When We Met

by b soiree



Chapter 10

see all disclaimers in Chapter 1


“Shorty?” Nyri snapped the clasp on her Rolex before slipping her everyday diver’s watch into her desk.  The petite, fashionable blonde didn’t appear to be an ex-FBI agent or a technical specialist for that matter, yet she was both.  Born to a NW family of old wealth, power and influence, the Parisian style she wore now was no less foreign to her than her customary, casual western wear.  Her narrow shoulders tensed under the shoulder pads of her chic jacket.  Tension settled in her neck.  How long had they waited for this?

“Shadow!” the young college girl’s voice bubbled from the other end of the line, “Just the person I was getting ready to call.”

“You have a problem?”  Nyri hesitated, feeling her stress escalate.   Her small hand went to the back of her sore neck and rubbed, “Or were you just going to check in.”

“No problem.”

“Good,” Nyri relaxed then wiggled her feet free of her heels piloting them under her chair to quickly slip on again.  She hated the tortuous things, much preferring her worn old cowboy boots.  A sigh.  If she didn’t hurry, she’d be late for the Mayor’s luncheon.  But first this all important heads-up call. 

“Shorty,” she said with controlled excitement,  “this is it!  We just got word that our perp is headed toward Spokane on a work run.  Chances are he’ll stop at your cafe, probably early afternoon.”

“Today’s the day, eh?” the girl said with surprising smugness.

“We hope.”  Nyri shifted the receiver off the large diamond stud in  her ear.  The detective she’d hired had still not been able to secure Ruby’s rapist’s prints.  And the DEA faction that had his company under surveillance had informed Nyri at the get-go that any information they had on this guy was classified.  But she’d known even then exactly what they had on the man...nothing. 

Though formally retired from the Bureau and starting her own business, the fact that she’d worked for the FBI was imbedded firmly in the DEA’s minds.  Jurisdictional power struggles between the two groups were legendary.  Nonetheless, she was working to get better cooperation from them, disregarding their penchant for making sharing a one-way street.  She could find out most of what they knew no matter what they volunteered, but she preferred their full cooperation. 

Prints—positive identification...this was where Shorty’s help would be crucial.  And cautious as their perp was, chances were he wouldn’t be so guarded with his fingerprints around a cafe he was used to frequenting.  Still, he was naturally suspicious and exceptionally dangerous, and Shorty needed to be careful.

”Just out of curiosity,”  the girl’s voice brought Nyri from her reverie, “how do you know where he’s headed?  Do you have a full team on him?”  Somehow I thought I was going to be your main source on this guy, the girl thought peevishly.

“Does it matter?” Nyri asked in surprise.  She could hear Shorty’s disappointment.  Of course, the girl would want to brag to her father, Nyri’s ex-Bureau partner Ned, about being Nyri’s main source on a case.  Nyri grinned.  Had she ever been that young and ambitious?  “You’re not the only agent, my friend, but let’s just say we aren’t running a full team either.”  Lonnie and Ruby can’t afford anywhere close to a full team.

“So—you have this guy’s car bugged, that’s it, isn’t it?”

Nyri had to smile.  “No.  Let me remind you—I’m not with the Bureau any more, remember?  Besides, there’s no point.  He changes cars for each run and I suspect he steals cars to commit his rapes.  Listen, I’ve gotta hurry or I’ll be late for a luncheon, and you’d better get going too.  We’ve waited too long to miss him now.  I wanted to give you a head’s up.....” 

“C’mon, Shadow, like not being in the Bureau would stop you from having a tracer or a bug or two planted, if you needed to,” the girl scoffed.  “And my Dad says electronically there’s no one that can match you.  You and your computers are notorious.  So, have you pulled up most of our perp’s life history already?”

Nyri scowled.  Difficult cases often took more time than people suspected, but she’d rarely had one this stubborn.  Getting this guy’s true identity was proving far more arduous than it should. “Matter of fact, no,” she grumbled.  “I’m running a few leads.  Nothing solid yet.  He has a driver’s license and utility applications in Idaho under the name of one Curtis Orville McNabbney born in St. Louis, Missouri.  He even has an actual recorded birth certificate in that name on that date and in that place.”

“So that’s who he is then?”

“No.  I’ve also unearthed a fairly well hidden death certificate for the same McNabbney.  It’s a bogus identity scheme.  It might be one the people from the motorcycle shop provided him with.  They’re much more competent than I first gave them credit for.  Or it could be an identity he scoped out on his own.  In any case, McNabbney’s just one of many AKAs he uses.”

“Jeez.  So he’s got ‘Also Known As’ names up the kazoo, huh?  He’s sure slippery.”

“And dangerous, don’t forget,” Nyri reminded. “He’s gotta be handled with extreme caution.”

“I understand,” the girl replied seriously.  “What about his friends that you were checking out?  Anything new there?”

Nyri had been checking into two friends of his she’d discovered had hung around the motorcycle shop for a time.   Both friends had since moved on to Texas.  She presumed drug use had been a factor in their friendship even though Ruby’s rapist was a nonuser himself.  He did appear to be a good supplier to his pals.  

“Yes, there’s things breaking there.  On their way to Texas the two ran afoul of the law.  Surprise, surprise.  Burglary, assault, drug possession-that kind of thing.  Got themselves arrested.  Then one was shivved in a jailhouse dispute.  Bled out before they could save him.  So that lead’s now down to one, though not entirely.”

“My gosh, how horrible.”

“Yeah.  But I have their true identities.  I’m hoping to find a Texas connection between all three, something that would lead to our perp’s real identity.  We’ve gotten little from his picture—he has no scars, identifying marks or tattoos to help identify him.”

“What about eigen databases for facial features?” Shorty mused.

“Been there.  Done that.  Multiple eigen vectors—shoot, I’ve done text searches, biometric facial recognition searches and put his face through every database out there.  No match.  So watch for oddities-moles, limps, that kind of thing, but be extremely covert about it.  He’s squirrely.  No question this guy’s served time.”

“I’d think being in trouble with the law would make it easy to identify him.  Gosh,” the girl mused, “Isn’t law enforcement supposed to be a simple click of a computer these days?  That’s what it’s like on tv.”

Nyri laughed.  “Ever hear of fragmentation?  Follow the money, my friend.  The police with the funding get the equipment to be like tv cops.  Their info is there to share.  The ones that don’t, and there’s more of them out there than you’d think, are still working cave man style from hand written card files...HANDwritten cards in a file!   In this day and age!  And those places aren’t getting their information INTO the pertinent computer databases, much less out of them.  So they’re not a resource.  And, of course, there’s always the problem of databases being for individual areas only, not built to mesh nationwide.” 

The girl laughed.  “Not that that would keep you out.  So do you think this guy’s aware the DEA’s watching him?”

Nyri searched with one foot for a shoe and slipped it on.  She checked her watch.  It was getting late.  “If he is, I’d say he’s not terribly concerned.  Course he’d know they aren’t watching HIM per se.  Their interest is major drug trafficking, not rape. I’d guess he feels home free as far as rape charges are concerned. And according to the DEA, this guy’s nothing but background noise in their drug investigation.  A mule at best.”  That was certainly the impression the DEA head man gave me, once he decided to be a little cooperative.

