The tall foreign woman lifted her head slightly, letting the early morning sun warm her face as she waited for her order to arrive. She wore the modestly tailored uniform of an official courier to one of the many embassies that crowded around the domed spaceport. The majority of her hair was secured in a net, resting heavily on her back while her temple tresses, weaved in beads and ribbons, lifted and fluttered in the cool breeze.
A waiter, another foreigner, stopped at her table and set down a cup of mixed fruit and a beverage. The two spoke for a few moments.
A short stocky Biaol male stared at the young woman with ill-concealed distaste. Male and female speaking in public - another insult to his religious beliefs. If Traditionists were the owners of the coffee shop such co-mingling of species and genders would not take place.
As much as he hated what she represented he couldn't keep from staring at her. She was so uncharacteristic of his own species females. He thought she must be a warrior in her lands.
The vibration of his reader jarred his attention back to reality. Tapping the face of his reader lightly, the count-down appeared in the lower part of the screen.
He noted the courier had risen to refresh her drink in the beverage kiosk cubicle. He frowned. That was where he was to take refuge.
A school bus stopped near the coffee shop. Children - all foreigners - unloaded to visit the museum and the strange garden the foreigners built…on his ancestral land.
Glancing back at the kiosk his lips curled in a contemptuous scowl. The courier waited for a worker to replace beverage containers.
His eyes dropped back to the timer. Time was advancing.
If Abra wills it, it will come to be. And so he repeated many times to calm himself.
Another bus pulled up. He wouldn't have glanced at it but the children's voices were so like his own village children. His eyes widened as he realized it was Cofu's village bus. Mentally he went over the schedule of school trips and remembered his son mentioned it because his friend, a foreigner, was coming today. Anger started to cloud his thoughts that his woman allowed his children to play with foreigners, but that would end after today.
He hummed the mantra of Abra until his tension lessened.
Abra will honor any native child who looses his life for this great cause and I will see that a memorial is erected for their sacrifice. They will be remembered as great warriors.
For a moment, he wondered where the souls of the girls went, and then dismissed it as unimportant. Females could not be trusted to take care of themselves or anyone else, and therefore should remain at home. If they didn't, then it was their fault something happened to them.
Abra wills it.
The children moved off to the museum, away from the coffee shop.
Unable to restrain his impatience any longer, he rose from his table and approached the kiosk to wait for the courier to exit. He was hoping his near presence would shame her to leave.
"Pipiato!" two small voices shouted in unison.
Startled he turned around. There his oldest son of seven years, Dio, and his second daughter, Paupa, holding hands as they often did, waved at him from the shop doorway. Laughing in delight at seeing their father, they ran weaving through tables toward him. Blinking his eyes in dismay, he resigned himself to the inevitable as the beep sounded to warn him the bomb armed. It would only be seconds before it would go off. Those near his table looked up in alarm, their faces frozen in terror.
Abra chose the sacrifice of his first born son, just as it was in the old days. To this he murmured a prayer, thanking Abra for choosing him, and his son as worthy of his attention. His thoughts went to his teacher, feeling he failed him. A half done job was not a job done, was the master's mantra. Saving himself and not being able to save his son, was a choice he didn't feel he could live with. A profound sorrow wound it's way up into his throat as he thought of his daughter not having anything in the afterlife to go to.
In slow motion, he watched his children pass by the table where he left his reader. The explosion tore into their small bodies, shredding them, and spreading their vital fluids, bright against the other splash of colors. A movement of air from the explosion set off an unseen gas, igniting it into a greater explosion.
Against the wall he hung. Through blurred eyes he looked out at the settling dust and debris. Dio and Paupa stood, looking around uncertain. Dio suddenly smiled and tugged at Paupa's hand, both moving off with brilliant smiles.
A shadow moved over him. He squinted in an attempt to see past the blur. He was sure it was the courier because she was protected by the kiosk.
"Hang on. I hear the sirens. Help should be here soon." Unconsciously she wiped blood from her nose on her filthy uniform sleeve, and then dabbed at something that was running into her eye. The blast barrier had collapsed after the second explosion, throwing her against the equipment where she slid to the ground nearly unconscious.
He wanted to slap her for her boldness in speaking to him. He was a follower of Abra, Slayer of the Unbelievers. Instead, he asked with great difficulty, "Do you see my children?" Dragging in a gulp of air he whispered, "They weren't supposed to be here today."
She looked around them. "There's nothing left. Nothing."
"Abra wills it," he rasped. "They have been sacrificed to Abra." His eyes tried to focus on the courier, wanting to see her again, and how the sun burnt her hair in reddish highlights. But he saw only darkness. He exhaled for the last time.
"A damn terrorist," the courier said.
Unsteadily she turned around, peering through the smoke at shadows rushing toward her. Through dust and smoke there were no structures left standing as far as her eyes could see.
Was she alive?
* * *
The courier slowly became aware of sounds; soft beeps and breathing. Her eyes rolled to the left, locating the source of the beeps, accompanied with blinking lights on a life support monitor. It hurt to move her eyes. She was hurting everywhere.
