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Baker's Dozen – Chapter 09-10

Written by argonaut :: [Friday, 14 August 2015 21:45] Last updated by :: [Friday, 14 August 2015 22:10]

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BAKER’S DOZEN

by Argonaut


CHAPTER 9

Early morning sunlight was streaming through the window as Bobby shut off the alarm clock and tossed the blanket aside. It was a beautiful Saturday morning -- perfect for a run in the park. He put on a sweatsuit and a pair of running shoes and went downstairs to grab a quick breakfast.

Half an hour later, he was jogging along a quiet tree-lined street, past tidy lawns and well-kept houses much like his own. A moving van was parked in front of one of the houses up ahead. Bobby stopped and waited while two men in coveralls carried a chest of drawers across the sidewalk and toward the house.

He was jogging on past the van when he heard someone call his name. “Bobby!”

Turning, it took him a moment to recognize the petite brunette hurrying toward him. “Miss Bartlett?” he said. “You look … different.”

Miss Bartlett grinned. “I know, right?” Her wavy chestnut hair was gathered in a loose ponytail, and she was wearing a flannel shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a very short pair of cut-off jeans. The shirttails were tied in a knot above her midriff, and the top three buttons were undone. Bobby had sometimes wondered what Miss Bartlett looked like under the buttoned-up blouses and knee-length skirts she’d worn when she was the school librarian -- and now he was getting a pretty good idea.

“But please,” she was saying. “Call me Becky. ‘Miss Bartlett’ makes me sound like an old maid.”

Bobby tore his eyes away from the open V of her flannel shirt. “It’s good to see you,” he said. “I’m sorry you’re not working in the school library any more.”

“Thanks. I miss it, but it really wasn’t for me, you know? I love books, I love working with kids, but the high-school regime was just a little too … restrictive for my liking. I took a job at the law school library over in Centerville.”

“So are you moving in?” Bobby asked, gesturing toward the house. “I live a few blocks away.”

Miss Bartlett laughed. “No, no.” She pulled a cap from the waistband of her shorts and drew it over her forehead. She pointed to the logo above the visor: BUCKEYE VAN LINES.

“I just do this on weekends,” she explained. “Making a little extra money while my fiance’s studying for his bar exam.”

“Your fiance?”

Miss Bartlett beamed. “That’s right.” She held out her left hand to display the diamond ring sparkling on her finger.

“Wow. Congratulations.”

“Thanks. He’s like you in a lot of ways. Smart, serious, and a little bit geeky -- but in a cute way.” She winked. “We’re getting married in the fall, just as soon as --”

“Hey, Bartlett!” a gruff voice shouted.

A burly man in grey coveralls was standing by the rear of the van, clipboard in hand. “We’re not paying you to stand around chit-chatting. This stuff ain’t gonna move itself.”

“Just saying hi to an old friend,” Miss Bartlett shouted back. “I’ll be right there.”

“Jerk,” she muttered. Turning to Bobby. “He knows I can carry more in one trip than the rest of his crew can manage in two. You’d think he’d cut me some slack. Well, it’s nice to see you. Take care, okay?”

“You too,” said Bobby, watching Miss Bartlett stroll back to the van. Standing by the open doors at the rear, she called out to the men inside.

“Okay, guys. Load me up.”

Bobby heard something heavy sliding across the metal floor. The two men in coveralls he’d seen earlier dragged a sofa from inside the van and onto Miss Bartlett’s shoulder.

“Keep it coming,” she said. “I’ve got two arms, you know.”

More grunting, more scraping. A few moments later, Bobby and the two men watched appreciatively as Miss Bartlett strolled casually up the flagstone walk toward the front porch, carrying the sofa on one shoulder and a dresser on the other. Even the grumpy supervisor was eyeing her surreptitiously while pretending to inspect the papers on his clipboard.

One of the men pushed his cap back and let out a soft whistle. “This is better than overtime.”

