3rd World Products: Book 16 [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Ed Howdershelt
eBook Category: Erotica/Erotic Science Fiction/Science Fiction
eBook Description: Ed's attractive young stalker is the daughter of Marie Connor, a woman he hasn't seen since 1972. She wants his help to get her seriously injured mother Amaran medical treatment that's banned in the USA, so she's being very cautious, but she's been set up. They're to be expendable pawns in political court battles intended to generate controversy in an election year. Their arrests would serve both sides well, but Ed wants no part of that ugly circus. Federal warrants are issued and they find themselves on the run as a new and uncontrollably dangerous natural field user appears. Caution: lesbian erotic content. - Released 4/2012
eBook Publisher: Abintra Press/Abintra Press, Published: 2012, 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2012
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13 Reader Ratings:
When my orbital core said my house phone rang a little after seven, I paused in making an easy four ball shot and used my core to trace the call. It originated in Detective Lieutenant Greer's office, so I opened a silent link to the phone before my machine could take the call.
"You got me, LT. What's up?"
Greer said tersely, "Hi, Ed. A drug bust went bad. Very bad. Two dead and two on the way to the hospital and things are just getting started, I think."
"Got a sitrep?"
"Five perps holed up in an old stone house in Ridge Manor. The situation's static. They can't get out, but they have a couple of rifles, so we're keeping our distance for now. We want to neutralize the situation before anyone else gets hurt."
Popping the four ball into a side pocket, I set up to put the one ball in a far corner and said, "I'm at Sandy's Place on forty-one, so I'm already halfway there."
As I popped the cue ball with some backspin to make it return a few inches, Greer said, "Great. The farm house only has a rural box address, so look for flashing lights on Crestline Road. I'll be there in about fifteen. Lieutenant Merrick has command for now. He's with Pasco. Any questions?"
"Nope. I'll get underway."
"Okay. See you there, then."
He hung up as I aimed to cut the three ball into a side pocket, then sent the cue ball to nick it just hard enough. The three dropped and the cue ball changed course for the end rail, where it bounced softly and stopped about three inches from the eight. The corner pocket was less than six inches away.
Davis muttered something and turned to put his cue stick back in the rack. I tapped the eight in and walked around the table to put my own stick in the rack.
I asked, "What're you bitching about? We were both down to three and the eight. If your ten had rolled an eighth of an inch further west, you'd have run the table."
He sipped his beer and said, "Right. 'If'. That's one word that don't mean shit. Never has, never will."
Nodding, I sipped my own beer and said, "Those are words of wisdom, Mr. Davis. Back in a few. The table's yours," then headed for the bar. When Sandy looked up, I put my half-finished beer on the bar, then put a coaster on top of it.
Sandy nodded and gave me a little wave as I headed for the door. I went outside, then stepped around the building to the big oak tree. When I called up my board in refractive mode, I watched myself disappear in the reflection from a car window.
Heading straight up to a thousand feet in the early evening darkness, I looked east and saw the flashing lights Greer had mentioned a few degrees south near the horizon. That would put the bust on the edge of the Green Swamp.
Sending probes ahead, I found over a dozen marked cars and nearly as many unmarked cars. Deputies from at least three counties were in attendance. A few cop cars had tried to go behind the old farmhouse and gotten mired in sand or the soft muck that passes for topsoil this close to the water table.
Oh, well. Those deputies were where they'd be useful if anyone tried to escape into the woods. In fact, the whole area was crawling with cops. Most were sensibly behind cars or other cover, but I saw two who didn't seem to understand the principle of not being seen by a guy with a rifle.
One was standing half-behind a large palm tree, talking in low tones on a radio handset clipped to his epaulet. The other must have thought he was deep enough into the scrub jungle to be out of sight. Again ... oh, well. Any attempt to educate them would likely be met poorly.
As I neared the place, I saw two sedans and a pickup parked near the house. They were clustered at the house-end of a dirt driveway that looped around some trees to meet itself near the house. From above, the driveway looked like a short needle with a really fat eye. Well-used dirt ruts and tracks led around the house to a barn and a shed, indicating the place got some real use frequently. The barn and shed held only vehicles and tools.
I turned my attention to the old two-story house and sent my probes through the place. As Greer had said, there were five guys; on the ground floor, two were at side windows, one watched the front, and one watched the rear. The fifth guy was lying on an old fabric couch, bleeding from a leg wound as he whimpered and ineptly tried to stop the flow of blood.
My probes stunned them all and I sent the probes upstairs on general principles. Two women and a small child were hunkered in a corner of a bedroom. I stunned them, too, rather than trust they wouldn't do anything stupid in a panic.
A man lay on the floor in the hallway. His pulse was fluttery, but he was alive. Another man lay on the bathroom floor. He was wounded and conscious, but he'd lost a lot of blood.
I said, "Athena," and she appeared a foot ahead of me on my board. Without a word, she disappeared and my probes suddenly showed clones of her taking care of the injured.
Leaving my hat in a tree, I descended slowly enough to be seen and recognized as a non-combatant, landing my board a few paces in front of the car sheltering Merrick. Putting up a two-foot screen, I ignored people yelling for me to get down or get behind a car and the like. I pointed at Merrick, then gestured for him to come see the screen. He glanced at the other two deputies hunkered back there, then stood up and walked around the front of the car.
Showing him the house's interior, I said, "Detective Greer sent me. Everybody's stunned in there. The women and the kid are okay and the lady treating the wounded is an AI. You can talk with her, but don't interrupt what she's doing."
Merrick stared and said, "Uh ... there are three of her!"
With a grin, I asked, "How is that a problem, LT? She's smart and gorgeous. Too bad there aren't more of her."
He gave me a sharp glance that turned droll, then called a guy in swat black over to see the screen. After a quick look, the swat guy led the charge and soon called things secure. Medics moved a couple of ambulances near the house and took over Athena's patients.
Calling the job done, I lifted on my board as people yelped and backed away. Others yelled that I couldn't leave yet. Heh. Someone always says that. I retrieved my hat and tried to ring Greer's cell phone as I headed back to the bar. Busy. Oh, well. He'd get word soon enough.
Through a link, I said, "Thanks, Athena," and she replied, "You're welcome," without appearing.
Sandy saw me come in and grinned. She reached in the fridge for a fresh mug and filled it as I approached the bar.
Setting the mug in front of me, she leaned over the bar and asked, "Will it be in the papers?"
"Very likely, ma'am. A big bust went sour on Crestline Road. Helluva party. Half the deputies in Florida were there. Why a new beer? I still had half of the other one."
"They go flat. Don't worry, I won't get in trouble."
No, she wouldn't, being the owner of the bar.
I nodded. "Thanks. You know, if you weren't involved..."
She interrupted me with a laugh. "Crap. You know damned well I prefer dogs. Go drink your beer." With that, she turned away to take care of the others at the bar.
She'd been referring to one of our discussions in which she'd compared me to her cat. Sandy had gone off duty and called me into the back, ostensibly to have 'a little checkup look' at her computer, which I'd recently fixed.
Pointing at the vidcam view of her bar, she'd said, "You can almost set your watch by everybody else who comes in here. Not you. You're like my damned cat. He comes and goes any time of day or night. Sometimes you aren't on your bike, but you aren't in a car, either. And sometimes you disappear in the middle of things. I've seen you put your stick up and walk out in the middle of a pool game. Sometimes you come back in a few minutes or an hour. The first time you did that, I thought something hinky was going on, so I followed you out the back door. I wasn't even five seconds behind you, but when I got out there, you were gone."
I'd tried to give her a sort of 'who, me?' innocent look and Sandy'd laughed then, too. She'd met my gaze and said, "That got to me, Ed. It really spooked me. I didn't know what the hell to think. I'd been meaning to put up a camera to keep an eye on the parking lot during bike events, but your little disappearing act made me put one up the very next day."
With a smug little smile, she'd said, "And the next time you pulled your disappearing act, I saw how you did it. When I saw that board, I knew right away who you were."
She'd hastened to add that she hadn't told anyone. I'd thanked her, but I knew it was just a matter of time. My pic had been in the paper a few years before. I'd been visiting her bar for months, but someone was bound to recognize me sooner or later. In the meantime, our friendship and occasional free beers were attributed to my computer repair skills.
Hm. Maybe I could use my sim? My almost-me field copy was proportionately the same, so I wouldn't have to adjust my pool game much, if any.