A native officer, leaning against the wall, walked over to her. He was short and stocky like the majority of males in his species. She could feel his resentment toward her.
"I want an account of your affairs at the shop."
She tried to decipher what he was implying. It did not sound good. "Not without a legal aid representative from my embassy," she rasped.
"You have something to hide."
"No. I don't want to be misunderstood." Her throat tightened from the effort to speak. She knew stories couriers liked to scare each other with of being locked in a foreign prison and forgotten by all but the jailers.
"You are being charged with terrorist activities. I'm taking you into custody," he said.
An alarm went off on the equipment monitoring her vitals. The courier sank back into blissful darkness, hoping it was just a nightmare.
* * *
A cool breeze wafted by and the courier took a deep breath, sighing heavily on the exhale.
A throat nearby cleared.
Opening her eyes she turned her head slightly. A thin Rudian, wearing her short hair sculpted to her face, was watching her.
Rudians from Jul quadrant, normally travel in packs, love music, are loyal to family, trace descendants on mother's side, and are known to deal in quasi-law enforcement pods,or so she learned in courier classes. But a lot of what was taught to the eager naïve students turned out to not be true for those that traveled in official capacity. They had their own rules.
"How are you feeling, Lonnie Bestrolie?" the woman asked.
"Where am I?" she croaked.
"In a hospice, recovering from your injuries." She waved toward the sunny window.
Lonnie glanced out the window where there was a lush garden under the bright sun. There were no bars to indicate it was a prison. She looked back at the woman.
"Who are you?" She coughed. The woman handed her liquid refreshment.
"I'm investigating the terrorist attack on the coffee shop you were in."
"Oh." Lonnie cleared her throat. She moved her feet and shifted her arms. No soreness, nor muscle weakness.
"Am I a suspect?"
"No. You're considered an innocent bystander, and a very lucky one." She pulled a recorder out of her pocket and placed it near the courier. "Lonnie Bestrolie, I need you to report what you remember from the morning of Butan, 2000023 of the Antacen Bracon Calendar. I understand you made it your morning ritual to stop for breakfast there every day since your arrival to your embassy post."
"Yes. To my recollection, it was the first day of the week, maybe minutes before the second welcoming bell at the museum. The shop is on my way to work," she readily admitted. She thought of the man at the shop. "That man that was impaled against the wall; he was a terrorist, wasn't he?"
"It is believed so."
"There were three men at his table when I arrived," Lonnie told her. "All of them were Biaol. Two of them were making disparaging comments about the nonnative customers. The manager asked them all to leave, but one remained. The waiter told me the manager had called the constable to remove him, but it was too late." Her voice broke.
"No. He called when the disaster could have been averted. The constable is part of an insurrection that is in the beginning stages."
"That does seem unlikely, doesn't it? It's a small group of displaced Biaol natives and their ring leader happens to have a substantial amount of credits to feed his need for creating insurrections."
"Abra wills it. That's what he said. I think his children were in the shop when it blew up."
"Why do you say that?"
"Before the explosion I heard two children from one of the buses call for their father in Biaolize. He looked surprised at first, and then resigned." She inhaled consciously. "I don't know how I survived."
"You were behind the firewall in the kiosk. It was built to prevent kitchen fires from spreading to the customer area."
"I felt the heat under me and then over me."
She nodded slowly, least she bring her headache back. "All this land in the basin is honeycombed with underground caverns dug by peoples that were here before the Baiols." Lonnie paused to let the muscles in her throat relax.
"Caverns. Not a stable place to build the galactic city on."
"That's what your representative said."
"Giving away chamber secrets?"
"Hardly. You were there too, standing in the corner. First place sneaky people look if they're going to do something." She wondered if the agent would catch on to her joke or take offense.
"I don't recall you being at that meeting," she said.
"No one notices couriers, unless one of us is needed and we aren't there."
"I've been properly warned." Now she smiled, and Lonnie's sense of her increased. A few moments passed as the two studied each other.
"I remember looking out and not seeing any buildings…after the explosion," Lonnie said.
"Nothing to see besides rubble and smoke. It's now covered with an energy envelope preventing anyone from entering."
"Probably to encapsulate the gas. At a public meeting, it was reported that the meters used to measure the air in the caverns were setting off alarms."
The woman came closer, interested. "These readings, who monitors them, and for how long?"
Lonnie gave a small smile. So, whoever she's with does not require her to attend very many meetings. "Someone from the Building and Safety Counsel. They've been monitoring it since the spaceport was built." Lonnie thought about the arguments she heard while she waited out of sight in the Ambassadors' Grand Council Meeting room. Since couriers were meant to be unseen until needed, leaders sometimes forgot they were present when heavy subjects were discussed. It didn't take her long to see why the older attachés were so jaded, and blasé about the lives of the common citizen. What could that one person do but wrap a blanket of indifference around himself or herself?