“Doesn’t the DEA know who he really is?”

“Naw.  They have him down as Curtis Orville McNabbney.”  I already checked all their files. 

“You’d think they could get his fingerprints somehow.”

“They could.  Heck, they could have him arrested for a simple traffic violation if they wanted.  Fingerprint him.  Let him go.  But I’d guess they don’t want to tip their hand.  They’ve got enough trouble trying to figure who all might be on this group’s payroll.  This shop’s been operating without interference of any kind since it started, though it’s always been of a highly suspicious nature.  It’s like some protection system has been in place.”

“Protection system...like what?”

“When a criminal group greases enough wheels, which this group has apparently been doing, you look for narco-corruption. That could range from cops on the take to DAs or judges, even Mayors or congressmen. No telling how high it could go.”  The DEA’s pretty sure Big Jim, his uncle the congressman, and his brother are involved in this gang’s little protection set up.

“This group is that powerful?  I thought they were small time.”

“So did I at first, but I’ve dug up connections to the Colombian cocaine distribution branch run by Alvarez, and, believe me, those are powerful, extremely brutal allies.  I passed on my findings to the DEA, making them instantly more cooperative.”

“So they’re cooperating now?”

Nyri snorted, “Well, that’s a bit of a stretch but, yeah, more than they were.  They knew about the Colombians, but didn’t have all my information.  Oh, before I forget, Shorty, this guy has taken to wearing driving gloves much of the time.  You might need to think of something to get them off him in the coffee shop.”  This was new since Ruby had said he hadn’t worn gloves when he came into the shop when she worked there.

“Gloves shouldn’t be a problem,” Shorty assured.

“Don’t get him suspicious.”  Nyri warned. “Better safe than..”

“I’m always careful.”  Shorty’s voice rose, “You know, Nyri, if this guy’s charged with delivering drugs on top of rape, he should go to jail for a long, long time.  When will the DEA move on them, do you think?”

Nyri snorted, “No time soon, I’m quite sure.  I’ve heard they’re having a little trouble with their delivery theories.  Seems the DEA was able to get their hands on one of the shop’s delivery cars.  Took that vehicle apart down to its base then reassembled it and got it back to its original place supposedly undetected.  No sign of drugs.  Not a dust bunny.  Nada.  Nothing.  It has ’em flummoxed. The head of the team’s tearing his hair.”

“So, how do you think they’re making deliveries?  Or are they?”

“Oh, they are.  But I don’t think they’re flying drugs around by private plane under the radar, which is the DEA’s current theory.  I still think it’s by car.  I think that car was a plant.  I’d be very much afraid one of the quote ’good guys’ tipped the shop off so that they were ready.  But then, that’s just my take on it.  It’s not my case to work.”

“So, what about other rapes this guy might have committed?  You were checking into that.”

Nyri frowned.  “I’m developing a program to run nationwide to ferret out all situations with his modus operandi and potential modus operandi.  No telling how many states he’s been in.  From what I’ve found so far, just in Washington and Idaho he’s been a busy boy.  Course the majority aren’t reported, but I’ve spoken to detectives working on rape cases near universities and colleges.  So far there’s at least eight with similar m.o.’s and three where the victims have positively identified him from our picture.”

“It only takes one to catch him and put him away, hopefully for a good long time.  That’s good news.”

“We hope.”

“You don’t think you can put him away a long time?”

“That’s my plan.  But unfortunately there’s little evidence. We can’t yet prove what he’s doing is serial rape.”

“But...three new cases...couldn’t something be done right away?”

“In all three the local D.A.s aren’t willing to go to court with the evidence they have.  They claim there’s not enough to get a conviction—that it would end up being “he said, she said.”  The women weren’t attacked in their homes.  They willingly went out with him, then remember nothing.  He doesn’t even have a criminal record we can prove at this point.  Course, that’ll change when we get his prints.”  Personally I’m thinking this guy’s going to have to be caught in the act to make any conviction stick.  And we might never know his true identity if Shorty doesn’t get back to the cafe!  “So, time to get on the job, kiddo, and get those prints, if you can.”

Shorty’s voice became excited, “What about DNA?”

“What about it?”

“Shouldn’t I look for DNA from him if I can get it?  Didn’t you once say DNA evidence was going to turn cases upside down?  What if I can get it?”

“Whoa, Nellie,” Nyri chuckled.  “Keep on track here.  Stick with fingerprints.  That’s enough.  They’re what I need most right now.  DNA is frosting.  Let’s go for the cake first and foremost.”

“But DNA could be useful?”

“There’s a multitude of ways to use DNA, sure.  But right now, Shorty, I’d be delighted to simply have this guy’s prints.

“Then Shadow, my friend, you’re going to be one happy camper.”

Nyri sat up straight.  Her voice became hushed, “What do you mean?  What’s happened?”

“He’s already been at the cafe while I was there this morning,” the girl confessed apprehensively.

“He was there already?  You got his prints?”

Relieved that Nyri wasn’t angry at her for withholding the news till now, Shorty’s voice quickened, “Yes, ma’am, and it’s better than you might think.  He came waltzing into the cafe this morning, flirty as could be.  He didn’t act at all suspicious or nervous.”

“His happy hunting grounds.  Nearly all the workers are female students,” Nyri said woodenly, still trying to wrap her mind around the fact that he had already made an appearance.

Shorty laughed, “All but Jerry in the back slinging hash.”

“Even so, I’ll bet he checked all the cars before he went inside to make sure no one was watching.”

“He didn’t have to.  There was someone with him who waited in the car.  A muscular guy, tall, dark eyes, long, dark hair pulled back into a pony tail.  South American style, maybe.  I went into the kitchen after our perp left and peeked out at the parking lot.  I stayed to the side so I couldn’t be seen.  Our guy wasn’t alone.”

I wonder if that guy’s in our new set of pictures, Nyri considered.  "Which car?”

“A big old black Lincoln.” 

Oh yeah, the big car.  “I’ll bet the two of them had scoped the parking lot out carefully,” Nyri said.  The DEA said they weren’t wasting resources tailing the drivers.  “Was your car out there, Shorty?”

“No.  Eddie’s been picking me up and dropping me off at work.”

“Good.  Very good.  And our boy wasn’t wearing gloves?”

“He had ’em on when he came in.  He was flirting with Donna, sat at the counter in her station, but the girls and I had already talked about how married guys liked to wear gloves in the winter, so she said, “You big flirts always have a wedding band under those gloves.  That’s why you wear ’em, to let the girls think you’re free when you aren’t.  We’re on to you, dude.”  He peeled them off to prove her wrong.”

A held breath escaped.  “That was fortunate,” Nyri said.  “Though I suspect that’s one place he’s comfortable without them.”

“I suppose.  In any case, he was chewing gum, and he left it in his saucer along with what I’m sure are good prints on the cup and saucer.  I took over Donna’s station like we’d agreed, and I had him lift the cup to wipe his place when I cleaned up the one next to his.”  Then Shorty added proudly, “So, with the gum there’s even a chance at that DNA stuff you’re always talking about.”

“He left his gum?  I can’t believe he was careless enough to leave anything.”  Nyri shook her head and mused,  “Wonder how familiar he is with DNA?”