*****

Bobby stepped off the downtown bus and headed for the revolving doors in front of the Wexler Building. After his run in the park, he wanted to make a couple of stops here before going home.

He cast his eyes around the Art Deco lobby as he walked over to the elevators. For as long as he could remember, the Wexler Building -- a once-popular department store in the middle of the town’s shopping district -- had stood empty, derelict, its customers lured away to the malls and outlet stores that began springing up on the outskirts of town in the 1970’s.

But now it was a bustling hive of shops and restaurants. Being the home of the world’s only super-girls had put Middleton on the map and given a boost to its sluggish economy.

Riding the elevator up to the top floor, Bobby thought about his encounter with Miss Bartlett. He was still sorry she wasn’t working in the school library any longer, but she seemed happy with her new job and her engagement. He envied her fiance. Not for the first time, he tried to imagine what it would be like to make out with a woman who could crush steel in her bare arms …

Stepping off the elevator, Bobby turned left and headed for the Juice ‘n’ Java. He was pleased to see that Kenzie, his favorite barista, was behind the counter, poring over a book with a yellow highlighter in her hand. She looked up as Bobby entered.

“Hey, stranger. Missed you last week.”

“Yeah, I was out of town.”

Kenzie was a student at the local community college. Petite, with brown eyes and spiked black hair, she was wearing faded blue jeans and a black T-shirt. Her purple lip gloss matched her nails and the streaks in her hair. Friendly and outgoing, despite her goth get-up, she always greeted the regulars by name and made small talk while serving them.

“Let me guess,” she said, grinning. “Comi-Con?”

“Yup.”

“That’s what I figured. So what’ll it be?”

“How about a banana strawberry smoothie?”

“Coming right up.”

As she put the ingredients in the blender, Bobby glanced down at the book she’d been reading. The Buffy Companion: The Unofficial Guide to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.

“It’s for my thesis,” Kenzie explained as she pressed the BLEND button. “’Female Empowerment in Popular Culture.’”

“Sounds interesting,” said Bobby, reflecting that he knew a thing or two about female empowerment himself.

Kenzie shrugged. “We’ll see. It’s a big topic. I’ve got to find a way to narrow it down.” She poured the smoothie into a glass, then began flipping through a row of cards in a plastic file box. “Bobby Baker, right?”

“That’s right. You’ve got a good memory.”

“Well, it’s an easy name to remember. Alliteration, you know? Here we are.” She took a card from the box and punched a hole along the bottom edge. “That was your tenth smoothie,” she said, handing the card to Bobby. “Bring this card and your next one’s on the house.”

“Thanks.” Bobby slipped the card into his wallet and handed Kenzie a five-dollar bill. He dropped the change into the tip jar and carried his smoothie over to an empty table. A tall, crew-cut man in a white turtleneck and tan slacks was sitting at a table in the corner, peering at his smartphone as he sipped his coffee. A rumpled newspaper was lying on a chair next to him.

“Excuse me,” said Bobby. “Is it okay if I take a look at your paper?”

The man glanced up. “Go ahead. You can keep it, if you like.”

“Thanks.” Bobby took the newspaper to his table and began turning its pages while he drank his smoothie.

There was a photograph of Lodestar on the front page, making some emergency repairs to the space station while a couple of astronauts in space suits looked on. And on page 3 he saw a photo of Cindy tearing a door off a derailed commuter train to free the passengers trapped inside.

Bobby thought it was kind of strange how people had come to take the existence of super-girls so much for granted. Of course, they’d all had a couple of years to get used to it. For Bobby, it had been only been a few weeks.

He wondered what Darcy was doing. She’d texted him yesterday to say that she couldn’t make it to the gaming session the guys had planned for this evening.

Fifteen minutes later, he stood up and waved good-bye to Kenzie on his way out. She glanced up from her book and waved back. “See you next week.”

Bobby’s next stop was on the same floor. He paused at the open door of Argo City Comics, breathing in the aroma of decades-old pulp paper, before stepping inside.