Greer called a few minutes later. I went to the juke box and pretended to study choices as I answered, "You got me."
"I just wanted to say thanks. You might hear from Merrick later. I told him ... well, hell, you know what I told him. He might try to call you anyway."
I chuckled, "Thanks for the warning."
"Want to know how things turned out?"
"Only if I screwed up somehow."
After a brief pause, Greer said, "Hell, no, you didn't screw up. Certain people did ask why you stunned the women and the kid, though. What should I tell them?"
"The truth would do. I didn't know who they were and I didn't want anybody moving around when the swat guys went in. Let the cops sort people out."
Greer chuckled, "That damned sure works for me. I'll pass it on. Oh, there might be something to sign later."
"You keep saying that, but it never happens."
"I have to say it. I work for the county. Just for the record, would you really stop answering calls if it did happen?"
"Officially, yes. Unofficially, things might go on about like they usually have, but without me making an appearance to let people know when it's safe to go in."
There was another pause, then Greer said, "Ed, if we hadn't moved in when we did, the guy on the couch might have bled to death. Delays can be costly."
"Then make sure the paper pushers and glory hounds know that, 'cuz a dead drug dealer won't mean spit to me." I sighed and said, "Besides, Athena had it covered. Look, we go through some version of this after every call. I know some of it is you having to cover your ass. I also know you're recording every word, so let's make this another opportunity to let everybody know how things stand. First, I'm not even slightly obligated to answer my phone. Let's also reiterate that your office handles all my official calls for all Florida stuff. I don't even want to hear from the Governor unless he goes through your office. And no paperwork. No public appearances. No grip 'n grin photos with politicians. Did I leave anything out?"
Greer chuckled, "No, I don't think so. Okay. Later, Ed."
He hung up and I sipped beer as I looked for a song that would be worth a buck to me. Linking to the juke box, I quick-scanned the list and didn't find such a song. In the glass front of the box I saw someone approaching me from behind and moved to one side.
A tall woman of about thirty stepped up and studied the box. She had bottle-blonde hair and seemed to keep herself more than reasonably fit. She didn't bounce at all where she shouldn't, anyway, but she wasn't skinny and she was damned good looking. She reminded me vaguely of some TV or movie blonde. Elizabeth somebody. Berkley? Yeah. A Biker Barbie version of her. Cuter face, though. Her black t-shirt read 'Harley Davidson', as did the sides of her boots.
She asked, "Did you play anything?"
Glancing at me, she asked, "Really? Why?"
I shook my head. "Not in the mood, I guess."
Feeding the box five dollars, she said, "Too bad. Did you try the song search?"
"Nope. Not enough interest."
Turning to face me, she canted her head slightly and studied me for a moment, then turned back to the juke box. As she poked the menu, she chuckled, "You like what you see? You're looking at me hard enough."
I returned her chuckle with, "There's absolutely nothing better to look at in here, and I'd swear that on a stack of Bibles, ma'am. Too bad you came in here with a guy who looked a lot like a husband."
She shot me a grin. "You can tell just by looking?"
"Oh, yeah. He's either a hubby or the same thing without the ring. He isn't hovering around you or staying within earshot. That means he either trusts you or doesn't care, and since he kissed your cheek on the way in, I'd say he trusts you."
Turning to face me again, she smiled as she softly said, "Wow! You don't miss a thing, do you?"
"Not when a woman like you walks in. Then I notice everything about her, including who she's with and under what readily apparent circumstances."
After a pause, she asked, "A woman like me?"
"Now you're fishing, ma'am."
She chuckled, "Good. You didn't miss that, either. 'A woman like me'? What does that mean to you?"
"Hold that thought and I'll tell you both. He'll be here in a second to find out why no music is playing."
Looking past me, she saw what I'd seen in the faint window reflection behind her. Her guy had left the bar and started toward us. The blonde's eyes came back to me and her left eyebrow went up.
As the guy neared us, I looked past her at the song menu and said, "There's nothing on that box I haven't already heard too often. Most people play the latest twenty songs that are popular in whatever genre they prefer. Some play older stuff, but that gets ... well ... old, y'know?"
She grinned at our cover topic and asked, "Oh, really?"
Grinning back, I said, "Yeah, really. How many times have you heard 'Red Solo Cup' lately? Know all the words yet?"
The guy laughed, "If she doesn't, I damned sure do. It's on about once an hour at work." Looking at her, he asked, "You weren't going to play that, were you? We'll probably hear it again on the way home."
Shaking her head, the blonde laughed, "No, I wasn't going to play it." Then she looked at me and met my gaze as she said, "Now you can tell us what you were going to tell me about 'a woman like me'."
The guy looked at me and asked, "Is that a song?"
I shrugged. "Might be, but I was referring to her." After recapping our previous conversation, I said, "She asked what I meant, so I told her to wait 'til you got here."
Nodding firmly, the blonde said, "That's right. Somehow he knew when you started over here."
I said, "Timing and other circumstances. I'd say you two have this routine worked out pretty well."
The guy's gaze narrowed. He asked, "Routine?"
With a grin, I said, "Okay, then maybe only she has it worked out. In any case, the 'routine' part of it started when she asked if I liked what I saw. She knew exactly how long to stall the music to get you over here."
Looking at her, I said, "That 'a woman like you' remark was because you remind me of Elizabeth Berkley. I don't mind in the least letting you know I think you're the hottest woman in this bar, ma'am--and possibly even in this side of the state, for that matter--but I'd hate to think you intended to stir up some trouble just to feed your ego."
That made her laugh again, then he laughed as well, which surprised me a bit. Neither of them seemed surprised at my comparison of her to Berkley.
She leaned close and whispered confidentially, "I know I look like her. That's what gets me work. I'm a stuntwoman."
Hm. True? False? Did I give a damn? Not really, but nobody seemed upset. Rule 13; play it where it lands.
I said, "Not surprised. You're pretty and fit and you carry yourself well." Looking at him, I asked, "What about you?"
He shook his head. "Not me. I'm just her live-in manager."
With a grin, I replied, "Kewl! If I become a manager, can I get a fancy blonde like yours?"
She grinned hugely and he laughed, "Hey, they're out there, dude! Give it a go!"
Upshot: they'd been filming in Lake City and had two weeks to kill, so they'd rented bikes and hit the road. We talked through another round of beers. They told me they had time off because a production company had run short of money. I told them about my very brief career as a movie extra in Europe. A little before ten, they suited up against the cold night air and hit the road for Tampa. The blonde did a hundred-foot wheel stand when her tires reached the pavement of US-41.
A guy I knew as Jim shook his head and laughed, "Man, when I saw him head for the juke box, I thought he was gonna pound you flat for talking to her. Next thing I knew, you were all shootin' the shit over another round."
He was probably expecting some kind of an answer, but I didn't particularly want to chat with him. Timid people annoy me. I opened the front door and gestured for him to go ahead.
At the bar I took the coaster off my mug and sipped. Sandy came over and leaned on the bar with a big grin.
"You really liked that one, huh?"
"You mean Biker Barbie, ma'am?"
Sandy snickered, "Hell, yes, that's who I mean. You couldn't take your eyes off her."
Pretending defensiveness, I replied, "Hah. I looked away at least twice. I think. Maybe even three times."
Sandy laughed, eyed me briefly and laughed again, then asked if I wanted another beer. I shook my head.
"Nah. I've short-napped my way around the clock so I can get some sleep tonight and get up at a reasonable hour. I plan to spend tomorrow on the bike."
Sandy sighed delightfully and sounded wistful as she said, "Wish I could do that. This place takes all my time lately."
I shrugged. "Excuses, ma'am. You could marry whatshisface and put him to work. Child labor might be illegal, but husband labor isn't."
She shook her head. "Not a chance. This place is all mine and it's damned well going to stay that way."
After a few minutes of chat with Sandy, I headed home. The huge semi-Siamese cat that had recently appeared in the neighborhood was sitting on my picnic table as I landed on my front porch. He backed away and bellowed a battle cry as he fuzzed up. I sent theta waves at him that quickly calmed him, then put him to sleep. He had a collar and looked well-fed, so I went into the house for some of Tiger's dried cat food. After placing a small handful near the cat as a friendship offering, I put the trash out and went to bed.
* * * *
January in west central Florida. Sixty degrees and sunny at nine in the morning. Too good a Saturday to waste indoors. By the time I'd checked my bike's fluids and tires, the temperature was up to sixty-five. After rolling the bike out of the garage, I went back into the house to make a fresh coffee and put my laptop in my backpack.