“EVERYBODY’s been inundated with all the O.J. hoopla, Shadow!  And he WAS reaching to take his gum with him, maybe even wipe his prints from the cup, who knows?  Except he stopped when the football player next to him who was watching that little tv the cafe has on the shelf said, “Hey, isn’t that the girl that used to work here?”

What?  Nyri’s ears perked up at that sentence.  “What girl?”

“I’m not positive, but this creep nearly dropped his eyeballs,” Shorty continued.  “He shot up off the stool, then got all strutty and answered confidential like to the football player, putting his hand up to cover his words, but I heard him.  He said, “Yeah.  She was givin’ it away, that little bitch.”  Then he nudged the guy and says, “See the kid?  Sure bet...it’s mine.  I got the knack—real powerful little swimmers, if ya catch my drift.  And I plant ’em high, hard and often.  Filled that little whore to overflowing.”

Nyri grimaced.

“Creepy, huh?  He kept looking around to make sure the girls wouldn’t hear him.  I ignored both of ’em, never made eye contact, pretended I couldn’t hear,” Shorty snorted, “He really had the football player snowed.  The dope was all impressed and says something like, “Damn.  You did her?  I suppose you travelin’ guys have a different woman at every stop?”

And the creep answers, “Sure.  Girls find me irresistible.  Course, whores like her”....then he stared at the tv before he added, “Sometimes they pretend we don’t exist.  But she’ll find out...fathers have legal say about their spawn.  And he laughed.”

“That’s what he said...fathers have legal say?” Nyri asked.

“Yep.  Then the football player says he thought he’d heard something about the girl being free and easy, but he wasn’t sure he believed it.  He said she didn’t seem the type. 

The creep answers, “Believe it, pal.”  Then he adjusts himself and says,  “She was hot, that little whore!  Couldn’t get enough, if you know what I mean.  Just like I like ’em.  I’m a ballin’ machine.  But she kept beggin for more.  Smilin’, sleepy and satisfied, that’s how I leave my women.  You can pass the word, if you want.  You ever see her, don’t take no for an answer.  She’ll give you a red hot time!  Unless she denies it, you know, to appear decent.  But don’t believe any of that kinda crap about her.  She’s a whore, plain and simple.  I got other guys that’ll confirm it.”

Course he does, Nyri grit her teeth.  ‘He said, she said’ campaign.  His word backed up by his manure-spreading pals.

Shorty scoffed, “What a creep!  They outta whack his off.”

“Crimony.”  Nyri blew out a quick breath.  He is one brazen rapist!  Doesn’t fear being caught or maybe he’s sure of no conviction if he is. Well, we’ll see about that.  But more importantly, what’s this about father’s rights?  “Exactly what program was on tv?”

“I knew you’d ask, so I checked.  Some community program, but Jerry says the tv dial doesn’t work right any more.  It’s a real old set.  It was an Idaho school’s marching band in San Francisco.  The kids were trekking across the Golden Gate bridge.  Actually, that was when I whipped his cup with the gum in the saucer away and put it on the shelf below the counter and wiped his place quickly.  So, was it our client, do you think?”

“Don’t know.  Describe what you saw on the screen.”

“Heck, I missed the woman they were talking about.  By the time I moved the cup and looked up, I just saw a bunch of high school kids grabbing hats from each other and goofing around.  Oh, and some pretty, dark haired woman, tall, and a shorter man with a young boy, but no baby.  I had to get the two cups of coffee to go that he’d ordered when he came in, so I had to quit watching.”

“Hmm.  You don’t know the channel for sure?”  I need that tape.

“No.  Want me to try and check further?  Place a few calls..?”

“Yes, very discreet calls.  I need that tape.  By the way, good job, Shorty!  Did he suspect you at any time?” 

“No.  He wasn’t that interested in me.  He liked Donna better.  Tried to get her to go out with him.  Then he asked me, but I said I was engaged.  Sooo, Eddie and I thought we’d drive the evidence to you right away.  Chain of custody and all that.”

“No, this is private.  I’ll send a courier.  Don’t skip your late classes.  Wait till she gets there, and sign it over to her.  Give her the information you’ve discovered about that tv channel, too.”

“Okay, boss.” 

“And keep an eye out for our perp.  If he or the fellow with him show up anywhere there again, contact me immediately.  He seems to leave anyone with a close male attachment alone, but you never know.  Play it safe.  Especially when Eddie isn’t around.  Be very alert.”

“I’m not helpless, Nyri.  I’m better at karate than Eddie is.”

“That’s not how this guy works.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  He slips drugs into their drinks.  I know what he’s capable of, and I know how he lures his victims.”

“I’m not sure anyone really knows what all this creep’s capable of.  I understand he’s tried contacting some of his victims, once even going so far as to send a note with some skuzzy guys on motorcycles asking for another “date.”  Scared the poor girl witless.  So be careful.  Listen, I’m going to fax you our latest photographs.  See if you can pick out the other fellow in the car, will you?”

“Sure thing.  That all?”

“Yeah, except—you can brag to Ned about what a good job I said you did.  But nothing else.  Remember your privacy clause.” 

“I know what I signed.  My lips are sealed, but I will tell my Dad you gave me credit for a job well done.  He’ll be impressed.”

“And so he should be.  Okay, see ya later, kiddo,”  Nyri hung up and slipped on her other shoe.  “Temple,” she called, grabbing her purse.  “Get a local courier to Shorty immediately to pick up evidence.  I think we can finally nail down this sonuvagun.”

“Really?  Shorty came through?”

“Yeah.  Fax her a copy of our latest photos.  Oh, and find out which Idaho school marching band went to San Francisco recently.  Call their school’s studio and get a copy of the tv tape of them walking across the Golden Gate Bridge.  Our courier can confirm the channel with Shorty.  Have her bring the tape back with the evidence.  Then call the lab.  We need fingerprints checked and warn them that we have DNA coming in, too.”

“DNA testing takes months,” Temple warned.  “They’re really backed up.  Especially now that it’s becoming popular.  Everybody wants their results asap.”

“I know.  But the fingerprints should give us what we need posthaste.”  We’ll have him nailed down today.  Finally!  Then she added, “And find out exactly what time we got the information that our perp was headed toward Spokane.”

“I told you just after Rocky’s call came in,” Temple stated.  “Something wrong?”

“Only that our perp’d already been and gone.  And he wasn’t traveling alone.  We have to have more lead time than that, unless there’s some kind of a problem.  Check on it, will you?”  Nyri straightened her jacket.  “This guy was at the cafe awfully early.  I wonder why he’s off his usual routine?” 

Nyri considered, If indeed that was Ruby on tv, he had to know she was in San Francisco at the moment.  Would he drop everything to locate her?  He’d want to.  How free was he to dump the shop’s business?  Or did he have gang connections in the bay area to help him out till he could get there?  Nyri’s eyes lifted to Temple, “I’ve gotta know where our perp’s headed.  What can you do?”

“Nothing right away, Nyri.  He tossed his cell phone last week.  I can send someone to drive by the last places on his known route to watch for him, but Rocky should know where he is, once I make contact again.  Are you worried about his trailing our client?”