With the appearance of super-girls in real life, interest in their comic-book counterparts had skyrocketed. Female-led titles were dominating the market, and comics in general were enjoying a popularity they hadn’t seen in decades -- which explained why Argo City could afford a high-rent location in the Wexler Building instead of the shabby storefront it used to occupy.

The store was full of customers of all ages and both genders, browsing the new releases and flipping through the back-issue bins. Bobby strolled up and down the aisles, plucking comic after comic from the racks -- Power Girl and Mary Marvel, She-Hulk and American Dream. The next issue of Lodestar wouldn’t be out for a couple of weeks, but Bobby grabbed a copy of the publisher’s new title, The Mighty Atalanta. Over in the “Younger Readers” section, Betty Cooper was once again sporting the red and blue bodysuit of Super Teen, while Disney was launching its new line of “Princess Power” comics with Ariel, the Mighty Mermaid.

Fifteen minutes later, Bobby walked out of the store, clutching a paper bag stuffed with comic books, and headed for the elevators. This week’s haul was a good one, even though he’d gone a bit over his budget. He pressed the DOWN button and stood waiting for the door to open.

“What’d you get?”

Turning, he saw that Kenzie was standing beside him. She must be on her lunch break. Without waiting for an answer, she took the bag of comics from Bobby’s hands and began flipping through them while Bobby watched, slightly embarrassed. Power Girl … Mary Marvel … The Mighty Atalanta …

“I seem to detect a theme here,” she remarked. She held up the issue of Super Teen. “Seriously?”

“It’s -- for my kid sister,” Bobby lied, blushing.

Kenzie handed the comics back as the elevator door slid open. “You know, this might be just the thing for my thesis. Buffy and Xena have been done to death, but except for Wonder Woman I don’t think there’s been much written about super-women in comic books. Maybe you could recommend some titles?”

“Sure,” said Bobby, following Kenzie into the elevator and pressing the button for the lobby. “What sort of --”

A sudden lurch threw Bobby to the floor. Kenzie grabbed the railing that ran waist-high along the walls. A loud rumble shook the compartment. The elevator was falling, rattling against the sides of the shaft as it plunged toward the basement ten floors below …

Once again, it seemed to Bobby that time had slowed to a crawl. He didn’t know whether it was the effect of adrenaline, or part of the card’s mojo. But he didn’t stop to wonder about it now. He reached up under his sweatshirt, grabbed the card hanging around his neck, and looked over at Kenzie, who stood clutching the railing with her eyes squeezed shut.

“I wish she was super!” he blurted, the rattle of the falling elevator drowning out his words …

There was a screech of metal, then silence. Bobby tumbled sideways as the elevator came to an abrupt stop.

Sitting up, Bobby found himself staring at a pair of Reeboks, suspended several inches above the floor. He raised his eyes. Kenzie was hovering with one arm extended straight up over head and the palm of her hand pressed against the ceiling of the elevator. She didn’t look much different, except that her T-shirt seemed to be stretched tighter against her chest -- and Bobby couldn’t help noticing that she wasn’t wearing a bra.

“Are you okay?” she asked, looking down at Bobby.

“Yeah,” he said, hastily averting his eyes. “Just -- knocked the wind out of me.” He began crawling around the compartment, picking up the comics scattered on the floor.

“Well, it looks like the emergency brake kicked in,” Kenzie informed him. Bobby nodded. She must be using her X-ray vision. “I’m gonna let go. Hold on.”

Bobby held his breath as Kenzie slowly lowered her arm and descended to the floor. The elevator didn’t move. Kenzie took Bobby’s hand and pulled him to his feet.

They heard people shouting, and the sound of running feet. Someone started pounding on the door. “Is anyone in there?”

“Yeah, two of us,” Kenzie shouted back.

“Are you all right?”

“We’re fine.”