The laptop is an old but functional IBM T43 I picked up for fifty bucks. It easily fits in my backpack or the bike cooler, but it's mostly just a convenient cover. I can display things on it rather than use a question-attracting field screen in public.
Ten minutes later I was rolling north through relatively open countryside north of Brooksville. No condos, no strip malls; just a few houses set well back from the road and an occasional gas station or small business of some sort. Some of the cows looked up as I passed.
As I neared the Larten farm, a roan colt named Memphis ran to the fence and whinnied a greeting. I slowed so he could keep up as he ran alongside me and sounded off again.
The Lartens' gate was closed, so I parked to one side of the drive and spent a few minutes patting Memphis and supplying him with wads of grass from my side of the fence. He accepted the attention with enthusiasm and seemed to be trying to talk as he munched the grass. His mother, Angelique, came to join us for a share of the grass and attention.
A sheriff's car slowed and pulled into the driveway, then stopped. The guy who got out of the car looked unhappy. Angelique backed away from the fence, but Memphis stood happily munching his grass and watching the deputy approach.
The deputy stopped by my bike and said, "You need to get away from those horses and show me some ID."
Memphis stuck his nose through the fence slats and nudged me. I pulled up another clump of grass for him, then said, "I'm a friend of the owners."
The deputy's gaze narrowed. "The owners aren't here to tell me that, so we'll do this my way. Get over here."
Linking to my orbital core, I used it to trace the location of Bill Larten's cell phone and dial the number as I reached for the wallet on my belt. The deputy tensed as I pulled my shirt up, but relaxed a bit when he didn't see a gun.
Bill answered as I fished my driver's license out for the deputy. "Hi, Ed. What's up?"
"Hi, Bill. I'm at your gate, schmoozing with Memphis and his mom. There's a deputy here who needs reassurance."
As I started talking, the deputy became wary again. When I put up a two-foot field screen, the deputy froze, then stepped back with a hand on his gun.
Bill said, "No problem. Let me talk to him."
I said, "Done dunnit, Bill. Watch your phone screen."
Holding my driver's license out, I approached the deputy. He rather starkly watched the screen move forward with me and snapped, "What the hell is that thing?!"
"It's a field screen, and this man owns the horses."
Memphis whinnied and Bill replied, "Hi, Memphis! Hang on a minute, Daddy's gotta do something first."
Reading the deputy's name tag, I said, "Bill, this is Deputy Leeman. He saw me feeding Angelique and Memphis and he probably wants to know things are okay."
Leeman eyed the screen, then me, and then said, "Just a minute, sir. Let me see who I'm talking to."
He took my ID and studied it, then looked at the screen and said, "This covers him, but you could be anybody."
Larten said, "William H. Larten. Pull up my license on your car computer."
Memphis sounded off again and I turned to see his entire head jammed between the fence slats. Anchoring the field screen in place, I said, "Aw, hell. Everybody stand by one," and went to use a wad of grass to entice Memphis to pull his head out of the fence. After tossing a couple more handfuls of grass on the ground near him, I returned.
Bill said, "He'll be too big to do that soon."
I shrugged. "Not soon enough, but he's almost too big now. Think he'll realize that before he gets his head stuck?"
Laughing, Bill replied, "Not likely. He's got the brains of an Irish Setter."
Deputy Leeman regarded us for a moment, then said, "Back in a minute," and headed for his car. He kept an eye on us while he ran our info, but soon got out of the car and returned.
As he gave me my license, he gave us both a little 'all done here' salute and said, "Just had to be sure. Have a nice day," and turned to leave.
Bill said firmly, "Deputy Leeman."
Leeman turned to face us halfway to his car and Bill said, "Thanks for stopping. I appreciate your taking the time to check things out."
Leeman nodded and said, "Just doing my job, sir," then continued to his car.
As Leeman backed out of the drive, Bill said, "We're having a party tomorrow afternoon. Celia's home from college."
"Thanks, but she didn't like me much back in July. You heard her rant about social reforms and capitalism?"
"She's picked up some odd political ideas at school."
Ripping up some more grass for Angelique and Memphis, I said, "Seeing me would just set her off again. I'll pass."
We chatted a bit more, then Bill had to meet someone and rang off. I patted Angelique and Memphis and made goodbyes, then got back on the road.
With no particular destination in mind, I continued northward. For whatever reason, my thoughts turned to writing and I counted the months since I'd last begun a book. Six? No, almost eight. Early June to mid-January.
Stopping on the shoulder near a big chunk of tire tread in the middle of the road, I thought, 'After writing thirty-four books, what had happened to my urge to scribble?'
Two southbound cars passed, then I sent a field tendril to drag the tread to the shoulder of the road. A noisy northbound red car was approaching fast and I saw an arm holding a big drink cup extend above the car.
The kid behind the wheel wore a big grin as he threw the cup and gunned his Mustang, storming by at about eighty less than a foot from my saddlebags. Way too close to suit me. His cup missed my cooler trunk by inches and splattered in the shallow ditch six feet away.
I sent a field tendril to shatter the Mustang's rear window. His brake lights flashed for a moment, flashed again briefly, and then he continued on. I sent a bolt of energy to lift and incinerate the cup, then got back on my bike and continued north expecting to be stopped. About two miles south of Floral City I saw a checkpoint ahead.
There was a lit-up cop car on each side of the road. A deputy pointed at me and waved for me to stop behind his car. I pulled over and stopped a few yards behind the car and he approached me with his hand on his gun. Another deputy circled to approach me from my left across the highway.
The deputy in front of me was Leeman. I said, "Hi, there. What's up?"
"Sir, turn off your engine and get off your bike."
I put the kickstand down to kill the engine and turned the ignition off, then stepped off my bike to the right. That made Leeman change course; he'd expected me to dismount to the left. The other deputy was now trotting to get behind me and he moved in a bit too quickly.
It looked as if he might intend to tackle me, so I stunned his right leg. He made a valiant effort to keep coming at me, but his momentum was gone and his leg flatly wouldn't work. He stumbled and managed to let himself down gently.
Stepping around the back of the bike, I asked, "Are you okay?" as Leeman hurried around the bike toward me. I sent a tendril to trip him and he went down, too.
Glancing at each of them, I pretended to look closely at the ground around me and yelped, "What the hell?! Why's everybody falling down?!"
Leeman got up fast as he sharply ordered me to "Freeze! Stand right there! Don't move!"
I shrugged and said, "Okay, but what the hell's going on?"
With the momentum of a takedown gone, Leeman stood eyeing me for a moment, then growlingly reiterated, "Just stand there. Don't move." Glancing at the other deputy, he snapped, "Keller, you all right?"
"Hell, no, I'm not all right! My right leg feels like it isn't there anymore! I can't get up!"
But then he did just that, tripoding his way to a wobbly standing position and hop-dragging himself toward us. An engine roared and the red Mustang left rubber in the real estate parking lot half a block further north. The car whipped into the street and blasted toward us, almost sliding to a stop in the street between the cop cars.
Keller yelled, "I told you to wait!" and Leeman yelled, "Get that damned thing out of the street!"
The kid ignored both of them and lunged out of the car. Slamming the door shut, he barreled across the road as a white car coming south braked sharply to avoid hitting him. The kid turned and yelled, "Get the fuck out of here!" at the white car, then continued striding angrily toward us.
I waited to see what the deputies would do and wasn't disappointed. Leeman stepped between the hothead and me and raised his hands in a 'stop' gesture as he ordered the kid to turn his ass around and get his car out of the street.
The kid started to step around him and Leeman grabbed his arm. When the kid struggled, he very suddenly found himself face-down on the pavement.
"Wow," I said, "Great moves, Leeman."
Keller said, "You just shut up for now, okay?"
"Sure. How's your leg?"
"Never mind about my leg. Just stand there quietly."
The kid seemed to briefly go berserk about being constrained on the ground, but he soon realized he wasn't getting up until he at least pretended to calm down.
After a few moments he lay more or less still and asked, "Can I get up now?"
"Not if you're gonna go off again."
Glaring at me, the kid gritted out, "I won't."
I looked at Keller and said, "I don't believe him. Do you?"
Keller shot me a glare as he divided his attention between the kid and me.
Leeman took his knee off the kid's back and said, "Get ugly and you'll be right back down there, got it? Now get up slow and easy and go stand by Deputy Keller."
