A Plague on Sisters
"Good morning, Jack. Is that a molecular detector in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"
The voice that called out as I passed was female, soft, and sultry as hell. I paused to toss a grin at one of the two women who were occupying the big kidney-shaped desk that graced the front lobby of the Nordic Tech building. "Morning, Karin. Would it be against human resources policy if I was to tell you how much I liked that top?"
The red-haired receptionist giggled and leaned forward, giving me a better-than-normal view of her cleavage in the skimpy tank top that she liked to wear on casual-dress Fridays. "Probably, but I'm not going to tell anyone. You know my rule, Jack."
"What happens in reception stays in reception?" I asked, winking.
She giggled again. "You're so naughty. You look really yummy yourself in khaki. Is that the new Airship Pirates shirt?"
"It is. Saw them last night at the Foundry," I answered, naming a local hot spot favored by bands that were a bit out of the mainstream. I turned around so she could admire the design on the back of the T-shirt.
"Oh, and I was hoping you would ask me to go see them," she said, pouting just a little, and leaning over a bit farther. She traced a finger down my arm as I turned back to face her. "We had such fun the last time we went out. Well, until I got sick and had to go home, but I just know we would have fun again."
She paused, clearly waiting for me to do my duty and ask her out again, but the memory of her lying in a drunken stupor in the back of my car—not to mention the money I had to pay to have the vomit cleaned up and the car deodorized—was enough to warn me against any such thing.
That wasn't the Jack Fletcher she wanted, however. It was the fake Jack she was appealing to, the fictional Jack who had somehow garnered a reputation as a wild ladies' man. I did what was expected and slapped a quasi leer onto my face as I leaned in close. "You know I would snap you up in a minute if it wasn't for your boyfriend."
"Oh, him," she simpered, brushing my hand with her fingers. "Jerry's jealous of everyone."
"He threatened to rip my head off and spit down my throat the last time he saw me," I said, dropping my voice. "I think he meant it, too."
"I don't for one minute think you're scared of Jerry," she said, looking both pleased and coy. "Not you. Not the famous Jack Fletcher. Oh, Jack, this is Minerva. She's going to take over for me while I'm in Cancún for two weeks."
A girlish face hove into view, her eyes wide and somewhat vacant. "Hi, Dr. Fletcher. I've heard so much about you from Karin."
"Don't believe a word of it," I cautioned, giving her a wink, as well. I had a reputation to maintain, after all. "I doubt if any of it is true."
"Of course it's true," Karin said, squeezing my arm as she heaved herself a little farther over the counter so her breast could press against my arm. "Everyone knows you're a hero! You're just too modest to admit it."
Or perhaps resigned to people's determination to ignore the truth in favor of more attractive and entertaining fiction that had started several years back.
"Karin said you tracked down a notorious ring of industrial spies in Cairo," Minerva said, breathless with excitement. She started to lean toward me over the counter, but a gimlet-eyed glance from her friend warned her off.
"He didn't just track them down—he beat the crap out of them, and got secret plans back for the government."
Minerva ooohed appreciably, her eyes filling with hero worship. Honesty prompted me to correct that particular fallacy. "I didn't actually track anyone down so much as accidentally ran into a meeting of some folks selling proprietary information. They thought I was following them, but I was really just lost and trying to find my way back to my hotel so I could rejoin my tour. In fact, I wasn't even in danger from them, since Interpol had them under surveillance, and the Cairo police were hidden around the bazaar, but it was exciting for a few minutes until everything was straightened out."
"And then there's Alaska," Karin said, ignoring the boring truth just as everyone did when I tried to explain what really happened in Cairo.
"Alaska?" Minerva asked her. "What about Alaska?"
Karin turned to her friend. "It was so amazing! It's all over the Greenpeace Web site."
I groaned to myself and prepared to explain that incident, as well.
"What happened?" Minerva repeated, a rapt expression on her face.
"I was on vacation, doing some fishing, and my rented boat had engine trouble. I got picked up by some animal-activist people, and they—"
"He hijacked a whaling ship!" Karin interrupted, a triumphant note in her voice as she beamed at me.
"Ooooh!" Minerva breathed.
