Author's Note: Hi all, I really must apologize, I never meant for this 5 th chapter to take this long to post. What with going back to work, being ill, away from home and the other general chaos of my life, completing it just kept getting pushed back. But now its here, its ready to read and I hopefully won't let it be this long until the next update; so as always, please read, enjoy and review.
For Disclaimers see Ch. 1
Review at firstname.lastname@example.org
* * *
Luce sat in the boardroom alone, papers spread out over the large table looking for all the world like a sailor lost and drowning at sea. Since walking in last week and dropping a bomb on the board not to mention a few hefty demands, she'd found herself swamped in an overwhelming mountain of nearly incomprehensible paperwork. At the moment, she was taking a bit of a breather before calling in the next victim to begin the hunt all over again. But she was distracted and it was only Monday morning. It did not bode well for the rest of the week.
She sighed softly as she leaned back in her chair and firmly shut the work out of her mind. Instead, she forced her brain to focus on recent things outside of the office; namely her weekend out with Kylie. After her drunken but heartfelt admission in the bar on Saturday night Luce had talked her friend into calling it a night. In her mind drinking to be social was one thing, even if you were also trying to relive a touch of stress. But drinking when you were depressed or morose was just asking for trouble.
Of course by then it was close to one o'clock in the morning anyway and both of them had been drinking steadily all night. All Luce could think of was going to bed and Kylie herself took little persuading to going home. Since they were both still pretty buzzed, Luce called them a cab and piled her friend into it to take her home.
Once there, she helped Kylie into the house and stayed to make sure that the other woman could make it to bed on her own, then she hopped back into the cab and made her way back to her condo. There she promptly passed out for the night. If she dreamt at all she had no memory of it whatsoever; for once that was something she was quite thankful for.
Luce sighed softly her as she thought about the sadness of Kylie's voice when she talked about her boyfriend and how she wasn't sure she loved him enough. Luce had no idea if her unhappiness stemmed from the fact that she didn't love him or from the knowledge that once again he wasn't the one she was searching for. Maybe it was a touch of both.
But when she spoke of finding her soulmate, there'd been such wistfulness in her voice. She seemed so sure that someone was out there looking for her, that somehow she was entitled to that kind of bond and commitment and nothing and no one was going to tell her otherwise. Part of Luce envied her that solidarity of faith.
But Luce suffered from a severe abundance of pragmatism and she herself held little hope that it would happen for her. A large part of her was saddened at the thought; to never have someone who knew you on every level and yet loved you despite the darkness you might carry; to have someone who needed you just as desperately as you needed them; someone who looked at you and saw their entire world with no room for anyone else. She sometimes thought she would give almost anything she had to know that feeling.
But a smaller part of her was also relieved at the doubt and possibility that it was not meant for her. Twice she had watched helpless as someone she loved was completely devastated when that bond was sundered. First her grandmother when her grandfather died from the cancer that had riddled and destroyed his body. Then it was her mother's turn when her father was taken from them in a foolish industrial accident.
It was a scary prospect, losing yourself in someone so completely, risking such pain and grief when they were gone. She often wondered if she ever gave that much of herself, could she even stand the loss? And if somehow she managed that, what would be left of her when that person was gone? Could she risk it? Would she even care?
Her phone rang shrilly, breaking her out of her maudlin thoughts. She grabbed it from the table and snapped it open. “Morning Jerry. I thought you were waiting to hear from me.”
There was a chuckle from the other end. “Good morning to you too Luce. I was hoping you'd have some news or even a vague idea by now.”
Luce sighed heavily, her eyes passing over the large sea of papers before her. “Look Jerry, I've only made it through five departments so far; sales was a mess by the way. I think you need to have a talk with Jack about that. “
“So you haven't found anything yet?”
She shook her head. “No I haven't and it's pissing me off because something about all this is giving me a major case of hives.”
“So there is something there.” His voice sounded almost relieved that the audit team hadn't been jumping at shadows. And his decision to bring her in had indeed been a valid one.
“Yeah there is, what exactly I can't say but something is definitely off here.”
“What about the staff, any problems?”
She leaned back in the chair, trying to ignore the paperwork. “Not so far but that doesn't mean anything. I was hoping my sudden appearance might be a bit jarring but it doesn't look like it worked. Of course that might just because they think they're safe and I'll never find whatever it is they're hiding.”
“True but then they don't know you very well do they?”
This time she chuckled. “Not hardly. I'm going to finish with the last three departments this week if it kills me. Then I think I'm going to start digging in each department on my own after that. I need you to run a risk assessment on the personnel files of all the supervisors and their first assistants. Whoever's doing this is either someone with complete access or a real computer hacker. Maybe we'll get lucky and it's not the latter.” She jotted down the date and time so later she would know how long it took security to gather the data; it might prove interesting in and of itself.
“I'll have security get right on that. It should be done by the end of the week. Anything else you need?”
“Nothing immediate but if this turns out to be as much of a fiasco as it looks like it's going to be, I'm going to dip into petty cash here and plan a company BBQ. I landed pretty hard on all the supervisors when I got here and while I don't encourage the practice, I'm sure it all ran downhill from there.” In fact, she'd have laid money on it given the harried appearance of a couple of minor staff members she'd seen just the other day.