Observations of the moment: the kid seemed to think he owned the highway and the cops knew him in some special manner or he'd be in cuffs after a takedown. He was maybe eighteen, but he had a brand-new Mustang with an engine package. His attitude was that of someone who hadn't heard the word 'no' very often, if at all.
As if to validate my observations, he ranted, "When I tell my Dad about this ... !" but that's as far as he got.
Leeman yelled, "Terry, shut up! Get your car out of the street before I have it towed!"
In moderate shock, Terry glared at Leeman for a moment, then said almost calmly, "I'm gonna have you fired, Leeman."
He turned to stalk away, but Leeman muttered, "That's it," yanked his cuffs out, and trotted after him. Terry started to turn around again, but Leeman shoved him up against the Mustang and had him cuffed in seconds. He then led Terry back across the street, talking on his radio as they walked.
Terry looked shocked again, then almost screamed, "You can't do that!"
Leeman said, "I just did," and stopped him beside Keller. "You just stay right there, Terry. You move again and I'll put you in my back seat while we talk to this man."
"He shot out my back window!"
I shook my head and said, "Nope. No gun."
Terry ranted, "So he ditched it!"
Leeman said, "There's no bullet hole, dammit. Shut up."
He then turned to me and said, "But there's a big dent in the glass like a baseball hit it. What did you use to break it? Did you throw something?"
"I seriously doubt I could throw anything that fast or that far. He went by me at about eighty." Holding a hand flat near my saddlebag, I said, "And he was about that far away and grinning like an idiot when he threw his drink cup at me."
Keller asked, "A drink cup?"
"One of those big convenience store cups. He missed me."
Leeman was insistent. "How'd you do it?"
"How could I have done it?"
Terry angrily screamed, "I don't know how the hell he did it, but it happened right after I passed him!"
Looking at him, I said, "They'll prob'ly need a little more than some rotten kid's personal opinion as evidence."
Lunging at me, Terry began another rant, but Keller grabbed his arm and spun him around. Terry wobbled and began to topple toward me. I grabbed his shoulders and shoved him back upright as Leeman moved around me. He almost gently sat Terry down in the grass and stepped back a pace.
He said, "That was your last damned warning, Terry. Move again and you're done for the day, you hear me?"
"You hear this, Leeman! You're history, you got that?! History! I'm gonna have you FIRED!"
I said, "Guys, I have something to show you."
Keller looked at me almost warily. Leeman turned to face me. Calling up another field screen, I ignored Keller's startled attempt to back away and had Athena play back the moments when Terry threw the cup. Both cops reached to try to touch the screen as I had Athena show our encounter from the time I stopped behind Leeman's car.
When the show ended, I said, "A copy of this will go to Detective Greer in Hernando County's Sheriff's office."
Leeman asked, "Why him?"
"Because he knows me and I'll suggest he should help you keep your jobs or find new ones if you need them. You didn't take any shit from this kid, even though he seems pretty sure he can get you fired."
Keller asked, "What is that thing?"
"A field screen. A computer records everything that happens around me."
Leeman asked, "Everything? You mean all the time?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
Looking at me rather starkly, Keller asked, "For God's sake, why? Are you under some kind of surveillance?"
"Well, sort of, I guess. But she's real cute. Wanna see?"
Without waiting for a reply, I said, "Athena. Got a minute?"
She popped into being a foot from Terry, who shrieked and scurried backward. Keller froze with a hand on his gun and Leeman stepped back a pace as he reached toward his own.
Athena smiled at everybody as she surveyed the scene and said, "Hi, Ed. You appear to be in the middle of something."
"Yes'm, that's how it seemed to me, too." Gesturing left, then right, I said, "Athena, these are deputies Keller and Leeman. The guy on the ground is Terry. That's his Mustang blocking the street, but he's indisposed at the moment."
She chuckled, "Are you hinting you'd like me to move it?"
"Well, if you wouldn't mind, yes, ma'am. Please."
Smiling, Athena rather dramatically lifted an arm to gracefully point at the car, which lifted a foot or so and drifted to land gently a few yards behind the other cop car.
"Thank you," I said, "You made that look easy, ma'am."
"It isn't too difficult. Will there be anything else?"
"Well, I hate to impose, but I'd like a recording of the events I showed them to be sent to Detective Greer. Would that be a problem?"
Pretending thoughtfulness, she replied, "No, not at all. I've sent it to his office computer."
With a shrug, I said, "I guess that's it, then. Thank you, milady. You're really too good for me, you know."
She grinned. "Yes, I know. I'll get back to what I was doing now. Goodbye, all."
Keller blurted, "Wait!" but Athena's image shimmered out of existence. I could still feel her presence near us, and through my implant, she chuckled, "That was interesting and somewhat amusing."
I replied in kind, "Always glad to entertain you, ma'am. Thanks for helping. I think they were impressed."
Athena laughed softly and her presence vanished.
Reaching to wave a hand through the space where Athena had been, Keller muttered, "Dear God, did that really happen? Was she really there?"
A tow truck arrived and parked behind the Mustang as Leeman said quietly, "I saw her too, Keller. Terry, on your feet. You went just a little too damned far today."
Terry shrank away from Leeman's reach as he wailed, "I didn't do nothin'! I was just blowing off a little steam!"
Gazing flatly at him, Leeman said, "You threw a cup of soda at him and threatened our jobs and I'm damned tired of dealing with you, Terry. This time you get to face a judge."
"But he busted out my back window! What about him?!"
Leeman snapped, "You got any proof? I don't think he could throw anything that hard, either. Now get your ass up off the ground."
As he led Terry away, I sent a tendril to put Keller's leg back in working order and he yelped. Lifting the leg a couple of times, he said, "What the hell...? It's like it was asleep!"
I asked, "Ever sit wrong in your car for too long? That can mash nerve bundles and ... well, stuff like that."
Keller gave me a droll look and continued to work his leg. The tow truck driver waited until Terry was in the back seat of a cop car before crossing the street.
As he joined us, he looked at Keller and asked, "Y'all sure ya wanna be doin' this? Y'gotta know who his daddy is."
"If Leeman writes him up, I'll back him on it."
"Kid musta been a real asshole today, huh?"
"Can't talk about it. Just stand by, Rick. We'll let Leeman decide how things go from here."
Thumbing at my bike, Rick asked, "This goin', too?"
With a glance at me, Keller said, "No."
Rick nodded, said, "Well, y'all let me know 'bout that car soon, okay?" and started back across the street.
Leeman returned from installing Terry in the squad car and asked, "Who was that woman?"
"Athena. She's the computer I mentioned."
Keller asked, "Did she have anything to do with the busted window?"
"How can we know that?"
I shrugged. "You can't. You don't have to, either, since there's no reason to believe she did anything. Or that I did. Are we about done here?"
Leeman said, "Almost. We need a copy of that recording."
"See Greer. He already has it."
"Why not just give us a copy?"
Giving him a direct gaze, I said, "Because if you really need it later, you'll also need someone on your side who can't be bought off or scared off by the kid's daddy. If you have to go through channels and across county lines to get it, everybody involved will know the situation and you won't stand alone."
"You know who his father is?"
"Nope. Local politics don't mean spit to me."
Keller said, "Lucky you," then looked at Leeman and asked, "Well? What now?"
Leeman sighed, "It's all on record from the time he called 911 about the window. We'd have to show something for all that anyway and I'm tired of putting up with his crap. I'm taking him in and having his car towed."
Keller nodded and said, "Okay then. Let's do this."
After signing a statement about my 'traffic stop' that mentioned an independent recording of the incident, I was on my way again. It occurred to me someone would likely ask why they didn't impound the recorder as evidence. Heh.
I reached Inverness around ten and turned west on County-44 to continue avoiding overdeveloped areas. Stopping at a Wendy's for an early lunch, I considered where else to go. No answer. I seemed to be really and truly just out rolling around. Once I had my combo meal and drink, I took them outside to one of the small patio tables.
* * * *
A fairly attractive near-forty brunette woman unshouldered a black laptop case and sat down two tables from mine. After setting her purse by the laptop case and arranging her clothing for comfort, she opened the salad on her tray.
She was well structured and wearing the sort of outfit I've always liked seeing on women; a near knee skirt and a jacket that fit her well. I guess it vaguely reminds me of the old WAC dress green uniforms or something. Whatever. I just like 'em.