“Yes.  Send someone past the last places.  Have them look for the black Lincoln. Then let me know when Rocky calls.  I want this creep tracked closely while our clients are in the bay area.”

Distracted by a letter on her desk, Nyri tore the envelope open.  “My uncle’s house on Whidbey Island in Washington,” she sighed.  Tears filled her eyes.  How I miss him.  Property’s ready to be signed over to me or my company.  Should I sell it or keep it—so many good memories?  Might need it for business, I suppose.  She made a quick note to call her attorney.

“Rocky’s been on top of things till now,” Temple said startling her.

Focusing back on him, she replied, “Yeah, he has.”  She stopped and chewed momentarily on the side of her index finger.  “Rocky’s surprised me, staying on the job, working for a reasonable rate, getting in tight with this group, staying undercover notwithstanding considerable risk to himself.  Maybe there was a good reason for him to hold back on this last call.”

“I think he’s discovered how crooked Big Jim and all that crowd over in Big Foot really are, even the cops.  ’Specially the cops.  They’re involved in this somehow.  I’m sure he sees you were in the right in that sour deal that went down a year or so back.” Temple paused, “You know, Rocky did sound rushed when he called.  And he was talking real low..almost whispering.”

Nyri’s mouth fixed into a thin line.  “Then tread lightly.  Signal that you want him to make contact as soon as he can.  I’ve gotta know exactly where our perp is.”  Crimony! As if Lonnie and Ruby haven’t faced enough from this jerk already!  She scowled.  “And if Rocky’s in eminent danger, we may need to pull him out pronto.”

Temple stared at his boss for a minute.  Their gruff undercover detective was their most important source.  “Think it’s that serious?”

“I hope not.  I sincerely hope not.”


Lonnie got out of the car and looked up at what was ahead.  All six floors of the sleek glass building shone before her in the warm California morning sun.  At the entrance an officially dressed entrance guard checked her name on a list and gave her a pass. 

“Top floor, Conference Room A,” the man said.  “Elevator’s over there.”  Behind him a small courtyard highlighted a sculptured cement fountain that spewed geysers heavenward before falling back into the stylish container.  Humidity’s higher here, Lonnie noticed as she walked by.  Jungle-like plants crept around the fountain, softening its sharp angles.  On the far edge a bank of elevators formed a barrier delineating the serious office area. 

“On my way,” Lonnie breathed, stepping into an elevator.  Getting to the sixth floor, she walked the deeply carpeted hallway along the paneled walls to Conference Room A.  She heard the sounds of muffled voices inside.  Drawing a deep breath, closing her eyes briefly to regather herself, she gripped her briefcase firmly then pushed through the door.

“Here she is, today’s guest of honor,” a stately man with silver touches near his temples stood at the head of the table.  His smile was warm, his tanned, slab-sided features smoothly shaved, his steady eyes sizing up another entrant to this, his kingdom.  He was wearing what looked to Lonnie like casual country club golf attire.  Out the floor-to-ceiling windows the whole of the valley expanded like a glorious land advertisement.  Lonnie wished Ruby and the baby were there to see it with her. 

Lonnie smiled and glanced quickly around the room, startled to see someone familiar.  Smiling back was Angelina Osborn, her company’s latest hired sales rep.  Nice to see a friendly face, but what’s she doing here? Lonnie wondered.

The man introduced himself as Randal Hilway, CEO.  He shook Lonnie’s hand with a sure grip then took her around the table, making individual introductions as they went, including the other two featured guests, one of whom, the heavier man with shoes that shone like mirrors, sat arrogantly eyeing Lonnie from head to toe. 

When they got to Angelina, the CEO said, “I believe you know Mrs. Osborn.  She’s been giving us a little of your background.  Very impressive.  We’ve saved a seat next to her for you.  Help yourself to the small breakfast buffet at the back, then we’ll get down to business.”

Lonnie thanked him and deposited her briefcase beside her chair.  Angelina jumped up and took Lonnie by the elbow, her warm hand not moving from its spot till they got to the small buffet at the back of the room.  Lonnie recognized the subtle scent of Angelina’s premium perfume she’d had occasion to inhale at work once before.

“Coffee?” Angelina asked. 

“Please,” Lonnie muttered.  The tall brunette took a clear glass plate and looked at the many offerings.  Her eyes wandered back to the place at the oval table where the other two guests were seated. “Do you know either of those two guests?” Lonnie asked.

“The tall, quiet, thin man with the big adam’s apple is from some small, up and coming firm in Ohio.  I don’t know anything about him.  But the heavy slick looking guy in the expensive suit, he’s one of the founders of the Quintessential Printing Works of Chicago. Our branch office there hates him.  Very aggressive man.  He knows his stuff all right, and he’s ruthless.  He’s not at all opposed to doing whatever it takes to further his company’s bottom line.  Actually they’re known for stepping on the competition’s toes.  They’ve made it an art.   Oh, try the apple brioche quiche or the croissants, they’re delicious.”

Lonnie raised a brow.  This woman didn’t look like she ever ate anything as fattening as a croissant.  “What are you doing here, by the way?” Lonnie whispered as she filled her plate with delicious looking offerings.

“I’m here for the Printing Trade Show in Oakland,” Angelina smiled. And I knew you’d be here. “I thought you might enjoy seeing a familiar face since I had to be in the area anyway.  I’ll have to leave midmorning.  Probably at the second break before lunch.”  She glanced back at the table, “I know some of these guys.  The top hounds, Randal and his circle, try their best to look casual, but they live the good life, believe me. His salary is easily in the seven figure range and his bonuses are legendary.”

Lonnie gave the man a perfunctory glance.  Gods!  Seven figures!  What must that be like?  Even if it is the nineties, seven figures!

Angelina’s smile had grown genuine and wide.  “It’s great to see you, Lonnie.  Hope you had a good trip here.”

“Yeah, it was a wonderful trip,”  Lonnie smiled in return. 

“Good.  Here’s your coffee.  Just the way you like it.”

Lonnie glanced at the steaming cup of hot, black coffee exactly like she liked it.  “Thanks.”  Then she added confidentially, “I’ll be glad to get this over with, to tell you the truth.”

“You probably can’t wait to get out sightseeing.  I can’t blame you, the weather is so beautiful.  What hotel are you staying at?  Maybe I can show you around while you’re here.” 

Lonnie reached for the tongs and put a croissant on top of her filled plate.  “Oh, uh, I’m not at a hotel.  My sister and her family live near here.”

“You’re staying with your sister then?”  Angelina commented.  Then her eyes widened at the amount of food on Lonnie’s plate.  How did she keep so slim?  “Here, I’ll carry your coffee for you.  You’ve got your hands full.” 

They headed back to the table where the others were quietly chatting with their neighbors and eating.  “Don’t tell me you’re nervous,” Angelina softly nudged Lonnie’s arm as they walked, “Not the second in command at our fair establishment back home.”  She gave Lonnie a thorough once over, “You look ravishing.”  Good enough to eat in every sense of the word.

“Thanks.  I’ve got to admit, I was pretty nervous at first,” Lonnie acknowledged.  “Still am a little bit, I guess,” she admitted.