“Good. Someone from Maintenance will be here in a minute to get the door open. Just sit tight.”

“Don’t worry,” Kenzie shouted, rolling her eyes. “We’re not going anywhere.”

She turned to Bobby. “So listen -- can you keep a secret?”

“I guess so. I mean, sure.”

“Good. ‘Cause what I did just now -- that never happened. The emergency brake kicked in, the elevator stopped. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. Capeesh?”

Bobby drew his thumb and forefinger across his lips, then held up his hand, palm out. “You got it.”

Kenzie nodded. “Thanks. I appreciate that.”

They were silent for a moment, listening to the voices on the other side of the door.

“So,” said Bobby. “How long have you been -- uh --?”

“Couple months. Hey, don’t get me wrong. Being super is great and all, but I’m not into the here-I-come-to-save-the-day routine, you know?”

“And nobody else knows about it?”

Kenzie shrugged. “A couple of people. My ex boy-friend -- but he’ll keep his mouth shut. And what’s-her-name -- the super blonde? Suzy?” She held her hand high over her head, palm down.

“Cindy,” Bobby corrected her.

“Whatever. I was out flying one night, this was just after my powers kicked in, and we kind of bumped into each other. But she promised not to tell anyone.” Kenzie chuckled. “She actually made a pinkie-swear, like we were in junior high --”

Bobby jumped back in alarm as four fingers and a thumb suddenly pierced the door panels from the other side -- first the left, then the right. The panels crumpled outward, parting like a pair of curtains.

The elevator had stopped about six inches above the floor of the lobby. Cindy, arms outstretched, was holding the mangled panels apart while a crowd of spectators stood gawking behind her.

“Bobby!” she exclaimed. “Are you all --?” She broke off abruptly, her eyes narrowing as she noticed Kenzie. “Hello, Kenzie,” she muttered.

Kenzie grinned. “Hey, Suzy. We were just talking about you.”

“Oh?”

Kenzie hopped off the elevator. Bobby stepped down after her.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he told Cindy. “The emergency brake must have kicked in. But thanks.”

Cindy shrugged. “I was just passing by. Glad you’re okay.”

Kenzie had taken a felt-tip pen from the pocket of her jeans. Grabbing Bobby’s left wrist, she began writing something on the palm of his hand. “Here’s my phone number,” she said. “Seriously, call me sometime -- about my thesis? I’d love to pick your brain.”

“Well,” said Cindy, scowling. “I can see I’m not needed here. If you’ll excuse me --” She turned abruptly and strode off, the crowd parting as she swept across the lobby toward the revolving doors. Bobby stared after her. Was she mad about something?

*****

“A little excitement, huh?”

The two men were standing at the back of the crowd as Cindy rushed past. One was of medium height, solidly built, bald except for a fringe of hair running from ear to ear along the back of his head. The other was tall, crew-cut, in a white turtleneck and tan slacks. He was squinting at the screen of his phone.

He nodded without looking up. “The Baker kid was in the elevator when something went wrong.”

“Yikes. You-know-who would have our balls if anything happened to the kid.”

“Not our job to baby-sit him,” the tall man said, still peering at his phone. “But yeah.”

“So what happened? The emergency brake kick in?”

“Apparently not.” He handed the phone to the bald man. “Take a look.”

The bald men let out a soft whistle as he watched the grainy footage uploaded from the elevator’s security camera.

“Another super, huh?”

“Looks like it.”

“Any idea who she is?”

“I’ve seen her before. She works in the coffee shop up on the top floor.”

The bald man shook his head. “What is it with this Baker kid? Either he’s the world’s luckiest nerd, or else --”

“Yeah? Or else what?”

The bald man shrugged. “Or else I don’t know what. Let the boss lady figure it out.” He handed the phone back. “You’d better erase that footage from the building’s security system.”

“Way ahead of you.”

*****

It was early afternoon in Middleton, but on the other side of the Atlantic, dusk was falling over London. The glass-and-steel flats and office buildings along the Thames were gleaming in the rays of the setting sun.