“You want to raise morale?” He seemed both pleased and surprised by the gesture.
“Let's just say I want to pay all the lower echelons back for the shit I threw on their bosses' shoulders.”
“Whatever you need; maybe it'll help.”
On impulse she threw one more curve ball at him. Partly to see if he was really paying attention and partly because it was also something she wanted. “Maybe it'll help if you put in an appearance, give the underlings a chance to get to know you and see that you're not the jackass they seem to think all VPs are.” And it also might go a long way towards dissuading the belief that they were all little more than greedy devils content to push around the masses while they accumulated the wealth and power, hiding in cushy offices while everyone else slaved down below.
This time he laughed. “I knew you had a plan somewhere. Let me know when and I'll clear the day.”
“Oh and Jerry? There's going to be a raffle and I want some decent prizes.”
Another chuckle. “Understood. Anything else you want to hit me over the head with before I hang up?”
She smiled and this time let an evil thought take over. “No, if I need to do that, I'll just have my mother call you.”
He sighed loudly and she could almost picture him shaking his finger at her. “You really know how to fight dirty.”
She snorted. “I just happen to know she scares you just as much as she scares me.”
He chuckled at the very idea that the tall forceful woman should be terrified of anything. “Damn you found my kryptonite.” His voice grew somber. “You can have whatever you want just keep that woman away from me. It should be against the laws of nature for something so small to be so damned intimidating.”
Luce laughed again continuing to torment him. “I'll tell her you said that; and then I'll tell her you can't wait to speak with her again.”
“You're an evil woman Luce. Why don't you focus your energy on finding the ringleaders of whatever's going on over there instead of torturing me with the idea of your mother on the warpath.”
“Fine, I'll keep those tidbits to myself. And I'll call you as soon as I finish firming things up here.”
He seemed pleased by that. “Sounds good.” Then he was gone.
As for Luce, she closed her phone slowly and with grim determination began digging her way through the sea of paperwork once more. It was going to be a long, dull week.
* * *
Marie appeared in the door of Kylie's office a questioning look on her face. “Well today's the day isn't it?”
She nodded smiling at the thought that shortly all the chaos would be over and done with. “I got the go ahead from Bob last night; the store is ready for stock. I was just going to call the moving company with the news this morning.”
Marie came in and sat down. “It's about damned time.”
She snorted loudly as she continued going through her e-mail. “You're telling me. I was getting ready to start climbing the walls.”
“Well I think you owe Bob a tip; you didn't lose near as much time as I thought you were going to. He must have busted his ass on this one.”
She nodded having already thought of that one herself. But she knew it would be a pointless gesture. “I think he did; and yes I'd planned on a huge tip as appreciation but the man's as stubborn as an old bear and he won't hear of taking it. So I'm going to send him a huge Christmas basket or something.”
“Sounds like a plan. What about inventory?”
“Already taken care of; I conned a bunch of people to come in tomorrow night.”
“Any news from Gavin about the results of his inventory?”
Kylie nodded. “Yeah, he says the numbers so far look good; no signs of a thief but it's still too early to tell for sure. He'd let me know as soon as he had finished going through the rest of them.”
“What about inventory at the other stores?”
Kylie thought a moment. “The end of this week I think; everyone else is on board to get it done. I've called and arranged for pizza and beer at the other stores. I need to do that for everyone here for tomorrow.” She picked up her phone and began dialing before looking at Marie questioningly. “Anyone squabbling about having to work it?”
This time Marie gave a loud unladylike snort. “Not after you announced the premium pay. They all clammed up.”
Kylie laughed. “Nice to know that money still rules the world.” She spoke that last just as her phone connected.
“No kidding.” Marie waited as Kylie arranged for the pizza and beer to be delivered the following night in order to placate the staff. When Kylie hung up, she looked at her boss expectantly. “Any thoughts on the grand opening?”
“It's funny that you should mention that; I was thinking that it might be nice to have a party.”
“A party?” Marie looked skeptical.
Kylie couldn't help but chuckle as her manager looked at her in disbelief. “Is there a myna bird in here? Yes a party; a grand opening gala. We can invite employees, their families, spouses, significant others, maybe even get the business neighborhood involved. We can have good food, some music and use all of that as an excuse to attract new customers.”
Marie thought about it for a moment and then nodded, seemingly pleased at the possibilities. “Actually that sounds pretty good to me. What do you need me to do to start this ball rolling?” She grabbed a notepad and pen ready to jot down Kylie's needs.
Kylie started ticking things off that had come to mind when she first thought of the idea. “First check with the city; we need to know if we need to get the paperwork rolling on a permit. And while you have them on the phone ask them if it would be easier to just shut down the street if we get enough people involved.” Marie nodded as Kylie continued.
“Then we can sit down and figure out what kind of food we want to serve and start contacting caterers. I'd also like to contact some of the businesses around the new location, let them know what we're up to and see if maybe they want to do something along with us, a tie in or something. Anything else you can think of that I haven't?”