Her outfit was a medium-dark shade of blue and the skirt rode up a bit as she shifted her legs. Very nice legs. Excellent legs, really. She didn't have the waist of a still-growing schoolgirl, but she seemed not to have much extra there, if any. She seemed to keep herself in good condition.
Several moments passed before she quietly asked, "Are you staring at me?" and looked up from her salad to fix me with a direct, green-eyed gaze.
Hm. I revised my estimate of her age downward about five years. Her face and voice seemed oddly, vaguely familiar, but I was absolutely sure I'd never met her before.
Shaking my head, I replied, "Not staring. Admiring. I was married to a WAC once. She wore outfits like that and I've always liked them." Giving her a grinning little two-fingered salute, I said, "They kinda make me want to salute, y'know?"
"Salute? WAC? Was she in the military or something?"
"Yup. The Women's Army Corps. But they did away with that differentiation some time ago. Nowadays women are just considered female soldiers."
Her left eyebrow arched and she eyed me for another moment, then she nodded and returned her attention to her salad. I dug into my burger and made a point of trying to find somewhere else to look at least some of the time.
She finished her salad, set her drink to one side, and wiped the table. Lifting the black case that had been leaning against her chair, she produced a laptop, opened it, and turned it on. Glancing around and up, she moved and turned the laptop slightly, adjusted the lean of the screen, and then nodded.
I was down to my last few fries when she softly muttered, "Oh, damn it to hell! Not today, please!" Her next string of words were a bit louder and less pleasant.
Moving to stand by her table, I asked, "Problem? I used to fix computers in Hernando County."
Pointing at the screen, she said, "See for yourself."
Moving again so I could see the screen, I found it heavily populated with little pop-up 'virus alert' windows that offered a 'click here to repair your computer' button.
I said, "If you happen to care at all, that's a trojan, not a virus. If you click the button, you'll be taken to a website offering an expensive cure."
"Yes, I know. I got something like this last year. Now I'll have to find another computer to figure out how to clean this damned thing off this one."
She gently banged a fist on the table and snarled, "And I really don't have time for this shit today! I have to show a condo at four! I'm all the way over here from Ocala and the address is on one of the pictures!"
"Want me to fix things?"
Turning to look up at me rather appraisingly, she asked, "Can you fix it? Really?"
I nodded. "Yup. Really. Stand by one."
Retrieving my backpack from my bike, I took out my Puppy Linux CD and put it in her laptop, then turned her laptop off and back on. As I sat down, the laptop rebooted to the Puppy CD and we soon had a screen with program icons.
Rather than simply clicking the drive icon to open her Windows drive, I decided to install Puppy so she'd have its facilities later. Choosing Gparted, I found she had lots of empty space on her hard drive. I partitioned ten gigs of it and formatted them to Ext2, then told Puppy to install there.
Suddenly growing wary, the woman said, "You said you were going to fix my computer. What's all this about?"
"I said I was going to fix 'things', ma'am. You'll be able to work with your data files, show pictures, play videos and music, and do anything else you want to do. The trojan won't matter a fat damn to Puppy Linux."
"It's a different operating system. Windows bugs can't touch it."
Looking somewhat alarmed, she said, "This is a company laptop! I can't let you do anything to the Windows!"
I held up a hand and said, "Relax. I'm not doing anything to your Windows files. I'm just making your laptop usable so you can get on with your day. That's all, I promise. If we can't clean out the trojan quickly, you can still do your job. Okay?"
Her mouth and eyes tightened and her left hand twitched on the table, but she sighed, "Oh, what the hell ... it's too late now anyway, isn't it?"
"No. I could turn off the computer and use the CD to clean off everything I've done so far. But you'd still have that trojan and an unusable computer and I'd rather show you how to work around problems like that. Good enough?"
As I said 'good enough', Puppy finished installing. She said nothing as I removed the CD and rebooted the computer, then she asked, "Uh ... why did you stop the process?"
"I didn't. Installing Puppy doesn't take long."
By that time, the boot options screen had appeared.
She read the choices and said, "This wasn't there before."
"Nope. Now you have a choice."
Twenty seconds later her laptop happily barked twice, indicating all was ready. Puppy automatically found several WiFi links in the area. I chose the open Wendy's link. Downloading the latest Firefox, importing her 'favorites' bookmarks, and setting Firefox for private browsing took another few minutes, then I said, "All set," and turned the laptop over to her.
She sat eyeing the screen and asked, "Really? There's nothing else still to do?"
"Nope." Pointing to the drive icon labeled 'sda1', I said, "That's your Windows drive. The drive labeled 'sda2' is the chunk of space I set up for Puppy Linux. Click on the first one."
She did so and I saw her grin as her eyes widened in her reflection from the screen.
"My folders!" she blurted, "What do I do now?"
I chuckled, "Well, gee, ma'am; I guess you could find the ones you need and click on stuff."
She gave me a wry look and moused through several levels to a folder labeled '42796 Carmichael Ave'. When she clicked on the first file on the list, up popped a typical real estate listing page with pictures, descriptions, and other info.
"Oh, my Gawd!" she breathed, "It's really all there! It really works!"
"Yup. Using Linux is kind of like running your computer in 'God Mode'. See all, do all, etc ... if you know how. Puppy is a small version of Linux that can run completely in RAM if necessary. You want to see about fixing that trojan now?"
She looked up and stuck her hand out. "It just occurred to me I don't know your name. I'm Tanya."
Taking her hand, I said, "I'm Ed. While we're taking a break, may I show you something?"
"Uh ... I guess so. What?"
I said, "Watch," and typed 'Julie London you go to my head' in the browser's search box. Up popped a few links to mp3 files. I clicked one, turned up the volume, and a few moments later, Julie softly sang, 'You go to my head ... and you linger ... like a haunting refrain ... '
Goosebumps instantly rose on Tanya's arms. She seemed startled to see them and rubbed them as she returned her rapt gaze to the screen. A couple of minutes later the song ended and we both just sat staring at the screen for a time.
Tanya almost whispered, "Wow!"
"Yup. That's who you sound like, ma'am. I wanted to tell you, but I didn't want you to think I was bullshitting you. And, of course, I wasn't sure you'd know who she was."
She faced me. "I ... I've heard myself on the phone a few times. When I made messages for the company and like that. But they didn't sound like this. Well, not quite, anyway."
"This was made with a professional recording system. Even laptop speakers couldn't ruin it. Do you sing?"
With a blurting laugh, she looked back at the screen and chuckled, "A little karaoke a few times, but not like that!"
Putting the Puppy disk back in its sleeve, I said, "Maybe you should give it a shot. I'd damned sure buy your tunes."
Tanya looked at my CD and asked, "Will I need a copy of that CD later?"
"Not for this box. Maybe someone else's. I'll show you where to get it."
Reaching for the laptop again, I searched for Puppy Linux, found the 126-meg download, and clicked it. Tanya watched some of the download, then asked, "What's an iso file?"
"A file made to be written to a disk or flash drive. Just put in a blank CD and right-click on this file. Choose Pburn and let it do its own thing to make the disk."
She watched the download for another moment, then asked, "What about the trojan?"
"We can try to fix it before you have to get underway or you can mess with it later. Your choice."
Tanya checked her watch, then said, "Let's try to fix it."
We searched for info and found it, then applied it as directed to her Windows drive. About half an hour later Tanya was again able to boot into Windows and run things without a problem. We booted back into Puppy so I could show her a few things, but that's when Tanya reached in a pocket for her cell phone.
She looked at the screen, said, "I have to take this," and got up.
Standing and moving a few paces away, Tanya had what seemed like a rather tense conversation with someone. I figured it was either a boyfriend or a boss, so I took my laptop back to my bike. A few minutes later Tanya put her phone away and returned to her seat. As I went to join her, she turned off her laptop and closed it, then began rather ungently stuffing it into its case.
I asked, "Anything wrong?"
Glancing up, she said, "Yeah, something's wrong. I won't be showing the condo. They put a deposit on another place."
"Bummer. What does that do to the rest of your day?"
Pausing before zipping the case shut, Tanya said, "I guess I'll go home. There's no point in going back to the office. I was supposed to be off today anyway."
She started to pick up the case, then canceled the motion and just stared at it for a moment.
With a sigh, she said, "I have half a mind to go in on Monday and quit. If I didn't need every damned dime I can scrape together right now, I think I would."
As I sat down, she said, "Some of the properties I've had to show this week should be condemned, not sold. Except that I didn't make any commissions, I'm just as glad nobody bought them. I'd rather not be associated with them."