Sitting in her office on the fifth floor of the Secret Intelligence Service building, Gwendolyn Wilde glanced briefly at the wall clock. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a severe bun that highlighted her classical features -- the high forehead, the elegant cheekbones, the firm chin. Her blue eyes narrowed slightly, she sat straight in her chair, tapping at the keyboard of her computer with brisk efficiency.

The door of the inner office opened and a middle-aged man, impeccably attired in a Savile Row suit, stepped out, holding a bowler hat in one hand and a neatly furled umbrella in the other.

“Oh, Mr. MacNab.” Miss Wilde swiveled round in her chair, displaying a pair of long, shapely legs in a short pinstripe skirt. “We’ve just got word from one of our American friends. There’s been another.”

Mr. MacNab raised an eyebrow. “Middleton?”

“Where else?”

“And what do we know about her?”

“So far, not much. She’s a student at the local uni. Works part-time in a coffee shop. Apparently she’s been keeping her powers on the q.t. She was riding a lift when something went wrong with the cable and she used her powers to stop it. A security camera recorded the whole thing. Oh -- and you’ll be interested to know that the only other passenger on the lift was young Mr. Baker.”

Mr. MacNab nodded. “Has Mrs. Briggs been informed?”

“Not yet. She and the Malloy girl are cleaning up that terrorist cell in Marseilles.”

“She took Miss Malloy along?”

“She thought it would be a good training exercise for her.”

“I see. Well, I trust her judgment. When she reports in, let her know about this, will you?”

“Of course.”

“And in the meantime, see what else you can learn about -- does this young lady have a name?”

“Nichols. Mackenzie Nichols.”

*****

Bobby held the card in the shadow beneath his desk. The numerals 1 through 5, faintly luminous, ran halfway along the bottom edge. He’d used more than half of the wishes. He’d have to be careful how he used the five that were left.

He slipped the lanyard around his neck and buttoned his pajama top. The comics he’d bought that morning were lying on his desk, bagged and sealed. He began putting them away in a cardboard storage box. He hesitated for a moment, unsure whether to file The Mighty Atalanta under M or A, then slipped it between Mary Marvel and Power Girl.

Just as he was putting the box away in his closet, he heard a tap at his window.

Startled, he turned around. Cindy Corliss was hovering in the darkness outside, her face illuminated by the light from the window. Bobby stared, wondering what she was doing outside his bedroom. He didn’t move until Cindy, rolling her eyes, mimed the raising of a window.

Bobby hurried over and lifted the sash. A chilly breeze blew into his bedroom. He put his hands on the windowsill and leaned out into the night.

“Cindy -- hi,” he said. “What’s up?”

Cindy’s eyes, wide and earnest, were gazing into his. “I just thought I’d see if you’re okay,” she said. “You know, after what happened to that elevator --”

“Oh, yeah. I’m fine. Sheesh, everyone’s making such a big deal out of that. But thanks for --”

He wasn’t able to finish the sentence. Cindy’s hands were gripping his shoulders and her lips were pressed against his.


CHAPTER 10

Cindy broke off the kiss as abruptly as she’d started it.

They stared at each other for several moments, Bobby leaning over the windowsill, Cindy hovering in the darkness outside.

Cindy was the first to speak. “Can I come in?”

Bobby blinked. “Oh -- sure.” He raised the window higher, then turned aside and threw on a bathrobe to cover the erection that was pressing against his pajamas.

When he turned around, Cindy was standing at the foot of his bed, beaming at the poster hanging on the wall.

“That’s so sweet,” she said. “I wish I’d grabbed a couple of those. I hear they’re going for a lot of money on eBay.”

“We’d better keep our voices down,” said Bobby. “My parents’ bedroom is at the other end of the hall and my sister’s sleeping over at a friend’s house, but still …”

“Gotcha,” Cindy whispered, wandering over to the bookcase. Bobby watched, embarrassed, as she opened one of the binders and began flipping through it.