Marie looked over the list, jotting a few additional things that Kylie hadn't mentioned. “A few things; we should contact a local band to play if we can. I know a couple.”
She nodded thinking of the wonderful music she'd heard just that weekend. “Look and see if you can get The NightGrass I heard them the other night and really liked them. Anything else you think of just throw on the list and take care of as you think of it. We can sit down and figure out when we want to do all this as soon as we know about the permit.”
Marie nodded, standing up to go start the ball rolling. “Good idea chief; I'll let you know what we're looking at in a few hours.”
* * *
The week drew to an end and it found Luce sitting in the exact same place as she had been at the beginning, with one marked difference: she was finally finished with the last department. And just as she expected she was still empty handed. Undaunted by this, she sent the last department head on their way, determined to begin digging deeper on her own at the beginning of the following week.
Her phone rang as she was filing the last of the reports and typing up her own summary on the last department. “Jerry, you have those reports for me?”
“Yeah I called to say I overnighted them yesterday, they should be there anytime. Anymore luck?”
She threw another folder on the stack to be filed, grimacing. “Not yet no.”
“Teeth still on edge?”
She sighed, leaning back in the chair as she shut her computer down. “Like I'm sitting in a dentist's chair about to get a root canal. I swear Jerry I'm so close to seeing it I can almost taste it. I'm missing something simple, I know I am.” She was irritated by her inability to find something, anything that would give her a clue as to just what was going on. Despite the expectation of the opposite, there should have been something by now.
Despite the seriousness of the topic, he chuckled at her annoyed tone. “It'll come to you; when you least expect it it'll hit you like a damn brick.”
She chuckled. “I'll make sure to wear a hardhat when I come in from now on.”
“Keep me posted.”
“I will.” She closed the phone without saying goodbye and decided that enough was enough for the day; if the security reports had arrived, she was going to scoop them up and head home. Maybe she could find a clue in them over the weekend.
She packed up her briefcase and stepped out of the boardroom to find Colleen. “Jerry said he had something sent to me; is it here?”
Colleen nodded, pulling out two heavy packets for her. “Right here sugah.”
Luce scooped them out and made a beeline for the elevator. “If anyone asks, I'm gone. I'll see you on Monday Colleen.”
The secretary waved as the doors opened. “Have a good one Luce.” She called as Luce stepped onto the elevator.
Then the doors shut and she was alone once more. She gave a huge sigh as she slid the packets into her briefcase and proceeded to make good her escape. She didn't breathe easy until she was getting in her car and heading down the street. The impulse to toss her cell phone out of the car as she sped away was almost too tempting. She managed to resist, however, and .settled for shutting it off for the time being.
* * *
She wanted to burn it all, simply set it on fire and watch it turn to ash in a huge blaze that would likely set off every smoke detector in the building seconds before the sprinklers came on dousing everything in sight and creating a nice chaotic mess. Maybe then she might feel some sort of peace come back over her; a bit of satisfaction that might somehow justify the insanity she was currently feeling.
Luce sighed heavily, pushing the daydream aside even as she shoved the stack of folders away from her before laying her head on the table. She'd been pouring over the security reports for most of the day and even part of the previous evening. And all she'd managed to discover so far was that a couple of the department heads really needed to get a handle on their personal lives. But beyond that, it seemed a dead end.
Not one of them had a drug habit, at least not one that involved anything heavier than the occasional joint. Most of them didn't even drink heavily from what she could gather; a couple of them were so pristine in that regard she doubted that they'd ever even used their kidneys in anything other than a rudimentary capacity. And despite all her hope, she hadn't even found any of them suffering from huge debt or gambling problems. They all had minor debt issues, credit cards, mortgages, college tuition for their kids but nothing that really screamed out at her as a big enough reason to risk criminal charges.
In all her experiences with supervisors over the years, this had to be the single most boring group of people she'd ever investigated. In fact, she was hard put to find anything that raised even a minor red flag. That in itself seemed to be tipping off some minor alarm bells in her head but she wasn't sure if that was because she thought someone was managing to cover their tracks or because it just all seemed too good to be true.
Her door buzzer went off and she gladly pushed away from the table to take care of it; it was probably the takeout she'd ordered earlier. Maybe burying her face in some Chinese and ribs would wash away her stress and worries. Or maybe it would just give her heartburn; either way, she figured she was in for another long night.
She finally found something rather odd late that night; an acquisition report that didn't look quite right and some of the peripheral paperwork looked rushed and slightly unfinished. At first glance, it looked like something someone had pushed through hurriedly, hoping to get approval and sale without anyone looking too closely at it. It made Luce wonder why.
But it was really late and her brain was fried. She needed a good night's sleep before tackling the next stage of this problem. She jotted down several things down that she needed to investigate further and firmly pushed everything aside to go crawl into bed. Her night was filled with the dream, an endless exciting ride that lasted the entire night, leaving her feeling drained and energized all at the same time.
Frustrated and seriously peeved, she rolled out of bed and went in search of breakfast. She found it in the form of a couple cherry poptarts. And once she popped them into the toaster, she grabbed her cell phone. Luce dialed Jerry's number surprised when he picked up on the first ring. “Wow, third time in a week, I didn't expect to hear from you again for awhile.”