"A functional conscience can be a hindrance in your line of work, ma'am." She gave me a droll gaze. I said, "And switching companies won't change the available listings."
"So you're saying what..? That I should find some other kind of job altogether?"
"Not necessarily. Freelancers can specialize."
Her left eyebrow arched. "This job is hard enough."
"Think about it. Is there even one little thing you've done that really required being with a big company? Couldn't you have handled everything yourself?"
"The showing, yes. The paperwork, yes. But finding clients takes advertising. Lots of advertising."
"That's just one way to fish, milady. There are many others, and maybe there's another one that suits you better. Say you heard a company was definitely moving to Florida. How would you reach the employees who'd be moving with it? Figure they'd be middle management or above."
"Well, I guess that would depend on ... No, it wouldn't. Bottom line, new people would be coming here." Eyeing me, she asked, "How would you reach them?"
"I'd use other-than-usual methods to initiate a meeting. No blind calls, no introductory emails. No fancy brochures. I'd go in person and contrive a meeting with someone there. Preferably more than one of them."
She echoed, "You'd 'contrive' a meeting? That sounds a little devious, doesn't it?"
"Yup. But you're bitching about having to show bad properties, so I'd say it doesn't matter how you meet potential clients. You won't knowingly sell rotten apples, right?"
Tanya's left eyebrow arched again as she regarded me briefly, then she asked, "So how would you do it?"
"I'd recon the company on the Net. Moving when? To where? Get names of the brass moving with it. Recon their new location. Find out about utilities and routine necessities. Figure out how to make anyone's move as painless as possible. Locate rentals because most of them probably won't be hot to buy right away. They'll have too much other stuff to think about. Then I'd go up there and..."
She interrupted, "Go up there?! Without making some contacts first?"
Raising an index finger, I said, "Whoa. Don't panic yet. They're moving to Florida, which means some of them will have properties listed up there, right?"
Tanya subsided thoughtfully. "Yes, it probably would."
"And you could show some interest in those properties. Make some calls, make some contacts. A lot of people from Florida buy land in North Carolina. It's kind of a standing joke in some areas."
With a skeptical gaze, she asked, "Really? Which areas?"
"The mountains I visit every summer, for example. Run a property sale records search for Graham County. You'll see where a lot of the out-of-state owners live for seven to nine months of the year. They want the scenery, but not the hard winters or the state income tax."
In moderate disbelief, she echoed, "A state income tax?"
"Yup. Most states have them. Florida and a very few other states don't."
Still skeptical, she asked, "Would you mind if I verify some of this? I mean, right now?"
I shrugged and sighed, "Sure. Go for it. I'll just sit here and feel all hurt and dejected 'cuz you didn't believe me."
Tanya snorted a laugh. "Sure you will."
She took out her laptop and spent some time searching, then let her hands fall to her lap and muttered, "Good Lord. Nearly a quarter of the land sales there last year show Florida permanent addresses."
"Think you can use this info?"
Turning her face to me, Tanya said firmly, "Oh, I definitely think so. One way or another. This might keep me in the real estate business for a while longer."
"What did you do before this?"
She shook her head. "Nothing, really. Until my husband died last year, I only ever had part time and temporary jobs. Insurance covered almost everything, but all of a sudden I had some big bills to pay. A friend in real estate suggested I go back to school for it."
She sipped what was left of her drink and said, "I managed to sell the house. Now I'm renting. It's only a little cheaper, but at least I have some cash in savings. I..."
Stopping suddenly, Tanya looked at me and asked, "Why am I telling you all this?"
I shrugged. "You seem to need some company, that's all. Someone smart enough to talk with who won't look for an angle or try to talk you into bed or worry that the pretty widow lady will make her husband do something stupid."
Tanya blinked at me. "That's what you think, huh?"
"That's pretty much why I said it, ma'am."
Looking very skeptical, she said, "But you--a man who was just staring at my legs a while ago ... oh, excuse me, 'admiring', you called it ... You're saying you wouldn't try to get me into bed? What's wrong with that picture?"
Meeting her gaze, I said, "Tanya, I was eyeballing your legs 'cuz they're very nice legs. In fact, they're just about perfect, I'd say, but that doesn't mean I absolutely have to try to get between them. I wouldn't turn down a freely-offered opportunity to lick you silly, either, but sometimes people need the kind of company you don't usually find in a bedroom. You're well aware you're a hottie, so I doubt you need constant male attention as validation. Seems to me you need some useful support right now a helluva lot more than a dose of flattery and a roll in the hay."
She just stared at me for a moment, then it became obvious she was trying to contain a grin. She struggled against it for another moment, then snickered, "Lick me silly?"
With a slight nod and my best Texas drawl, I replied, "That's just a handy euphemism, ma'am."
Tanya sort of blurted, "Hah!" and cracked up laughing. She shut down her laptop and put it in its case, zipped it shut with a flourish that almost knocked her cup off the table, and said firmly, "I'm taking the rest of the day off."
Looking at me, she said, "Now all I have to do is figure out what to do with it. Did you have any plans?"
I shrugged. "Well, I was gonna figure out how to save the world this afternoon, but I guess that can wait."
She laughed, "Sure it can. It'll still need saving later."
"Yeah, seems likely. So what's the agenda? Want to go somewhere or do something?"
As if expecting a punch line, her eyebrow went up again as she asked, "Do you have any suggestions?"
"Nope. I'm a stranger in this town, too. I was just out riding around." Gesturing generally south, I added, "Home is about forty miles that way."
Tanya stood up, gestured northeast, and said, "Mine's about the same distance that way. It's too bad we've already had lunch. Do you drink?"
"I could probably manage a beer or two."
Grinning, she nodded, hung her purse on one shoulder and her laptop on the other, and said, "Good. Let's go. I know a place near a lake on forty-one. Just follow me north."
While she got into her car and I started my bike, I linked to my orbital core and gave it her license plate number. The plate matched the car, which was registered to a Tanya Conner of Ocala.
As we left the parking lot, I pulled up a copy of Tanya Conner's driver's license and the picture matched the lady in the car. DOB 11 July 1975, so I'd guessed her age almost exactly. She also had a real estate license, but it was over five years old, not the year or so she'd led me to think. Her hubby's death checked out, though, just under a year ago.
Athena pinged me. I answered, "Yes'm?"
"May I ask why you felt a need to vet Miss Conner?"
"Sure. My strong sense of familiarity. Her friendly acceptance and sharing of her personal info a bit too quickly, despite the circumstances. No comments or questions at all about my bike or its cooler. No questions about me, yet despite that info vacuum and our substantial age difference, she's apparently leading me to a bar outside of town."
With a soft chuckle, Athena replied, "My, we're feeling a little paranoid today. Couldn't she simply have a friendly, trusting nature and no interest at all in motorcycles?"
"Oh, sure, but she'd also need more than a passing interest in much older men. Her car has an online help package that phones home periodically. Would you care to check its records and see if it's been in Spring Hill lately?"
She chuckled, "Oh, of course, sir. At once, sir."
As she did that, I realized one of the reasons for my sense of familiarity. The name Connor had finally clicked. Tanya looked and sounded very much like Marie Conner, who'd married Air Force Sgt. Brian Baker while they were in Germany in 1972. Tanya almost had to be their daughter.
Athena very shortly pinged me again and said, "Her car was parked at a motel in Spring Hill last night."
I chuckled, "So I'm just being paranoid, huh? It was chilly last night and there's nowhere she could park in my neighborhood that wouldn't draw attention. Seems likely she planted a camera where it wouldn't be noticed and let her laptop monitor the house for motion."
"Ed, a camera capable of relaying usable data to a motion sensing program would be hard to conceal."
"You're thinking of crisp, clear pictures, ma'am. All she'd need are shapes on a webcam. Capture my webpage pic of me on the bike, crop it, and use it as a template. Use one of those tiny spot cameras. Just aim it at the front yard and wait for something that fits the outline to appear. Stick the camera under the mailbox across the street for concealment. Did you catch my thought about Marie Conner?"
"As you know, I no longer monitor your thoughts. One moment." Athena's 'moment' lasted only a split-second. She said, "I see. What are you going to do?"
I shrugged. "Have a beer or two. See if she'll share what's on her mind. See how far she'll go to establish a connection. Try to find out why she wants one at all."