“Well, there’s no need to worry, I’ll watch out for you.”

Lonnie glanced at her in surprise, “Uh, oh, uh, thanks.”

“By the way, I meant to ask you.”  Angelina put Lonnie’s coffee on the table and pulled out her own chair to sit.  “Who’s the darling baby girl you have pictures of all over your desk—a new niece? cousin?”

Lonnie’s face lit up and she smiled proudly, “No, that’s my daughter, Bethy.  She’s named for my mother...oh, and me, too.  Elizabeth’s my middle name.”

“Your daughter?”  Angelina’s blue eyes blinked rapidly then went immediately to Lonnie’s figure.  Had she heard wrong?  Was her gaydar off?  No, Lonnie was gay, but this woman had not borne a baby anytime close to this point.  “When was she born?”

“Early December—before Christmas.  I’m hoping to adopt her before the year’s out,” Lonnie replied.

“Oh, adoption.  Of course.”  Angelina gazed thoughtfully at the tall brunette.  She’d heard about the visit at work from Lonnie’s discarded “sex kitten”.  It had happened not that long ago and had everyone atwitter for a time.   Had this tall beauty decided to raise a child alone?  Some women did that.  The redhead wasn’t sure how she felt about it.  Women with children tended to be more trouble than they were worth to her mind.  Still, Lonnie was one hunk of a gorgeous woman.

She glanced at Lonnie’s left hand.  She wore a simple band, but then so did Angelina, for all that meant—a very short marriage to a very ex-husband in her case.  And for Lonnie raising a child, to give the appearance of being married with a ring would make it easier overall.

Lonnie immediately started eating.  The man next to her asked her a question.  Lonnie began answering and felt a warm hand slide over the hand she’d kept in her lap.  Then an unexpected heated breath was moving by her ear, “Randal’s starting the meeting,” Angelina whispered.

An involuntary shiver ran down Lonnie’s back.  “Thanks.”  She centered her attention on the man at the head of the table who had picked up a fork and was tapping it on his water glass.  She was nervous enough that she didn’t pay attention to the warm hand that had stayed over her own.

“Relax, you’ll do great,” the striking woman next to her whispered.  The attractive redhead gently squeezed before she carefully removed her professionally manicured hand.

The head man remained standing and smiled politely.  “I speak for everyone here when I bid you all welcome.  I expect we will be discovering many things these next three days that will help us better develop our software to meet your companies’ needs.  Today we’d like to feature Ms. Lonnie Shaeker from Portland, Oregon.  Mrs. Osborn was telling us that you’re second in command at your printing shop.”  He smiled politely at Lonnie. 

At her request everyone called Angelina “Miz” Osborn at the Portland office.  It surprised Lonnie to hear “Mrs.”  She didn’t know anything about Angelina being a “Mrs.”.  But she returned the man’s smile.  “Yes, I’m in management now, that’s correct.” 

“I have to confess,” he rubbed a hand across his brow, “that confuses me a little.”  He lifted a paper off the table before him.  “On paper, your organization is one of many branch offices throughout the country, yours being one of the larger branches.  You employ more workers for the size of your site than any of the rest.”

“Yes, that’s also right,” Lonnie smiled.  “Well, the LA office is quite a bit larger.  It’s our central office.  But it isn’t just printing.”

“And you’re the executive second from the top at your branch?  Did I get that right?”

“That’s correct.”

“So do only the top executives use our new computer software?”

“Uh, no.  Benny, he’s the head man, he doesn’t work with it, uh, much.”  It scares the begeebers out of him, actually.  “He’s usually too busy directing the entire business.  I use it, and three other technicians are trained to do the setups.  We also have some assistants on our floor.  They’re pretty much all in training.  Our other areas deal with printing, shipping, bookkeeping, payroll, that kind of thing,”  she glanced at Angelina, “oh, and we have the sales staff, of course, of which Angelina, uh, Ms., uh Mrs. Osborn, is now a part.”

“So it’s the head technicians that use our software?”  Randal looked at the others, who were quietly watching Lonnie.  Then his eyes came back to her, “You understand, we’re trying to assemble a profile of who it is actually using our software.”

“I see.  Well, yes, it’s the head technicians.  The assistants use it, too, but only with supervision.”

“And you’re a technician as well as the executive second?”

“I was a technician first....well, yes, I am.”

“I hope you’ll excuse me for being so bold,” Randal stated, “but you’re what, in your mid-twenties?  Might I ask how a person so young got into such a high position in such a short time?  Did you come to the job with a college degree?”

“No.  But that isn’t a bad way to go.  I worked my way up after a couple years in college.  It was really like coming right out of high school, since I worked part time at the printing shop while I was in college.  They didn’t offer majors in printing, so my college major had little to do with my job.  I discovered that I loved the printing business, so I quit school and went to work full time.  Of course, I’ve taken technical classes as I’ve gone along.”

“So you didn’t graduate from college?”


“But you’ve been to technical training school?  Am I understanding this correctly?” 

“Yes.  I’ve taken some technical training classes, nothing full time  or anything.  Just classes that I needed as I went along.  Benny always okayed them.”

“I see.  So what about the other technicians in your shop?  What training have they had, if I may ask?  Are they college graduates?  Do they take classes or is it mostly on-the-job training?”

“Actually, a little of all of the above.  I pretty much supervise them and provide training, too.  Of course they also take the classes your organization has provided.  One of our men has a college degree, but like me, he was not a technical student.  He was an English major.  I’d say most of our technicians get the bulk of their training on the job.”

“On the job,” the guest from Chicago snorted derisively.  He’d been moving restlessly in his chair as she talked.  Now his deep voice dripped disdain.  People around him shifted in embarrassment at his rudeness.  “Trained by nothing but a...a ’girl’ who didn’t finish college and with no technical training degree who claims to be second in command,”  he glowered.  What kind of print shop do you guys run anyway?”

“A very fine one,” Lonnie responded immediately.  “If you check the stats, you’ll see our shop has the best production rate of comparable print shops anywhere, bar none.” 

Randal held up a finger to stop them.  He had no desire to have a turf war or a pissing contest in the middle of his conference.

“Unlikely...west coast maybe, but I doubt it,” the man from Chicago replied haughtily.  “Certainly not in the midwest.  We hold the honors there.  And your branch in our town doesn’t do squat diddly.”

Lonnie felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up.  Her eyes spit fire,  “The Portland branch and comparable shops—check it out. BAR... NONE,” she replied distinctly. Who is this guy anyway?

Randal was taken aback.  It was clear the man from Chicago was used to being rude and aggressive and the tall beauty from Oregon was not going to back down.  “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s return to our profile, if we might,” he summoned in his polite but demanding boardroom voice.  

“Heavens, Randal,” Angelina piped up. “Ms. Shaeker’s young, yes, but she IS second in command.  Hers is a unique management style, and from what I’ve heard, it’s very effective.  In fact, around the shop she’s known as The Problem Solver.  A potent position in a business with endless problems, eh?  She made eye contact quickly around the table, receiving nods of agreement in return.