“I finished going over those reports you sent me; I didn't find a damn thing in them that would make me suspicious about any of them. That in itself is setting off another case of hives.”
Jerry seemed to understand. “You want me to look again?”
“Yeah and this time, look deep; I want to know everything and I mean everything. If they so much as stole someone's lunch in the 1 st grade I want to know about it.”
“Got ya, I'll have security pull out all the stops but its going to take some time. Any luck anywhere else?”
“Yeah its why I called.” She sighed almost hating to admit it
. “I think I might have found something Jerry but I need some help. Otherwise you won't find out what's going on around here until after New Year's.”
If Jerry seemed at all surprised by his request, he didn't show it. “I can send in Carl.”
“I thought he was with his wife and the baby.” The poptarts jumped out of the toaster as the lever snapped up.
Jerry chuckled. “Well it seems he's kind of chomping at the bit to get back to work.”
“The baby keeping him up at night?” She broke off a small piece, blowing on it to cool it down before popping it in her mouth.
“No his mother-in-law.”
She chuckled. “Oh; well let's put the poor sap out of his misery then.” She stuck her head into her fridge, searching for some milk.
“I'll give him a call and ask him to meet you tomorrow morning, first thing.”
“Sounds good Jerry, thanks.” She closed the phone and turned her attention to devouring her sugar loaded breakfast before tackling the rest of her day.
* * *
Luce looked up as the boardroom door opened and in walked Carl. She stood to meet him as he came forward to shake her hand. “Hey Luce.”
She returned the handshake gladly; she was really fond of Carl and his entire family. “Hey Carl, congratulations on your little girl.”
“Thanks, we got your card.” He looked at the stacks of paperwork covering the boardroom table. “So what's going on here?”
Luce sighed sitting back down as she shook her head. “Nothing much just a real ball buster.” She reached over and grabbed a stack she'd set aside just for him. “I had Jerry run risk assessments on all the supervisors and their first assistants last week and I spent nearly the entire weekend going over them.”
He took a seat, grabbing the papers and beginning to scan the top page. “Find anything.”
She shook her head. “Not so much as an unpaid parking ticket with this bunch.”
He gave her a wry look. “Sounds a little convenient.”
She nodded. This was why she liked Carl; he always seemed to think people were up to something; truth was he was almost always right. “I thought so too so when I called Jerry yesterday I asked him to dig deeper. I don't know if anyone's hiding anything but I'd rather not take the chance.”
He nodded. “Anything else?”
She handed him the paper that had caught her attention last night and prompted the call to Jerry in the first place. “The other night I found some paperwork on one of our minor satellite companies that doesn't look right. I kept digging this morning and found at least two others that are rubbing me the wrong way.”
He added the paper to his stack. “And you need me to start doing back ground on them.”
“Yeah run everything and get back to me would you?”
He pulled a pen out and began making notes as he scanned the documents she'd handed him. “Sure thing.” Then he slipped quietly out the door while she turned her attention back to her computer.
* * *
Several hours later the stack on her right, which included all the companies she wanted to look at more closely, was much taller. She wasn't really sure if there was anything really wrong with any of the paperwork per se but it couldn't hurt to check them.
She didn't realize how late it was until Colleen stuck her head in the door to take her lunch order.
“Can Ah get ya anything for lunch sugah?”
Luce groaned as she pushed away from the table and began slowly rubbing her sore neck. “Its that time already?”
“Sure is.” She stepped further into the room and surveyed the vast sea of paperwork. “Everything all right in here Luce?”
Luce looked around nodding. “Yeah but I think I'm about to be a real pain in the ass today.”
She snorted loudly. “Honey you are many things but I don't think that pain in the ass is quite the description I'd use.”
Luce gave her a sweet smile as she began trying to reorganize things. “You might change your mind after today.”
Colleen simply shrugged. “What ya need honey?”
She paused a moment and then let the bomb drop as she made the request. “I want all the acquisition reports for the last year. Even if we turned around and immediately sold the company involved, I want the report.”
Colleen hesitated slightly giving her a wry look. “Is that all?” Despite her earlier assertion that Luce was anything but a pain, her voice dripped with sarcasm.
Luce shook her head. “No, I also want the due diligence reports on them too.”
She gave a high whistle. “Tall order there chief; we've been rather busy in the last year or so scooping up small companies to increase our own service base.”
Luce sighed. “I know, I know.” She watched as Colleen jotted down her request. “I guess it goes without saying that I need them as soon as you can get them.”
Colleen snickered as she headed back towards the door. “Honey you really know how to stir up a hornet's nest around here.”
That made Luce laugh. “My daddy always said you should stick with what you're good at.”
Colleen chuckled. “Sugah, you've more talent for that than anyone else I know.” Then she was gone.
Luce pushed back from the table and went to look out the window as she felt a sudden urge seize hold of her. Giving in, she dialed her cellphone and waited for her mother to answer.
Her mother picked up quickly. “Hello?”
“Hello Ina .” She stared out over the view of the skyline, smiling.