“Wow,” she said, putting the binder back on the shelf. “You’ve been saving all those articles and stuff about me?”

Bobby blushed. “What can I say? I’m a … big fan.”

I guess so.

There was an awkward silence. Cindy stood by the bookcase with her eyes averted. Bobby was wondering if he should say something.

So,” said Cindy. “I guess you’re wondering why I really came to see you.”

Bobby nodded. “Uh-huh.”

“It’s -- kind of hard to explain.” She sat down on the edge of the bed, looking down at the floor. She took a deep breath and started to speak.

That summer when I started growing, I was kind of freaked out at first because it was happening so fast and nobody knew why it was happening or when it would stop, but when it did stop and once I got used to it I was kind of glad. Because I’d always been so small. Some of the bigger kids used to pick on me, nothing traumatic, but still. Which I why I have a thing about bullies.”

She glanced at the poster.

“So when I went back to school in the fall, I thought okay, things’ll be different now that I’m not such a pipsqueak any more. But they weren’t, not really. That first day -- well, morning classes weren’t so bad. Everyone was staring at me, but I figured, fine, they’ll get used to it. But then at lunch, in the cafeteria, I could tell all the boys were scared of me, all the girls were ignoring me …”

She looked up at Bobby, her eyes glistening with tears.

And then you said Hi to me, in the lunch line. That was all, maybe you don’t even remember it, but I thought, okay, at least one guy treats me like I’m a regular girl and not some overgrown freak --”

“You’re not --” Bobby started to say, but Cindy kept talking.

-- so after that I wanted to get to know you better, but we weren’t in any of the same classes or anything and I would’ve been too embarrassed to just come up to you and say Hi, you wanna hang out?” She smiled ruefully. “Weird, huh? I’ve walked into burning buildings and flown through lightning storms, but I was too scared to go up and talk to you. But then when I took care of those two jerks who were hassling you in the hallway I figured here’s my excuse to meet you after school, maybe go out for a fro-yo or something, but then you didn’t show up and I checked the building with my super-vision and I saw you in the weight room with Megan --”

“About that --”

Cindy shrugged. “It’s okay. It’s not like we had a date. I mean, not a date date. And then after that fight in the cafeteria and the supers weren’t allowed in the school any more I wondered if I’d ever have a chance to see you again --”

She was staring at the floor, blushing, as the words tumbled out in a nervous rush. “And then today, when you were in the elevator and I got there too late, even though you were okay it made me think What if something happened to Bobby? And then when I saw Kenzie putting the moves on you --” She practically spit out the name.

“You don’t like her?” said Bobby. “She seems … nice.”

Cindy pouted. “She doesn’t like the way I dress. She says it ‘objectifies the female body’ or something.” She held up her hands to make finger-quotes. “She should talk, with her skin-tight jeans and no bra.” Bobby blushed. “You noticed, huh? And writing her phone number on your hand, I mean could she be any more obvious? Which by the way I see you haven’t washed off.”

“Hey, I washed my hands,” Bobby protested. “The ink won’t come off.”

“Whatever.”

And besides, she wasn’t putting any moves on me. She’s in college. I mean, she must be, like, twenty.”

But he wasn’t so sure. He remembered how … flirtatious Miss Bartlett had been right after he used his card to make her super. And Megan. And Lindsay had given him her phone number, too. Was that part of the card’s mojo?

Cindy was looking up at him with wide, earnest eyes. “What do you think, Bobby? Do you think I dress too sexy?”

“No!” Bobby blurted out. Lowering his voice, he went on. “I think you look -- nice.”

Cindy raised an eyebrow. Nice?”

“Yeah. I mean -- pretty. I think you look really, really … pretty.”

Cindy was grinning. “It’s okay. You had me at ‘nice’” She stood up. “So -- you wanna go out?”