“Why, Lonnie here handles everything from the ultra technical like she’s here to talk to you folks about, to the mechanical, to the mundane and everything in-between, and most of it done with a dose of humor,” Angelina continued.  “So, don’t be put off, folks,” she shot a warning look directly at the man from Chicago, then tempered it with a warm smile that caught him by surprise, “by her age or what you consider her expertise-or lack thereof.  Take my word...she’s plenty qualified.”

Randal’s grave eyes grew, “Angelina, I’m sure no one meant to imply that Ms. Shaeker is not qualified...” he began. 

The man from Chicago snorted.

Angelina ignored the annoyance,  “Lonnie’s young and smart, Randal, and she knows the business.  That’s why she’s here and why she’s your lead-off.  She has very much earned her position of second in command at our printing company.” 

“Of course, of course,” Randal agreed.

Angelina knew the kind of things that impressed Randal, and it wasn’t a rude, cutthroat style ala the man from Chicago.  She watched the head man cast a disapproving look at the offending guest.  Lonnie was far more likely to get Randal’s nod of approval.  It never hurt in this business to have contacts that liked and trusted you. 

The redhead chuckled, “Okay, I wasn’t going to do this, but I want you to hear one of her off-the-wall escapades, Randal—it’s just the kind of thing you’d enjoy.  Besides, we could all use a little levity about now.  I just heard about this myself.  It started with severe tension at work.  Tell them about the flying pigs, Lonnie,” she encouraged, her eyes alight with amusement.  “It’s a short story.  Go ahead, tell them.”

Lonnie had felt her teeth clench and her cheeks redden when Angelina jumped so suddenly to her defense as though Lonnie wasn’t even in the room.  There was no need.  They’d know soon enough whether or not she knew her business.  And she’d defend their shop any day against anything the man from Chicago might suggest.  Stupid jerk!  Now the tall brunette found her mouth was open.  She snapped it shut.  She did not like being dragged into telling a story she had no desire to tell, particularly in front of the man from Chicago. 

“I heard this story directly from the guys on the printing floor,” Angelina said confidentially, making friendly eye contact with every person around the table.  More agreeable nods met her amused glance.  She was working the room, a lodestar of her career.  Even the man from Chicago had given her his reluctant attention, disarmed as he was by her almost flirty smile. 

Oh gods, please not the flying pig thing, Lonnie moaned within.  The super saleslady from their office was selling this stupid story. 

“Those guys were de-lighted,” Angelina continued.  “It’s become something of a legend.  Go ahead, tell them, Lonnie.”  She beamed at the woman next to her.  “Stand up, stand up,” she encouraged softly.

Randal slowly sat, his attention on Lonnie, who rose reluctantly.

“The flying pigs thing—it was extremely silly,” Lonnie objected, keeping her voice calm and steady, “but surprisingly it worked.”

“Exactly my point,” Angelina remarked smugly.

Well,” Lonnie hesitated, “our head man, Benny...he’s a really nice guy...but he can have a pretty intimidating manner when he’s pressed.”

“Which is 99.9 percent of the time,” Angelina added with a grin, drawing out wide smiles in like from most at the table.

Lonnie cleared her throat.  “Yes, well, we had a situation early last year.  We had changed out one of our printing machines, didn’t have all the bugs in the new one worked out completely, when a series of particularly unique projects hit us.  The new projects were on a shortened time frame and were throwing a monkey wrench into the rest of our work.  Nearly every floor had to find a way to do things a little differently to get past the bubble.  But the printing floor had dug in their heels.  They decided with everything else happening, the new limits simply couldn’t be met.  We were getting a lot of pressure from LA and Benny was fit to be tied.”

Lonnie looked around.  She had everyone’s rapt attention, including the scowling man from Chicago.  High pressure situations were something they all understood.  Angelina was grinning.  Lonnie licked her lips, “Benny ragged them pretty heavily, but they kept replying that this time he was really asking the impossible, this time it flat out could NOT be done—not with everything else going on.  Their favorite reply became “it’ll happen when pigs fly.”  Every floor felt the tension.”

Angelina sat smiling and nodding.

“So,” a smile tweaked Lonnie’s lips, “I went out that night and got some piggy balloons.  I taped on paper wings, then I hung them from the ceiling on the printing floor—just sort of as a reminder that we all had to keep looking for every possible means to get these little piggies airborne or Benny’d have our butts.”

“Wait a minute.  You’re one of the BIG bosses, right?” the man from Chicago interrupted.  “Second in command!  Shouldn’t YOU have their butts?  I’d have fired the whole lot of them.”

“No,” Lonnie cast him a glance.  “It wasn’t that they weren’t already working to capacity.  They were, especially with the printing machine acting up.  This really was an unusual situation for us, not like our usual rush jobs where they’re used to me pushing them.  This took solutions over and above the usual—unique solutions everybody had to support.  Benny was doing plenty of pushing on his own, believe me.” 

“So what happened?” the man next to her asked.

“Well, you know, at first the folks on the printing floor laughed when they saw the “flying” pigs.  Then one of the guys from the mail room suggested they bring in an airgun and start shooting the pigs down.  But the printing floor got real possessive of their piggies.  They even named them.  And they were not going to have THEIR piggies messed with.  The flying pigs were there and they were going to stay there.  Which meant they had to have a reason to be there, which got them thinking.  Finally they called a meeting and tossed around some ideas till at last they found a temporary scheduling solution that turned out to be workable.”

“It solved the problem?” someone asked.

“It did.  Then somebody hung a sign on one of the balloons that said, “We make piggies fly to market,” and another put up a sign that said “Official Printer’s Flying Pickled Pig Fleet.”

Randal beamed.  It was wacky but it was his kind of story.

Lonnie smiled outright, “It wasn’t that the piggies made the impossible possible, it just made the trying easier, gave them a chance to look at outside-the-box solutions.  They came up with a can-do attitude instead of just grumbling about what couldn’t be done.  And you know, they left those piggies up until they began to deflate on their own.  Then they finally took them down.  But to this day they’re sometimes called the ’when pigs fly floor.”

Everybody chuckled except the man from Chicago.

“Best be careful, folks,” Angelina added with a coquettish grin.  “This little...uh, well, actually she’s not so ‘little’, is she folks?”  She chuckled and everyone joined her, “Anyway, Lonnie here could teach your companies a thing or two, even if she is young.”

“That’s why we’ve brought her here,” Randal exclaimed, pleased.  “We need her ideas.  So give us your general impression, if you would please Ms. Shaeker, of our software.  What would you like to see it provide you?”

“Well,” Lonnie said thoughtfully, “your setup program in your software features four basic components that can be engineered to some degree, one against the other, for instance, to allow print to be maneuvered around pictures and across center pages.  Resizing is one of those factors.  But as it stands, it’s too limited.”

“Too limited?” Randal asked, looking at one of his technicians.  “It follows standard printing dimensions.”  The technician nodded.

“Yes,” Lonnie replied, “but you need more choices, features that allow most of the different printing exigencies to be attacked.  Too often they’re not standard, I’m afraid.”

“That’s an unfeasible dream,” the technician muttered.

“Oh,” Lonnie grinned, “You mean it’ll happen when pigs fly?”

Everyone laughed.  “What I mean,” Lonnie continued, “is that the factors need to be adjustable to the work being done.  Instead of adding properties we don’t really need to the next edition, couldn’t you split all four basic components down even more to allow more freedom?  Isn’t that possible?”