“To what do I owe the pleasure lighteyes?” There was a smile in her mother's voice.
“I'm taking you to dinner. What's your poison tonight?”
Her mother chuckled. “It would only be poison if you were cooking lighteyes.”
“Too true; so where to?” Luce couldn't argue with that logic; her inability to cook had been the stuff of family legend. Especially since Unchi had tried desperately for years to teach her even the basics to ensure her survival. She'd failed miserably leaving Luce to the glories of takeout.
“I've a hankering for red meat tonight.”
The request caught Luce a bit off guard; her mother didn't often eat red meat. But she wouldn't argue considering that was just what she'd been craving herself. And when her mother made a comment or two about the amount of calories and saturated fat she was consuming with her meal, she could gladly point out that the dinner choice had not been her responsibility. “Steak house?” There were a couple of nice ones that both of them would be comfortable with.
“That sounds wonderful.”
There was loud beep in Luce's ear, signaling another incoming call. “ Let me call you back, I'm getting another call.”
Her mother simply chuckled. “Goodbye lighteyes.”
Annoyed at the interruption, she barked into the phone as she switched lines. “Luce Donovan.”
There was a slight pause from the other end, then Kylie's voice floated over the connection, teasing her. “Well aren't you just so pleasant on the phone today. What's wrong, your boss won't let you play with the other kids?”
Despite herself, Luce chuckled. “No, point of fact he's begging me too but most of them are kind of snotty, so.”
“I take it you're having a bad day.”
“Not really, just a hectic one, how bout you?” She sat back down just as Colleen poked her head into the door again with a fresh cup of coffee. She looked at her, raising her eyebrow a bit in question and Luce waved the woman in, repressing an urge to kiss her at the gesture. Luce mouthed a thank you to Colleen as she set the cup down and then turned back towards the door.
Kylie continued rattling on in her ear unmindful of the coffee drama going on at the moment. “Nothing beyond the usual. There was minor issue that involved the police earlier today in one of my other stores. Some of the customers that have come in today seemed bound and determined to just be plain nasty and it made some of the staff cry. But beyond that it's been quiet. Did I mention that I'm trying to navigate the red tape of city permits under a rather tight timeline?”
Luce chuckled. “You call all that usual?” She took a sip of coffee, her eyes closing in bliss as the caffeine raced into her system.
Kylie sighed. “For me it seems to be; I tend to attract trouble.”
“Hence the police.”
“No that was more a stroke of luck than anything. We finally caught the thief we've been searching for. Red handed too; Gavin handed him off to the police this morning.”
Surprise made Luce pause. “Thief?”
“Yeah I had someone stealing books by the case. Figured it was an inside job but it was really hard to track it down. One of my managers walked in on them this morning as they were trying to slide a box of Laurell K Hamilton's latest out the back door.”
“Well at least they had good taste.”
“Well at ten bucks a pop, they were making a fortune on the side. Bastard.” There was real vehemence in her voice as if she were envisioning the thieves dancing in hell with Lucifer himself.
Luce found herself chuckling as the image of Kylie waving a pitchfork complete with horns and forked tail suddenly popped into her head. “Don't hold back Kylie, tell me how you really feel.”
She chuckled despite herself and sighed. “I had a very good and pleasant reason for calling you, I swear.”
“Then I'm all ears.” Luce set her cup down and reached for another piece of paper from the seemingly endless stack.
“Are you busy this weekend?”
Luce shrugged. “Probably not, what did you have in mind?”
“Well Molly's throwing a BBQ at her house with all the bells and whistles and enough meat to make a cow want to enter witness protection. Want to come?”
The invitation took Luce back a bit; normally when she was invited to a family type function she more often than not bowed out. She just wasn't comfortable with them. But Luce liked Molly and Keith, a lot and the kids had actually been fun. Besides she liked hanging around Kylie and she found herself having the urge to see just where the other woman got her sense of humor.
“I think I can manage it.” Then her mother popped into her mind and Luce found herself speaking before she could think on it. “Can I bring a guest?”
“Sure, can I ask who?”
“My mother; she loves family gatherings but hasn't been to one in awhile.” She continued going through the papers quickly, her discard pile finally growing taller than the pile that needed to be looked into further.
Kylie snorted. “As long as she doesn't mind some chaos and shouting, she's most welcome.”
Luce actually laughed out loud at that one. “Are you kidding this woman raised me; if she can't handle chaos and shouting by now it's hopeless.”
“Great, I'll call or email tomorrow with the details.”
Luce circled something savagely on one of the papers and threw it into the investigate pile with a mild look of disgust. She was beginning to wonder if the problem the audit team had stumbled on had been the result of inept bungling rather than criminal enterprise. “Sounds good. Do I need to bring anything?”
“Would you mind bringing some vegetables? In a plastic bag from the butcher?” There was a touch of desperation in her voice.
Luce chuckled as she grabbed the next sheet. “Have to disguise them to get them in the house?”
“You have no idea. If it were up to the boys, we'd eaten nothing but meat and potatoes and be dead of scurvy in a week.”
“Can do then. We'll see you on Saturday.” Then she hung up and turned her full attention back to the chaos spread out before her.