Tanya's car signaled and turned right ahead. I followed her to a lakefront bar and grill near some condos and a golf course. As I parked beside her, Tanya shot me a cheery grin and opened her door.
* * * *
Tanya pulled her laptop bag to the driver's side and slung it on her shoulder, then led the way to the bar's front doors. I noted she stood almost my height, partly the result of three-inch heels. The interior of the place was neat and clean, but unremarkable. Nothing particularly unique; it was intended to be a place for golfers to chat, and half a dozen of them were doing just that.
At least it was quiet. The juke box was silent and the TVs weren't blaring sports crap. We passed the bar and a waitress let us chose a table by the porch's back wall and sit down before she visited us. Tanya ordered a Pauli Girl and I ordered a Bud draft because they didn't have Icehouse.
Something splashed near the small dock. No boats, no people, just a dock extending a few yards offshore. A plastic table and a few similar chairs decorated the end. There were moderately expensive houses to one side of the lake and expanses of mowed green on the other. Turning my gaze to Tanya, I found her looking back at me.
She shook her head. "Oh, nothing. I just realized I'm sitting at a table with a man I know almost nothing about. Your name's Ed, you ride a motorcycle, and you fix computers."
Heh. Game time.
I replied, "Ah. Yes. Well, I'm in the same boat, y'know. Your name's Tanya, you sell real estate, and your computer needed fixed." As an afterthought, I added, "And you're gorgeous. And you dress well. Bet you can't say the same about me."
Tanya grinned and chuckled. "No, I can't, but I can say you look pretty comfortable without a jacket and tie."
Grinning back, I said, "Yes, ma'am. Very comfortable."
She sighed wryly, "I wish I was. On the way here I began to wonder what the hell I was doing, hooking up with a strange man this far from home."
With a shrug, I said, "We can drink our beers and chat a bit, then go our respective ways. Or not, if we can find some mutual interests. By the way, be careful tossing phrases like 'hooking up' around. Some people use it as a euphemism for sex these days."
Our beers arrived. Once the waitress had poured Tanya's and left, Tanya asked, "Are you one of those people who use it as a euphemism?"
Taking a sip, I said, "Nah. I'm old fashioned. It still means 'getting together' to me. Besides, time with a woman like you is never wasted. Maybe I can soak up enough of your presence to dream about you later."
She didn't seem to have a response for that, so I sipped again and asked, "Have you given any more thought to going freelance? Are there any good reasons you shouldn't? Legal reasons, I mean?"
The change of topic seemed to catch her off balance. Tanya canted her head slightly as she regarded me and said, "No, I don't think there'd be any legal reasons, but I signed a contract that I wouldn't engage in local real estate sales for thirty days after leaving my company."
"Couldn't get the job without it?"
She shook her head. "No, and all the better companies have the same post-employment stipulations."
"Guess that depends on how you define 'better'."
She shrugged. "How many millions in sales."
"Hm. I was about to ask whether you could survive a month of not working, but it doesn't really matter. Whether you're in somebody's harness or not, they'd all figure out what you're doing the first time you put a deal through. To really make this work well, you'd have to get a lock on one end or the other, and preferably both."
Sipping her beer, she asked, "Any ideas about how to do something like that?"
"I'll give it some thought. Companies have moved before, so cornering an immediate market this way probably isn't a completely new idea."
Tanya chuckled, "No, probably not."
I tried to look thoughtful as I ticked ice off my mug and took a sip, then said, "But if you're in a company harness when you sell, you'd have to share commissions. Got any family who could help you through a month of unemployment? Parents? Brothers? Sisters?"
"A brother, but he wouldn't be much help. My mom is ... well, she couldn't help, either."
Trying to look thoughtful again, I had my core try to find Marie Conner using Tanya's records for reference. It didn't take long at all; she was in a nursing home in Ocala due to brain injuries from a car accident just over a year ago.
I suddenly wanted very much to help Tanya become as successful as possible. That she'd been stalking me for a day or so seemed almost altogether irrelevant, but only almost.
Tanya must have seen something in my expression. Her own expression was one of mild concern as she asked, "What's wrong, Ed?"
"Just thinking about taking some shortcuts."
Somewhat warily, she asked, "What kind of shortcuts?"
"Not sure yet."
I remembered the address she'd shown on her laptop in Inverness. '42796 Carmichael Ave'. My core found a listing that showed me a quarter-million dollar house in Ocala, not Inverness. Sales records said it had been sold twice in the last two years, once by Tanya Connor. The guy who'd bought it had flipped it quickly. The next buyer had apparently run into a few problems; he was asking slightly less than he'd paid for it.
Sipping my beer, I looked at the lake and said, "Let's take a walk. Maybe go out on the dock."
"I don't know if we can take our drinks outside."
Standing up, I held a hand out to her and said, "They'll be here when we get back."
Waving the waitress to the table, I said, "We're going outside for a few. Don't lose our drinks, okay?"
She nodded and returned to the bar. Tanya patted her laptop and asked, "What about this?"
"Who's gonna steal it in this place?"
"I'd rather not leave it."
Grabbing the case's straps, I slung it on a shoulder and said, "No problem. We can put it in your car on the way."
Now on her feet, Tanya said, "But I was going to..."
I cut in, "Then you can take it out of your car later. I don't want to carry it over the water."
Her gaze narrow, Tanya said, "Ed, tell me what the hell's going on."
"We're just going to talk about some things where nobody can hear us, ma'am."
Striding for the porch door, I said, "Come find out."
She caught up with me as I crossed the parking lot and had to hurry a little to keep up. I stopped at her car and indicated the trunk. "Open it." She did so. I put the case in and closed the trunk, then said, "Now we can go to the dock."
Tanya sounded rather irritated as she snapped, "Maybe I'd rather just leave."
With a glance at her, I shrugged. "Your choice."
I headed for the dock at an ambling pace. After a few moments, I heard her footsteps behind me. This time she didn't hurry to catch up, so I stopped and waited, then continued on as she walked on my left.
She asked, "Why are we going out on the dock?"
"Because it's time to level with me, Tanya."
Panfish and minnows scattered to either side of the dock at our first footsteps and shadows on the wood planks.
As we reached the end of the dock, she asked, "Level with you about what, exactly?"
Studying the fish below, I said, "You stayed at a motel a mile from my house last night, which means you followed me to Inverness and engineered our lunch encounter."
Looking up and meeting her gaze, I said, "Your mother is Marie Connor and you look and sound very much like she did back when I knew her. That's a compliment, by the way."
I stopped there to see if she'd open up. Tanya had stopped by the dock's table. Now she stared at me with a level of shock and kept a hand on that table as she rather shakily lowered herself into a chair.
"Ed, I ... How the hell did you know?!"
"That's my business, ma'am. Why didn't you just call me or come to the house? Why pretend to meet me over fast food and a sick computer forty miles from home?"
Glancing back at the faux-boat house that was the restaurant's back porch, Tanya sighed, "We should have brought those beers. I could sure use one right now."
"Suffer gracefully, ma'am. Answers, please."
She fidgeted for a moment, took a deep breath, and said, "I didn't call because I was trying to be careful. Very careful. And I wanted to see what I could find out about you on my own, quietly. One of Mom's old friends told me some of the things you used to do."
With obvious reluctance in her hesitation, she replied, "Connie Turner. She showed up with a man named Will--her husband--soon after Mom's accident. They asked a lot of questions, made copies of all the paperwork, and even talked to the other people involved in the accident."
Damn. I hadn't thought of Will or Connie since ... well, since they'd gone Stateside in 1973 for new jobs in a brand new outfit called the Drug Enforcement Agency. Out of sight really can be out of mind. And they got married? Who'da thunk it? They used to fight like cats and dogs sometimes.
I said, "Depending on what your mother was doing at the time, Connie and Will might have showed up to make sure your Mom's accident was really an accident, Tanya. But if what she told you made us seem like monsters, why did you look for me at all?"
Still fidgety, Tanya took a breath and said, "No, not monsters, but..." She shook her head slightly and said, "During one of our talks, Connie said their old boss, a woman named Linda, went to work for 3rd World Products and pulled you out of retirement to help with something. After what she'd told me about things your teams did in Germany, I couldn't figure out how a company like 3rd World could use people like you."
She stopped for a moment, then continued, "I also wondered why my mother would even have any old friends like them and you. Connie seemed pretty startled by the question, then she seemed to get offended and left."
I chuckled, "If you put it like that, she might really have been offended, but she probably also didn't want to be the one to tell you what your mom used to do."