Randal looked questioningly at his head technician.

“Perhaps,” the stiff-faced, unsmiling man exclaimed, “but it’s not as easy as you might think.” 

Lonnie nodded.  “Ah, well, EASY—that’s a different problem, isn’t it?  Nothing ever is as easy as it looks on paper.  But isn’t it possible?”

“Obviously,” the head technician replied.  “I expect we’ll know more after we talk about how YOU managed to do it.”

“And we’ll delve into that in our next session,” Randal preened.  “In the meantime, any less technical questions for our guest?”

Several people asked run of the mill questions.  Then one man raised a finger, “How long has your company been using our XTZR4 software?”

Lonnie thought for a minute.  “It hasn’t been out that long.  I’d say we’ve only had the new software, the 4, maybe four months, maybe less.  But we used the XTZR3 before that.  So it’s been less difficult for everyone to learn the basics.  Course, it’s the specifics that’ve given us trouble.  And, the one thing everyone knows is, you have to have a firm grasp of math to employ any of it.” 

“That’s very true,” Randal agreed, rising again to his feet, letting Lonnie sit, which she did gratefully.  “I guess that moves us into our technological questions,” he continued.  “To that end, I’ll be turning this over to our technical staff.”  He smiled pleasantly.  “We’ll have one more break after this one.  Following the last morning session we have a special luncheon planned next door.  This afternoon we’ll move to the machines and have Ms. Shaeker give us a hands-on demonstration.  Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, let’s take a minute to refresh our coffee, shall we?”

The room instantly became noisy.  Lonnie was deluged by people asking her questions from each side. 

Angelina sat back and looked at the tall brunette.  One more session and she had to leave.  She had no doubt that Lonnie’s hands-on performance would wipe the smugness right off the face of the man from Chicago.  This kid knew her business. 

“Stay put,” Angelina said as she rose from her chair.  Her hand came to rest on Lonnie’s shoulder and her lips floated near the brunette’s ear, “I’ll get you a coffee refill.  Want anything else?”

“No, thanks,” Lonnie smiled, turning back to the software training supervisor.  “Exactly what I was telling Bennie at work,” Lonnie said.  “Oh, and to answer your question,” she faced another person, “I found the piggy balloons at a party goods store in town.” 

Lonnie’s eye caught the bulky figure of the man from Chicago rushing to catch Angelina as she made her way to the coffee urn.  Uh-oh.  Now what does that big oaf want with Angelina? the brunette pondered. He’d better not be giving her any trouble!


“Stop fidgeting,” Simone whispered.  Her eyes returned to the Mayor, who was in mid-speech.

Nyri scowled at the woman with whom she shared nearly every public event.  Though much to Simone’s chagrin, they didn’t live together, nor had they ever, nor had they been intimate in years, still, they were always seen around town and written about in the local society columns as a couple.  All their friends considered them an item.  While alive her uncle had even tacitly approved of Simone and her family, though his appraisals had never been verbal and could only have been surmised.  Still, Nyri had known.

Yet over the years the women’s situation had evolved into nothing more than mere convenience.  It was Nyri who had begun voicing hesitation about a friendship being treated as so much more than it was. She’d made her uncertainties as clear as she could to Simone, who ignored any mention of the subject.

Confronted with the command, Nyri resisted squirming.  She smiled a reassuring glance at the questioning look from the City Council Member beside her, and placed her attention on the woman at the podium.  But her mind was focused on Ruby’s rapist.  What’s the word on you?  How extensive is the evil you’ve committed?  Who all did you have in on the rape?  And what’s your next move?  She could hardly wait to pull up his background information.  Finally!  

She considered the two friends of his she’d been investigating.  Actually there’d been three, one who’d left much earlier.  It was said the first fellow took off for Florida, but no one could swear to his actual whereabouts.  She wondered what kind of trouble the Florida-bound man was getting into.  Anyone attached to that shop seemed to be perpetually on the wrong side of the law.

There were others at the shop that were current acquaintances of Ruby’s rapist, maybe even friends.  All of them used bogus names, however, which made them hard to check out.  And the others would be harder to get to without his knowledge. 

Once their perp’s two pals in Texas were fingerprinted, Nyri had no trouble getting their real names—Johnson “Buddy” Drendal and Robert E. Lee Stevenaire, also known as “Dink.”

Her thought had been that if the three had been prior friends, even grown up together, she’d have a good start on finding their perp’s true identity.  Though she had not a whit of evidence that Ruby’s rapist had ever set foot in the Lone Star state.  

And those two boys had been anything but lucky, especially young Dink, who was iced by a shiv in a lunch room rumble not more than three weeks after sentencing, bleeding out before they could get him help.  That left one friend in a Texas prison as a resource, and one possibly in Florida, location unknown. 

She’d planned to send a qualified agent to interview the friends, hoping to wrangle information until she heard of Dink’s demise and had to satisfy herself with planning just to have “Buddy” Drendal interviewed.  A wide smile curved her lips.  But now she had the perp’s fingerprints, AND his DNA.  Her hands all but itched to get to work.  She wiggled her fingers.  Yes, she already had at least one paw on this buzzard’s proverbial chicken coop.

“What are you smiling at?” Simone grumbled behind her hand.  “The Mayor’s talking about all the families that are uninsured.  Little children without insurance!  For heaven’s sake, Nyri, people have to do something about this.  It’s not a smiling matter.”

“Uh, right.”  Nyri’s smile vanished and a frown replaced it.  Even so she couldn’t help wondering how much Temple had found out so far.  What kind of record do you have? How many of your rapes are out there that I haven’t found yet?  Was our client your first? I sincerely doubt it.  You seem intent on causing your victims all the grief you can.  What all should we expect from you?


The second part of the morning was spent discussing the technological side of their profession and Lonnie’s situation in particular.  The last morning break arrived before the brunette knew it.  She had no idea where the time had gone. “We’ll take a short break to refill our coffee, then we need to get back to this fascinating discussion,” Randal announced.  “I don’t want us to run out of time before lunch.” People instantly rose to refill their cups.

Angelina grabbed her purse.  “I have to go.  It’s a ways to Oakland.  You’ve got them eating out of your hand, Lonnie.  I told you you’d do well.  Even the fellow from the Quintessential Printing Works of Chicago is enthralled.” 

“You have to go already?”  Lonnie asked.  She’d been so busy with the discussion that she’d totally forgotten the woman beside her.

“Yes.  Listen, here’s my card.  I wrote where I’m staying and my cell phone number.  Give me a call.  I’d love to show you some of the city.  San Francisco’s one of my favorite places in all the world.  We’d have a lot of fun.  I’m tied up tonight,” with a dashing young lady who’ll be at the trade show, “but we could paint the town tomorrow night.”

“Uh,” Lonnie looked at the card.  Maybe she and Ruby could meet with Angelina the next evening.  They could leave the baby with Tina and John, if that was possible.  She’d have to talk to Ruby about it.  “The baby...I’ll have to check..,” she started.

Angelina looked at her for a long moment.  Right, a baby.  She’d forgotten.  Oh well, she could work past that.  In fact, maybe dealing with Lonnie’s family was the way to this tall beauty’s heart.  She just might be worth the extra effort. 