* * *
Luce finally called it quits a couple of hours later. She simply couldn't focus any longer; especially since she'd forgotten to eat lunch. But with Carl's help they were starting to make some headway and before the day was out, he'd managed to cut her investigation pile in half. Pleased by the progress and with her head filled to bursting with numbers, she headed home to grab a snack and call her mother about dinner.
She was surprised to find her mother already waiting in her condo when she got home. In fact the older woman opened the door for Luce, waving her in and handing her something cool to drink.
“I keep forgetting I gave you keys.” Luce threw her briefcase onto the counter and kissed her mother on the cheek before taking a huge sip of the iced tea her mother had handed her.
Her mother sat on a stool at the counter watching her child guzzle the iced tea as if she were three days into dying of thirst. “When you did not call I assumed that you were too busy; so I thought it might be nice to surprise you with something cool to drink when you came home.”
Luce nodded as she finished drinking, touched. It was a habit her mother had from when her father was alive, meeting him at the door every day without fail, iced drink in hand. Even on the day he failed to come home because of the accident that killed him.
Luce went to the fridge and filled her glass a second time, surprised at how thirsty she was. “Yeah I got caught up in paperwork again. I don't think I want to read another cost analysis report again as long as I live; I'm seeing decimal points everywhere I look.” She brought the filled glass back to the counter and sat down next to her mother.
Her mother chuckled. “That actually sounds painful.”
“Only when I squint too hard.” Luce finished her second glass of tea. “Are you hungry?” Her mother shrugged. “Well, why don't I go change and then we can decide if we want to go now or later.” She stood up and walked towards her bedroom. “I'd tell you to make yourself at home but you probably already did.” She threw over her shoulder as she walked away.
Her mother chuckled again. “Of course I did.”
“But you didn't find my stash did you.” Luce shouted from the bedroom as she dragged off her business sheik and threw on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans.
There was a soft sigh. “No. I must admit, you've hidden it well lighteyes.” She sounded extremely disappointed.
For the past several years, nearly as long as Luce had lived on her own, the two of them had shared a game between them. On one end, Luce was bound and determined to eat what she wanted even if it wasn't very good for her. On the other end was her mother just as bound and determined to insure her child ate well. So Luce did her best to hide the junkfood she craved even in her own home while her mother did her best to seek it out and destroy it. Over the years Luce had quite adept at hiding her stash; or at least she liked to think so as she hadn't lost one in quite a while. Though sometimes she wondered if her mother was finding them and letting them go or if she actually wasn't able to find them.
Luce laughed as she finished dressing and came back into the room. She ran her fingers through her long dark hair and threw herself onto her sofa while her mother walked into the room. “So what have you been up to lately?”
“I finally finished looking over Unchi's notes about dreams. It took me awhile because she wrote in a mixture of English and Lakota and her writing was very hard to read.”
Luce paused, lost for a moment. “And?”
Her mother shrugged. “Well lighteyes she had no simple answer on this. Sometimes recurring dreams are warnings from the spirits to the dreamer. Sometimes they are simply our way of making sense of something that's bothering us. And sometimes they make no sense whatsoever.”
Luce nodded having expected that. “Even Freud said sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
“Exactly. I am sorry I could not be more helpful. Perhaps if you told me about the dream I might understand better.”
Luce thought for a moment, still hesitant to share it with anyone for some reason. For some reason the dream struck her as something truly personal, almost as if there were something of herself within it. And she did not like to expose personal aspects of herself often, not even to her mother. She sighed, annoyed with herself and started to tell her mother about the dream.
It took her several minutes to get through what at first seemed like a simple repetitive dream. But once she started talking, she felt compelled to talk about what she was feeling at nearly every moment of the dream. Throughout her tale, her mother sat quietly, absorbing the information as she listened to her daughter speak.
When Luce finished her mother seemed thoughtful for a moment more before she spoke. “That is a very strange dream lighteyes.”
Luce snorted. “Tell me about it.” She reached up to rub her neck; the telling seemed to have drained her a bit.
“Have you ever thought it might be a past life intruding on this one?”
“You mean like reincarnation?” Her mother nodded. “Not really no; I mean who the hell could I have been to be wearing enough armor to make even a medieval knight think twice.”
Her mother chuckled. “There are many paths that the soul travels; perhaps this is one of them.”
Luce mulled this over and then shook her head, still unable to believe in the idea. “I don't know; I can't imagine it.”
“You have no sense of fantasy or disbelief in you; how unlike me.” They chuckled. “You said this dream began a few weeks ago, is that right?” Luce nodded. “It must be slowly driving you mad.”
Luce chuckled. “You'd think that but not yet; give me another week.” Her mother nodded and Luce felt compelled to change the subject. “Hey before I forget, I got a call from Kylie today.”
“The young bookkeeper?”
Luce chuckled, gently correcting her. “She runs a bookstore Ina . Anyway, she called to invite us to a family picnic type thing this weekend. Would you like to go with me?”
Her mother's eyes lit up. “That would be wonderful lighteyes; I would love to attend.”
“Great the weekend's settled, that just leaves today. Dinner now or later?”