Bobby blinked. “You mean like on a date?”

“Well, not exactly. I mean go outside -- you know, so we don’t have to talk in whispers.”

“Oh.”

“What’s the matter? You’re not afraid of heights, are you?”

“No …”

“Come on, then. It’ll be fun.” She grabbed the blanket from Bobby’s bed and handed it to him. “Better wrap up. It’s kind of chilly outside.”

Bobby draped the blanket over his shoulders. Stooping slightly, Cindy wrapped her right arm around his waist. “Now put your arm around my neck.” She stood up straight, lifting Bobby off the floor as she stepped over to the open window and carefully raised the sash all the way. Moments later, she’d flown out into the night, holding Bobby close by her side.

It took Bobby a moment to get his bearings. The night was clear, but moonless. Bobby could make out stars overhead, and roofs and treetops below, black against black. Here and there a rectangle of light spilled from a window onto a lawn. His neighborhood was dark, but off to his right he saw a faint glow from the lights of downtown Middleton.

Cindy had slowed to a stop. “Let’s get comfortable, okay?” She leaned back and raised her knees, drawing Bobby up onto her lap. “There, how’s that?”

Fine.” Bobby wondered how high they were. A hundred feet? Two hundred? Despite what he’d told Cindy, heights did make him a little nervous. But in the darkness, and with Cindy’s arm holding him close, he felt safe.

“Sometimes I fly way up high and just lie back and let myself drift,” Cindy was saying. “It’s so quiet and peaceful and relaxing.” She sighed. “Of course, then I hear a police siren or a fire alarm and the break’s over …”

“Uh-huh.” Bobby was only half-listening as he slid his hand out from under the blanket and laid it on Cindy’s abdomen. He’d often wondered what a super-girl’s body felt like. Was it hard and unyielding, like marble or steel? Here was his chance to find out. Cindy’s flesh was warm and soft and supple to the touch, but as he pressed gently against her abdomen, he could feel a firm, solid layer of muscle underneath.

He could also feel an erection stiffening in his pajamas.

“Mmmmm …” Cindy was purring softly. Encouraged, Bobby slid his hand up along her midriff, toward the underside of her top. But before he could reach it, Cindy’s fingers closed gently but firmly around his wrist.

“Ah-ah-ah,” she said. “Not on a first date.”

Sorry,” Bobby mumbled. His erection was clamoring for release. He closed his eyes and began to count backwards from one thousand by seventeens: 983 … 966 …

He’d gotten as far as 932 when he felt Cindy’s hand reaching inside his blanket and slipping down between his robe and his pajamas. Now she was running a finger slowly along his receding erection. Instantly, it sprang back to attention. Cindy’s fingers began moving up and down its length like a cellist’s bow. Bobby’s breath was coming in short gasps, keeping time with the strokes of Cindy’s fingers, faster and faster, until …

Bobby slowly released a lungful of air as Cindy withdrew her hand. “How was that?” she asked.

Bobby was still gasping for breath. “That was -- that was --”

“Nice?”

“Yeah,” said Bobby, grinning. “Nice.”

“So can we talk now?”

“Sure thing,” Bobby murmured, although her words barely registered in his mind. He was feeling pleasantly sleepy now, warm in his blanket, snuggled against Cindy in the dark, his cheek resting on her shoulder, his chin cushioned on her breast. She was saying something about something being important in a relationship, but her words seemed to be coming from far away as he drifted into slumber.

*****

Shivering slightly, Bobby stirred in his sleep. He drew the blanket closer around his shoulders, but his feet were cold and a chilly breeze was blowing against his face. Had he left his window open? Still more than half asleep, he rolled over …

“Yikes!”

He was having one of those nightmares where you’re falling and you wake up with a jerk. His arms and legs were thrashing about in the darkness, but he wasn’t waking up …

“It’s okay! I’ve got you!”