"I wasn't even part of the group," I said quickly, wondering why no one was ever willing to believe that I had been the victim of odd circumstances. "My engine had died and the Greenpeacers picked me up on the way to attacking a whaling ship. It was just the purest of coincidences that I was even on the ship at the time, and that picture of me holding a gun on the captain was totally misleading. He'd dropped it and I was going to hand it back to him when a photographer took a picture of us—"
"You went to jail for that, didn't you?" Karin asked, squeezing my arm a little more insistently now, her face filled with sympathy.
"Three months," I said, resigned. "It took that long for my lawyer to convince the judge I had nothing to do with the whole whaler fiasco."
"But the really amazing thing was in Mexico," Karin told Minerva.
"I love amazing things," she said, grasping my other arm. "What happened? I'm dying to know!"
Oh, Lord, not Mexico. "It's really not worth talking about—"
"Jack was in Mexico City with Mr. Sawyer on some business matters, and Mr. Sawyer was kidnapped by radical Mexican antitechnology fanatics!" Karin said, her gaze earnest and fervent as she told the story to her friend. "Jack rescued Mr. Sawyer right as the fanatics were about to sacrifice him on a Mayan altar! He saved his life!"
"Saved Mr. Sawyer's life!" Minerva gasped.
The addition of the Mayan altar to the whole crock of bullshit was too much for me. "There was no altar, Mayan or otherwise," I said firmly.
"Mr. Sawyer totally swore his undying gratitude," Karin answered her, nodding vehemently.
"And it really wasn't so much a group of radical fanatics as it was a couple of people who had been unemployed and took Mr. Sawyer's limo for that of the labor secretary."
"He told Jack that he would have a job at his company for the rest of his life," Karin added in a confusion of pronouns.
"They drove us straight back to the hotel after they realized their mistake," I said, a hint of desperation entering my voice. Why the hell did no one ever listen to me?
"Well, I would promise that, too," Minerva told her. "Being sacrificed on a Mayan altar would scare the bejeepers out of me! That was so brave of Dr. Fletcher!"
"The whole thing got blown out of proportion when the police had a report of a kidnapping, and brought in some military troops to try to find us, which was ridiculous because by then we were back at the hotel safe and sound, having margaritas next to the pool. It wasn't until the next day that we realized they were looking for us," I finished, but I knew my breath was wasted. People, I have frequently noticed, hear what they want to hear.
"Well, you know, Jack was in the military," Karin said, her voice dropping to a confidential level, apparently forgetting I was standing right there. "Secret military research."
"Wow," Minerva said, her eyes huge. "What sort of research?"
"I don't know, but it has to be something pretty juicy because Jack never talks about it."
I sighed, gathered up my leather satchel and the morning's paper, and headed for the stairs.
"He's just like Indiana Jones, isn't he?" I heard Minerva say as I started up the stairs to the fourth floor, where my office was located. "Right down to the hat. I wonder if he has one of those long whips he could wrap around his waist?"
"He should totally get one. . . ."
"Hey, Jack." I entered the first in a connected set of rooms that were our research labs, unloading hat, satchel, and newspaper onto my desk. A tall man with curly black hair emerged from the far room. "You're late."
"Had a late night." I slumped into the chair behind my desk and pulled out my laptop.
"Foundry?" Brian, the graduate student who was interning for a year, plopped down on the corner of his desk.
"Yep. Airship Pirates were playing last night."
"Airship . . ." His face screwed up in thought for a few seconds. "Oh, that goth band?"
"Part steampunk, part goth, part industrial." I frowned as the e-mail started loading into my in-box. "You should go sometime."
"Like I have time to go hang out at the Foundry? You may, but I have work to do." He nodded toward the clean room behind him. "If I don't get those dots set today, I'll be out of an internship. Speaking of that—Dr. Elton's been asking for you. He says that latest version of the quantum gate you sent him refuses to reverse, and could you fix it by noon so he has a working model to show Sawyer."
"It's on my list of things to do today," I murmured.
"Feeley called and said if you don't get that budget to him by the end of today, he'll sauté your balls in garlic and wine sauce."
I made a face. I hated dealing with the yearly budget.
"Oh, and a woman was here to see you."
"A woman?" I looked up in surprise. "Who?"
Brian shrugged and picked up one of the small canisters of liquid helium we use to cool down the computer equipment. "Didn't say. Said she'd be back, though."
"I wonder who it could be." I wracked my brain for any female acq...