* * *
Saturday dawned bright and sunny and found Luce and Kylie running across the yard behind Molly's house, narrowly avoiding the hot grill and swing set, both searching desperately for cover. They saw the bush at the same time and without thought dove behind it.
“Damn they've got us pinned.” Kylie peeked around the bush, trying to expose as little of herself as possible in case anyone decided to take a pot shot at her head.
Luce grinned wickedly, checking the water level in her gun. “This is fun; I'm glad you talked me in to it.”
Kylie snorted as she sat back down behind the bush. The two of them were all that was left of their team, everyone else had been taken out nearly twenty minutes ago. Granted the rest of the team had been made up of her nieces and nephews; against Connor, Keith and Peter they stood little chance even with the boys going easy on them.
Somehow though, they were having fun even if they were even now pinned behind a bush near the garage. The water fight was a grand beginning to this family get together. Of course she was really hoping that she wouldn't end up soaking wet at the end of the mess; so far her options were looking rather bleak.
Connor called out across the lawn, impatient for the opportunity to torture his sister. “All right Spastic Shrimp and Long Legs Mcgee.”
Luce looked at Kylie, a wry grin on her face. “I assume Long Legs Mcgee is me but Spastic Shrimp?”
Kylie snorted. “Connor's got a twisted sense of humor; he's been calling me that since I was 5.”
Connor continued talking. “We've got ya surrounded. Come along quietly and no one'll get hurt.”
“You will however probably drown.” Keith piped up from his side of the bush. There was a low murmur from them as they continued talking amongst themselves.
Luce gave Kylie a strange look. “He calls that unharmed?”
“Apparently.” Kylie checked her weapon before turning to regard her friend. “So what do you think?”
The taller woman snorted. “I think it's an ambush.”
Kylie chuckled. “That goes without saying. Any ideas?”
She nodded firmly. “I say we go down spraying.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Kylie got on her knees, her hands searching under the bush. “Which is why we're gonna cheat.”
Luce looked on puzzled. “Cheat?”
Kylie stopped her searching and turned to ponder Luce closely. “Please tell me you're not one of those bleeding hearts who thinks we should play fair.”
This time Luce laughed out loud. “Hardly. Fair is where you find rednecks and carnies. I'm just curious how exactly you plan on pulling it off.”
Kylie laughed even as she finally found what she was looking for. She smiled, her eyes alight with glee as she pulled out a dark canvas bag, setting it between them. “With these.” She watched as Luce reached into the bag and pulled out a balloon. “Careful, don't pop them. I spent most of last night filling them and if you think filling a rubber balloon with Vaseline is easy, think again.” She looked into the bag, inspecting each one to be sure none of them had popped.
Luce looked at the balloon with a mixture of sudden disgust and horror, holding it away from her as if afraid it might suddenly pop and cover her in whatever nastiness they had been filled with. “You filled these with Vaseline?”
She shook her head. “Not all of them. Some have shampoo, conditioner, lotion, cooking oil, save one of those for Peter, shaving gel, whatever I had on hand.”
Luce started laughing as she imagined just how the boys were apt to react Kylie's devious surprise. “Won't this piss them off?”
She shrugged. “Probably but I owe the bastards after they super glued my patio furniture together.”
Luce paused for several moments, picturing that one in her mind. Then she shook it off. “Somehow I don't think I want to know.”
“Come on you pansies, sometime today!” Connor called out, clearly annoyed and getting impatient.
“Hold your shorts Dances With Fish Breath.” She looked at Luce a serious and somber expression on her face. “His Indian name given to him when he was a kid and they were serving fish sticks in the cafeteria.”
Luce chuckled. “So what's the plan?”
She shrugged. “Beats the hell out of me, I filled the damn balloons. I figured we'd just stand up screaming and throwing.”
“Sounds good but I've got a better idea. We need a diversion.”
“How bout the dog?”
“The dog.” She didn't appear convinced.
Luce nodded. “Yeah.” Kylie still looked skeptical and Luce threw up her hands. “Oh come on, it'll work.”
“Look I don't want to look skeptical but I just don't share your vision.”
“Look behind you; what's two feet away from us?” She watched as Kylie caught sight of just what was behind them on the side of the garage; then putting that with the dog, she watched as it suddenly dawned on her. “See?”
Kylie nodded, suddenly excited. “Yeah, where's the damn dog.”
The diversion was perfect; none of the boys even had a clue what they were up to. Not even when they whistled loudly for the dog. By the time they had any idea what was coming, it was too late; Kylie and Luce sprang the trap.
Giving a loud screaming cry, they chased the dog from behind the bush and he made right for the boys, the running water hose sticking out of his collar, turned on full blast. That caused a huge panic as the three adult men tried to corner the dog and get the hose out of its collar without getting too wet.
While they were distracted, Luce and Kylie stood up, throwing balloons wildly and screaming at the top of their lungs. In no time complete chaos had descended on the fight and the boys were soaking wet and covered in all kinds of gooey, soapy materials. Not to be outdone, they made for Kylie intending to tackle her and get her as nasty as she'd made them. But Kylie managed to stay just out of reach. The noise the group made was loud, childish and utterly chaotic and it attracted quite a bit of attention.