He felt a hand gripping each of his arms, near the shoulder, and pulling up gently to slow his fall. This wasn’t a dream, after all. He was descending slowly in the darkness, down past the silhouettes of trees and houses, until he felt his bare feet touching grassy turf and Cindy’s arms holding him close, squeezing his face against her chest.

Oh, Bobby, I’m so sorry! After we, you know, I wanted to talk but you fell right asleep which kind of made me mad but then I thought Poor baby, he’s had a long day and besides you looked so cute so I figured I’d let you have a little nap but while I was waiting for you to wake up I must have dozed off myself and -- oh, Bobby, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” said Bobby, his voice muffled against her breast. “What time is it?”

“Let me check.” She relaxed her embrace and turned her head aside. Bobby guessed that she was using her super-vision to look for a clock along Main Street. “Omgosh, it’s after two o’clock! I’d better get you back home.”

“Okay.” Bobby realized that he was shivering. “Where’s my blanket?”

Cindy had already picked it up. She handed it to Bobby and waited for him to wrap it around his shoulders. “Ready?”

A minute later, they were back in Bobby’s bedroom. The house was dark and quiet. He hadn’t been missed.

“Thanks,” whispered Bobby.”I, uh, I had a great time -- except for the part where I was screaming in terror.”

Cindy grinned. “Me, too.” Grabbing Bobby’s left wrist, she licked her thumb and rubbed it hard against the palm of his hand. She picked up a felt-tip pen from Bobby’s and began writing over the faint smear where Kenzie’s phone number had been.

“This is a private number,” she said. “When you’re ready to talk, give me a call.” Leaning down, she brushed her lips lightly against Bobby’s. “Good night, Bobby.”

Moments later, she’d flown off into the night. Bobby closed the window and turned off the desk lamp. Stepping across the darkened room, he threw himself onto his bed and fell asleep the moment his head touched the pillow.

Cindy was right. It had been a long day.

*****

Dawn was breaking over London.

Gwendolyn Wilde had been working at her computer all night.

From time to time, the American agents had sent information about Mackenzie Nichols -- her date of birth, her college transcripts, the names of her parents and siblings. Gwendolyn had collated them into a file for Mrs. Briggs’ perusal. And she’d watched the footage from the security camera on the lift, studying it with mounting interest.

The camera had been set up in a corner of the ceiling, at the rear of the compartment, pointing down toward the opposite corner of the floor, next to the sliding door. She watched closely as Bobby and the Nichols girl entered the lift. They appeared to be talking. Bobby pressed the DOWN button … the door slid shut … and a moment later he was thrown to the floor as the lift began to fall.

The camera was pointing directly at Bobby. He was reaching up under his sweatshirt. That’s odd, Gwendolyn thought. Now he was looking up, saying something, just as the Nichols girl, off to one side of the screen, leapt toward the ceiling, arm upraised, to stop the falling lift.

She ran that part of the tape again, in slow motion, and then one more time, frame by frame. The black-and-white footage was grainy and indistinct. Working patiently through the wee hours of the morning, she was able to enhance the images on the screen and bring Bobby into sharper focus.

Again, she watched him reach up under his sweatshirt. He seemed to be fumbling for something underneath it. A good-luck charm of some kind? And what was he saying as he looked up?

Zooming in on Bobby’s face, she ran the frames through a lip-reading program. She watched intently as the program tried to translate Bobby’s lip movements into words, but without much success. She felt disappointed but not surprised: She knew that lip-reading is mostly a matter of guesswork. But then --

Bobby’s lips rounded, then closed, then pushed out. Gwendolyn scanned the possible translations scrolling across the bottom of the screen: Cooper … hooper …

Super.

She turned off the program and sat thinking for several minutes. The building was quiet; early morning sunlight was creeping into the office. Carefully, she deleted the last few frames from the footage before attaching it to the file and clicking SEND.

She shut off her computer and stood up, massaging her stiff neck. Time for a hot bath and a few hours’ sleep.

It had been a long night.

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