“All right, Lonnie, I’ll tell you what—why don’t we meet tomorrow night, say seven thirty at the top of the Mark in San Francisco?  Bring your family.  I’d love to meet them,” and win them over on your behalf.  Then you and I will be free the next night while your sister watches your kid.  Maybe I’ll convince you to spend the whole night with me.  Now THAT prospect would certainly be worth any time spent with your family.  She raised a brow, “And in case you’re wondering, it’s your treat.  You’re the one with the big expense account.”  She tapped a finger on the envelope Lonnie had been given.  “Expenses,” she whispered, “Betcha.”

“From Randal?” Lonnie glanced at the envelope.  She hadn’t had time to open it yet.

The redhead laughed, “From this company, yes.  What they’re getting from you is information they’d need to pay far more to get otherwise.  I’m sure it’s generous.  Randal always is.” 

Lonnie was glad she’d packed her dressy jacket.  She stared at the envelope.  The Mark Hopkins—isn’t that a real expensive place?  I doubt there’s enough here to cover all the family, but maybe Tina and John will baby-sit and Ruby and I... She looked at Angelina’s expectant face.  “Uh, all right, I’m sure it’s all right, but I’ll check with Ruby to be sure.” 

Must be her sister. “Do that and get back to me.”

“Let me give you my cell number,” Lonnie smiled, “Just in case.” 

Quickly Angelina wrote it down then stood to put on her coat, which was draped on the back of her chair.  Lonnie stood to help. 

“Say,” Lonnie asked, her lips close to Angelina’s ear, “What did that jerk from Chicago want with you during the first break?  I thought he was going to bowl everyone over getting to you.” 

Angelina didn’t reply.  Lonnie directed Angelina’s arms into the coat sleeves and adjusted the stylish garment up onto the smaller redhead’s shoulders before letting go.  Finally the saleslady spoke reluctantly, “Funny you should ask.”  Having made a decision, Angelina continued, “That ‘jerk from Chicago’ as you called him, did a very strange thing, actually.”  She swept her hair from inside the coat to fall over her collar.  She turned to face Lonnie, a serious look giving way to one of smugness.

“What kind of strange thing?” the tall brunette asked, completely puzzled.  What could this man have done?  “He didn’t seem very pleased with anything about our company!  I hope he didn’t offend you.  If he did, I’ll go have a word with him.”

“No,” Angelina laughed, amused by Lonnie’s sense of chivalry, “quite the contrary.”  She paused.  “He...offered me a job.”

“A job?!”  Lonnie stood speechless, staring at the redheaded beauty.  He’d offered her a job?  She had a job.

“Yes.  In sales, of course.  He offered to double my base salary and he offered even more promising terms on my commissions.  He told me what a “hot” city Chicago is, ripe for sales.  He promised the sky’s the limit.”

Lonnie was temporarily dumbstruck before she came to.  “Gosh, Angelina, I hope you’re not thinking of taking him up on this offer.  I’d say check him out real thoroughly before you even give it any thought.  Look how ready he was to fire a whole floor of workers just because they didn’t respond as he would have wanted.  Promise me you’ll check.  After all, he doesn’t seem to be the most upstanding of characters.”

“Because he offered me more than I’m getting now?” she replied, instantly offended.  “Maybe he thinks I’m worth more.”

“No, no, I didn’t mean that at all,” Lonnie hastily replied.  “Believe me, you’re worth more than a lot, Angelina.  You’re the best we’ve got.  The very best.  It’s just... check how he treats his people, please.  Meanwhile, let me talk to Benny about a raise for you, uh, a counteroffer.  Gosh, we’d hate to lose you, Angelina.”

The redhead was pleased by Lonnie’s reply, but...  She smiled.  She hadn’t planned on spending a long time with the Portland firm anyway.  Longer than this, of course, but it always was to be a stepping stone.  “His is a very tempting offer, Lonnie.”

“I know, but promise me you’ll check before you do anything.  At least give us a chance to counteroffer.”  If we CAN counteroffer.

Angelina reached a hand up to Lonnie’s cheek and softly stroked.  “Just for you, Lonnie, I will,” she said tenderly.  Why not?  What do I have to lose?  Wouldn’t it be nicer, though, if Lonnie moved to Chicago.  Would she transfer?  I could work for Quintessential Printing Works, and she could stay with a branch of the company she loves.  We’d be competition, but that doesn’t mean a relationship couldn’t work.

The woman’s soft touch took the tall brunette by surprise.  It felt entirely too intimate.  Lonnie stepped back and instantly wondered about the wisdom of encouraging social contact, particularly any kind of private contact, with Mrs. Angelina Osborn. What would Ruby think? 

Randal stepped through the crowd to face the redhead.  “You’re leaving?  Excuse us, please.”  He directed Angelina aside a minute to chat. 

Lonnie’s mind swirled.  Apparently Angelina’s a Mrs. and that means there’s likely a Mr. at home.  And she wanted me to bring my family to dinner.  That’s personal but not intimate.  I almost thought...it felt like maybe she was...but...no, I must have misinterpreted.  That has to be it.  This was just friendly contact between people from work while in a distant city.  Lonnie relaxed some.

Probably just part of her being a super saleslady, Lonnie decided.  Angelina really was their best in sales.  They had been very excited to get her.  Randal moved off and the redhead turned.  “Uh, listen, Angelina” Lonnie said, “Give me a chance to talk to Benny.  I’m sure something can be worked out that would make you happy.  We really don’t want to lose you.”

I don’t want to lose you, either, Lonnie, Angelina smirked inwardly.  Let’s see if I can talk you into moving to Chicago after we’ve spent a night or two together to see if it’s worth the effort.  The redhead checked her watch.  “I really have to run.  Congratulations on the job you’re doing.  Randal’s very impressed.  Have a good afternoon.”

“I will,” Lonnie’s thoughts now focused on the consequences of the man from Chicago offering their top salesperson a job.  Cutthroat politics.  She hated it, hated any part of it.  “Drive carefully,” she muttered, then watched the striking woman weave her way through the crowd, turning to wave as she got to the door.  “Dinner.  Tomorrow.  Seven-thirty.  Call me,” Angelina mouthed before stepping out.  Lonnie nodded in the affirmative, and the woman was gone.  Lonnie was left with the faint lingering redolence of Angelina’s high-class perfume. 

Lonnie’s eye fell on the man from Chicago.  He was leaning back in his chair watching her, a satisfied smirk on his face. 

You sonuvagun, the brunette thought angrily.  She said you were ruthless and liked to step on the competition’s toes.  And that’s exactly what you’ve done, isn’t it?  She knew her displeasure had to be showing.  She’d need to call Benny at the first opportunity. 

Don’t think we won’t fight to keep her, Lonnie glowered.  But how could Benny possibly match the man from Chicago’s offer?  Besides, Portland was a far cry from Chicago, and she suspected the sparkling Mrs. Osborn’s temperament was more in line with the bustle and excitement of Chicago than the laid-back casualness of small-town Portland.  What in the world could be done about that horrible man from Chicago?


Continued in Chapter 11


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