A sudden stern shout pierced the melee and brought everyone to a standstill. “Kylie Madeline Rogers! You causing trouble?”
Kylie lifted her head from the bag and caught sight of her favorite relative. “Uncle Tom!” She gave a childish squeal and made a beeline for him, jumping up and giving him a bear hug even as she began giggling. “No not me, the boys just tried ganging up on me; it didn't work.”
He hugged her back just as fiercely before setting her on her feet. “I can see that.” He surveyed the damage done to the boys and chuckled ruefully. “You boys might want to rinse off before heading inside unless you want Molly and Steve skinning you all alive.” They all said hi and made for the house as ordered.
Kylie watched them go and then gave her Uncle's hand a tug. “Come meet my friend Luce.”
He followed along easily enough. “Ah, this is Luce.” He held out his hand.
Luce smiled, shaking it. “And that makes you Tom. Glad we got that cleared up.”
He laughed. “Molly was singing your praises but she never said you were quick on the draw.”
“And Kylie never mentioned you were a flirt.”
He laughed again and reached out to grab her in a firm hug, surprising Kylie. “Damn it's good to see you again Luce. How the hell are you?”
Luce smiled as she pulled back. “Not bad, how's the wife?”
He nodded his head in the direction of the house. “Inside tormenting my niece. He'll piss his pants when he sees you.”
“He'll really piss ‘em when he sees I brought mom.”
Kylie looked at both of them, the truth taking forever to work through her mind. “Wait a minute.”
Tom kept talking right over his niece. “Your mom's here?” He seemed pleasantly surprised.
Kylie held up her hands, her sharp words finally catching their attention. “Just hold on here a sec.”
Her Uncle chuckled. “Wow Kylie watch the blood pressure.”
“Yeah don't pop an artery or something.”
She looked at them both, surprise and annoyance written all over her face. “You two know each other?” They nodded. “How in the hell did that happen?”
“Luce used to volunteer with the local gay and lesbian chapter nearly every weekend. She's been friends with Steve for years.”
Luce nodded. “When you mentioned your uncle you didn't tell me his last name and I assumed it was Rogers. It never occurred to me it could be the same guy.” She reached out and looped her arm through Tom's and began walking back to the house, Kylie trailing slowly in her wake. “Come on let's see if Steve found mom yet.”
There was a sudden piercing scream of joy from the vicinity of the house making them all smile. Tom chuckled. “Does that answer your question?”
* * *
A couple of hours later, with the boys cleaned up and the food cooking away on the grill everyone was sitting around drinking and socializing while the kids ran around like small demons. Luce herself was on the edge of the group quietly observing everyone. She watched her mother talking with Tom and Steve, both men overjoyed to see her.
Then her eyes were drawn to Kylie, distracted by her friend's sudden burst of laughter. She sat there for several moments watching Kylie laugh, the joyous sound making her smile softly. Kylie turned and that brilliant smile hit Luce full force and she felt the strength sucked out of her as it touched something deep down inside. She sat there, a strange bewildered expression on her face as her brain simply started shutting down.
Left without a coherent thought in her head, all she could do was try to figure out what in the world had just happened. She stared at Kylie for several moments, her heart pounding in her ears, the sound of her own blood racing through her body and for a moment she wondered if the other woman had any idea at all how beautiful she was.
Without thought, she found herself happily stepping into a vivid daydream of walking up to Kylie and taking her small hand in her own, squeezing it lightly to get her attention before she reached up to stroke the other woman's cheek, feeling the soft sigh that left Kylie's lips before she leaned in to see for herself just how soft those lips were.
She pulled out of the daydream with a sudden jerk, feeling her heart pound and her breath heave as she turned away from Kylie's smiling face. Kylie thankfully remained unaware of what had just happened and continued her conversation with Keith. Luce reached up to brush her hair out of her face and found her mother just suddenly there, next to her.
Her mother looked at her with concern in her eyes. “Are you alright lighteyes?”
She nodded, knowing it for a lie but unwilling to tell her mother what had just happened. “Yes Ina just a bit too much sun I think.”
Her mother looked at her for several seconds, her intense brown eyes piercing her, searching for the lie while Luce held her breath. But after a moment, she simply nodded. “Perhaps you should move to the shade then my bright one.”
Luce nodded. “Yeah I think I should.” She grabbed her glass to do just that, hoping that maybe what she felt had been a fluke and that after a moment or two of reflection it would fade away as if it never happened.
Her mother still hesitated. “If you're sure.” Luce nodded.
Then Tom called for her mother. “Grace, Steve brought something back you've got to see.”
Her mother gave a nod and then reached out to pat Luce gently before turning to leave. Luce watched her go feeling an urge to call her back and confess what had just happened. For a moment she felt like a small child troubled by a strange dream and needing some reassurance that all was right in the world. That what she was feeling was ok, normal and nothing to be frightened of; but that would mean explaining exactly what she was feeling. And Luce simply wasn't ready to acknowledge that she was fiercely attracted to Kylie; not to herself, and certainly not to anyone else.
To be continued...
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