Tanya nodded. "I figured that out somewhere along the line, but before I did, I tried to find out by contacting the company Mom worked for back then. Just to try to figure out how she'd been involved with things like that, you know? All I got was an official denial that the company had ever employed anyone by that name."
"No surprise there. Government contracting agencies were often used as covers and names changed with the missions. The people you talked to probably had nothing on file and no idea who or what you were talking about."
Tanya paused again, then said, "Okay. Maybe so, but I think that call was what made the FBI visit me. They wouldn't tell me anything, either, of course. It was all very frustrating. The next time Connie visited, I told her I thought they ought to stop coming to see Mom because nothing they told me added up. Will got real mad and Connie said they'd be back later, then they left. When they came back, Connie showed me some old pictures of them and Mom and Dad on vacation at a beach. I found out Mom wasn't just one of their old friends. She was running some of the extraction teams."
She stopped talking and sat scuffing a fingernail on the table for several moments. Just as I was about to prompt her to continue, she said in a flat tone, "Connie told me what happened in Leipzig. I couldn't believe it."
"Go ahead and believe it. Your Mom and Will saved everybody's asses that night, Tanya. And the two families they were extracting. Nine civilians. Four adults and five kids."
Looking up, Tanya snapped, "But she killed a truck load of guards to do it."
I shrugged. "Maybe not. Nobody stuck around to count bodies. More Stasi in another truck were shooting at them. The car Will tied to their back bumper was shredded."
"Wait. He did what with the car?"
"They ran ropes through a stack of old tires. Six, as I recall. Tied them together like a tube. They tied the tube to the middle of their back bumper, then they stacked tires on the front seats of another car and tied it to the other end of the bumper tire stack. Two cars with the families went ahead with Connie and Mike. Will and Marie brought up the rear, dragging the other car behind them. The Stasi saw two cars running real close together without lights and chased them. Shot at them, too, of course, but the tires and metal acted like armor. Will figured the ropes would only hold for a few miles in those tight little streets, so they decided to block the street with one of the Stasi trucks. Marie bailed out in a slow turn. She tossed grenades into the lead truck as it passed her and hopped over a low stone wall. When the grenades blew, she cut through an empty building, then ran like hell to get back to Will. They said the rear car looked pretty bad by then. It was full of holes and the trunk lid and back tires were gone. They cut it loose in the middle of a bridge and flattened its front tires, then took off again. Everybody got away clean."
Tanya just sat there staring for a moment, then she muttered, "Jesus!"
"Yup. Takes a helluva lot of bullets to tear a trunk lid off."
"That's not what I meant! I mean ... well..."
I sighed, "Never mind. You can't really wrap your mind around it, ma'am. Not the number of bullets it takes to rip off a trunk lid or the truck grenades or ... well, any of it, really. That's why whatever opinions you may have had or thought you had really don't mean shit. And those Stasi would have gotten bonuses and weekend passes for killing escapees, so fuck them, too."
Her gaze narrowed, possibly at my rough language as well as my attitude. I said, "But none of that covers why you'd want to contact me. Still waiting to hear that."
After a moment, Tanya tapped a fingernail on the table and sighed, "Ed, I didn't have any intention of contacting you, at first, but I have a friend who collects meteorites. My friend has a friend who's an astronomer in Arizona and now that astronomer friend has new legs."
She looked up to me as if expecting a response. I just looked back at her and waited for more.
After a moment, Tanya said, "She went to the Arctic on a flitter to collect meteorites and now she has new legs. I called her, Ed. She said she couldn't talk about any of it and hung up. She wouldn't answer the phone again, so I guess she knew who was calling. I looked everywhere I could think of to find out all I could, but all I found were blank walls."
She paused and allowed me a small grin as she said, "Then I noticed something. Your name, the name of the guy Linda had pulled out of retirement for 3rd World Products. It came up three times about Arctic meteorites. The ones you gave schools had to be certified for display."
"The donations weren't done in my name."
She grinned. "No, but two of the deliveries were recorded, and one even included a note that you refused to remove your cowboy hat while indoors and told her to shut up."
"That was probably Mrs. Wester, an annoying little woman who should really take a damned good look in the mirror before critting anyone else. She yapped about my hat the whole time I was there."
Tanya chuckled, then said, "I searched your name and found newspaper articles about your flitter and some of the things you've been doing with it. Last week I decided to check you out in person." With a wry little grin, she added, "Carefully, that is. But apparently not carefully enough."
I held out a hand to her and said, "On your feet, ma'am. We'll finish our beers, then you'll head home."
Dismayed, she blurted, "But ... there's still..."
"Yeah, yeah. Lots more to talk about. Tell me later. Take your car home while I take my bike home. I'll come up to Ocala this afternoon and maybe we can figure out how to get around certain laws by dinner time."
With a sudden huge grin, Tanya asked, "Laws about medical field devices?"
"Yeah, those. I don't know if we can actually fix Marie, but we can at least try to give it a good shot."
Tanya almost leapt to her feet, stood trembling and staring at me for a long moment, and then groaned or grunted as she lunged to embrace and kiss me. I held her tight and kissed her back and didn't bother in the slightest to try to conceal the chubby spike that rose instantly between us.
Something in the nature of her kiss changed. She stepped back a pace, glanced down, and blushed fully as she groaningly muttered, "Oh, my God ... I was just ... I didn't..."
I held up a hand and said, "Uh-uh. Don't say you didn't mean to do it. First, I'd much rather you did mean it. Second, what the hell else do you think is gonna happen when a woman like you kisses a man like that?" Gesturing to her chair, I added, "And you might as well sit back down, 'cuz I'm not going back into that clubhouse like this."
She blushed again and tried to look anywhere but at the result of her kiss, but her eyes found it a few times anyway. I turned away and hoped the cool breeze and watching fish would help it go down fairly soon.
Tanya said, "I ... I could just start back to Ocala now."
"Nah. You've been here before and you like the place. Leaving alone would invite as much unwelcome curiosity as me walking in with a stiffy. Let's just give things a few minutes to settle, then finish our beers like normal people."
She snickered, "Like normal people. Yeah. Good idea."
After several moments of silently watching fish, I asked, "Can your Mom recognize people? Walk and talk? Can she get around at all?"
When I looked at her, Tanya said, "She seems to know people well enough, but we--the nurses and I--we can't always tell what she's trying to say. And we don't dare let her try to walk without someone ready to catch her."
"But she tries? On her own, I mean?"
"Can she write?"
"Sort of. Some letters are readable. Most aren't. And they change in her mind or something. Like they shift around, I think. It's hard to explain."
Discussion like that will dampen horniness fast. Walking around the table, I said, "Ready. Let's go."
Tanya's eyes flicked to my pants, but she got up and we walked back to the porch to find our beers covered with new-looking round coasters. I nodded a 'thanks' to the nearby waitress and we sat down.
A few sips later, Tanya quietly asked, "Do you think you'll be able to help her? I mean, get the Amarans to help? That's what happened with that woman's legs, isn't it?"
"Brains aren't like legs. Could be all anyone could do is fix the physical damage and hope the rest of the healing follows along somehow."
"But they'll try?"
"They won't break the law, but like I said, maybe there's some way around the law."
The waitress dropped by to ask if everything was all right and set about restocking the porch tables.
I took a long sip of my beer and set it down. "That's it for me. I guess I just don't feel like drinking right now."
The waitress looked at us. I said, "It isn't the beer."
Playing along, Tanya asked, "You want to go?"
Nodding, I said, "Suits me."
Near her car, Tanya said, "I'll write down my address. Just a minute."
She took one of her real estate cards out of a jacket pocket and wrote on the back of it. I took it and stuck it in my shirt pocket. Tanya eyed me briefly, then asked, "You're really coming to Ocala later?"
Grinning, I replied, "Yes, but I can't prove it right now."
With apparent reluctance as well as an urge to get herself underway, Tanya stood awkwardly for a moment, then stuck out her hand. As we shook, she said, "Thanks. That's all. Just thanks. I know there may not be anything anyone can do, but..." She let her sentence end unfinished.
Giving her hand a squeeze, I said, "Whatever anyone might be able to do won't get done in this parking lot, ma'am."
She nodded tightly and took her hand back. I headed for my bike as she got into her car. From the driveway entrance Tanya headed north on forty-one and I headed south. There seemed to be an unusual amount of southbound traffic.