leaned next her, leering good naturedly and waggled his brows at her. But, when tried to make his proposition, the only thing that came out was a mighty, full body yawn. This elicited an uncharacteristic giggle from Anna. He just sagged against the elevator wall, holding onto the railing, and, in resigned response to her offer said, “That’d be great, Annie. Thanks.”
They rode the rest of the way to his floor in silence. When the door opened on floor 101, he kissed her on the cheek in parting, and said, “See ya in about twenty minutes?”
“Twenty minutes,” she confirmed, as the doors closed and continued to her floor just one level up.
Anna stepped off the elevator and saw Yianelle, in a romantic and billowy, Seville-orange colored tunic with fuschia trim, cinched at the waist with a beaded, gold metallic belt, and paired with form hugging, fuschia-pink capri pants, with gold metallic ballet flats. It was the first time she’d seen her friend since their little dinner party. She knew Yianelle had been back to the condo daily and taken care of Colby and various chores. And, there was also evidence she’d spent time painting or drawing. However, she’d be back with Ecart before Anna got home, leaving behind a cheery note and something healthy on a plate for Anna to warm up for dinner. Yianelle was just leaving Ecart’s condo, which was three doors down from Anna’s and just next to the elevator.
She beamed and sighed happily, “Anna-a-a-a… hello-o-o.” She helpfully took Anna’s briefcase, making it easier for her to handle the stack of research she’d brought home to prep for the festival reporting.
“You’ve kept yourself busy the past few days,” Anna observed.
“Just puttering about mostly. Paul’s been at work early everyday,” she shrugged. “But, he usually gets home about an hour before you.”
“Then, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company now?”
“He had the day off today. We spent the day together. It was perfect. Then, we were having a lovely stroll through the Oxygen Garden, after lunch, before he got a call from the Ambassador. He brought me home and dashed out to work for a bit.”
“I suppose this means you haven’t fixed dinner?” Anna asked, only half feigning annoyance.”
“No, but, how do you feel about Dominoes double sausage and mushroom? Yianelle grinned confidently. “Oh, Paul and Eric are joining us for pizza. Paul arranged it.”
Anna gave her a here-we-go-again look and rubbed her own stomach hungrily, “I think I can deal with that. But, I just saw Eric. He just got off an all night shift in the ER. I don’t think he’s still on board,” she informed Yianelle. “At least, he didn’t say anything about it coming up in the elevator.” They reached the condo door as she finished, “In fact, I told him I’d bring him a plate of something.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” replied Yianelle, mildly disappointed. “Oh well, it’ll just be the three of us, I guess,” she added as Anna activated her palm lock. “Pizza will be here any minute. I ordered it over half an hour ago from Paul’s… his treat.” She flashed a credit crystal under Anna’s nose. She sighed happily as Anna completed the door opening procedure with a turn of a key. With a sideways glance and a sly tone, Yianelle inquired, “So… how’d things go with Eric the other night?”
Anna paused, her hand on the door handle and said, “Oh! You mean that wolf in whose tender mercies you abandoned me?”
Yianelle tittered and Anna rolled her eyes in mock annoyance as she opened the door. They were greeted by a scene of devastation. “Oh my God!” Yianelle gasped as if she might faint.
A low growl reached them and Anna dropped her stack of work on the entry table and dashed across the room, calling for her cat. Yianelle followed, calling for Colby. Anna disappeared into the bedroom and Yianelle, still carrying Anna’s briefcase, heard a crash. She raced into the bedroom and saw Anna lying twisted on the floor, a masked man over her with a gleaming, already buzzing vibroknife. Yianelle screamed in terror even as she deftly swung the briefcase with all her might at the man’s head, sending him reeling away from Anna. The man recovered and sprang at her. She screamed again as she turned and ran for the still open door, the man close on her heels.
Yianelle ran towards the elevator. She saw Ecart step into the hall through the opening doors. She called to him as the masked man jerked her backwards by her too-long hair. Somehow, she managed to turn around, facing the man, and held the wrist with that gleaming vibroknife, it’s vibration rattling from his wrist into her two-fisted hold on him.
As they struggled, the man growled at Ecart, “Stay back!”
The buzzing whir of the vibrating blade screed across her nerves. He wrenched his hand free and thrust the blade at her. She ducked and contorted away from his strike and he only succeeded in slicing open her billowy blouse. She raked her nails across his eyes, snatching his mask off and was stunned to see a face she knew. “Michael Summers?”
Michael lashed out with the knife again. Yianelle lunged into him, barreling her shoulder against his chest, forcing him back agains the wall and knocking the breath out of him. Unaware of anything but the struggle for her life, she did not see Ecart pointing a weapon, trying to get a clear shot. Before Michael could catch his breath, bracing herself by holding his shoulders, Yianelle brought her knee up with all her might, connecting with his groin. He dropped his blade, howling in angry, pained protest. But, she didn’t wait for him to recover. She brought her knee up again, connecting with his chin, forcing him back up against the wall again. Ecart watched in bemused readiness as Yianelle drew back, both hands clenched into a single fist, and swung at Michael’s abdomen, leaning with all her weight behind the blow. When he doubled over, she swung her doubled fists high, jumping off the ground, and hammered the blow down across the back of his neck, sending him crashing to the floor.
She kicked the blade across the hall and turned to run. But, Ecart closed the distance and caught hold of her, causing her to swing back towards Michael in time to see him about to fire a needler. In the space of a heartbeat, her eyes fell on Ecart’s weapon, a disruptor, then darted from Michael’s needler, to Ecart’s disrupter, to Ecart’s eyes, her own eyes filled with crippling hysteria. She collapsed against Ecart, as he took aim at Michael.