Lonnie didn't think she was knowledgeable enough to say anything on matters regarding other peoples lives, because everyone had a reason for their position, and who was she to say one person's reasons were more just than another? Her method of surviving was to avoid aligning with anyone.
"For a courier that hasn't been here long you picked up a lot," the woman said.
"I haven't picked up your name."
The woman smiled, but didn't offer one. "Most couriers stick to places they're comfortable in, like the row of dwellings in the circle near the Ambassador's Village. Is there a reason why you haven't?"
"You mean besides worrying about the gaseous caverns below the village? My idea of travel is to see the galaxy."
"What made you go into courier work?"
"On Quizion, all adolescents are conscripted to enter in a four year program of public service. It's a way of repaying the government for putting you through school. At one time it was working in your village, town, or city. These days it can be served just about anywhere the Public Lottery assigns you, if you choose to travel further than your neighborhood. After tests and interviews, I was placed in courier work. This is my second posting." She waited for the woman to ask her where her first was, but the question never came.
"So what do you plan on doing after your service?"
Lonnie blinked at the change in questioning. "Travel. I've credits from my grandmother and what I've saved."
"Isn't it expected of you to return home and learn a trade or start a family?"
"My family hasn't placed any of those expectations on me."
"If you were to look for a job, do you have any interests?"
"Are you a recruiter?"
"Maybe." The stranger picked up her recorder and handed her a card. "If you're looking for a job that involves travel and observation, call me."
Lonnie still had six months to go. She wondered if she would still say that when her service ended.
Hours later, Lonnie's supervisor and one of the other couriers came by to see her. She had been hospitalized for a month, she learned.
Following her release from the hospital, the attaché to the Ambassador of Quizion presented her with a ribbon she was embarrassed to display, and discharge papers from her four years of Public Service Duty, six months early.
This unexpected release left Lonnie without a job, and since she was not yet of legal age to apply for a job off her planet, was without means to support herself. Returning home was not an option. Pulling out the card with no name, she called the number. She left a message and retired to her rented room that was available only for a few more days.
* * *
A soft knock had Lonnie looking up, wondering if it was her door or the neighbors. When she heard another two raps, she laid her guitar to the side and rose to peer out the peephole. Two women were standing outside, one of them she recognized as the woman she met in the hospital and the other was a species she was not familiar with.
Working in a bureaucratic institution for three years, she had never witnessed anyone moving this fast. Not feeling any danger to herself she opened her door.
"Leona Bestrolie, recipient of the Cross of Besengi?" a woman asked.
"May we come in?" the woman who had visited her in the hospital asked.
Lonnie stepped back and gestured for them to enter.
The two stepped in and looked around her sparse one room. Her guitar was lying next to a chair with her suitcase packed near the foot of the bed.
"I see you travel light. Do you have anything keeping you here?"
"Can you leave now?"
"Do you need to notify anyone?"
"Then let's go."
* * *
Lonnie glanced at Cornol Caline, the Rudian that was sponsoring her in her new job. Actually, it was a school she was signing up for. Since she was not of legal age she would not be able to hold a job on another planet but she could go to school. With a student visa that was supplied by her previous supervisor, Caline signed her up in a private school. As Caline put it, she was going to learn how to observe without being observed, and how to be noticed without being obvious, and while she was here, develop other skills to earn a living.
"Alright, Lonnie," Caline said, "this is where you're on your own. Mother is leaving you but don't forget to write."
Lonnie grinned. "Yes, mother. Though, I noticed you've forgotten to give me a forwarding address."
"You'll be good at this Lonnie."
Caline ignored her hint for further information. Perhaps it was a species thing and Lonnie needed to ask directly.
"I'm not an idealist, Caline."
"I think you are, but you're also a realist and have common sense enough to keep the two in balance. You come of age in six months, by then you'll be far enough into the program to know if this is what you want to do."
"I'm not going home," Lonnie said.
"That's your incentive."
Lonnie picked up her bag and guitar case and followed the housemother, her dorm chaperone, to her new quarters for the year. They went up a staircase that wound around like a corkscrew onto the second floor. On one side of the hallway was a bathing room and on the other, toilet facilities.
Dama Ripley tapped on a door in the center of the hallway and pushed it open when a voice called from inside.
A young woman was sitting at one of the two desks. Dama Ripley waved her into the sitting room.
"This is your dorm mate, Shari. Shari, this is Lonnie. Give her the intro, will you, Shari? I have to get back to fixing dinner." Dama Ripley was gone before Shari could respond.
Lonnie looked around their room.
Shari rose from her chair. "Just you and I. Two to a room. This is our study, front room, and entertainment area. Everything that's not needed is retractable into the wall." Shari pointed to the wall console.
Lonnie stepped closer to study the buttons. "Nice. I've been wondering when I would get to experience a room like this."
"Soon every living space will be like this. One room fits all. That way is our shared bedroom. Two beds. If you don't toss and turn, you won't fall out. Closet space is enough for five days of clothing. Toilet and bathing facilities are at both ends of the hall. We share with ten other women. That's going to be an interesting experience in the morning. I haven't been able to get anyone to tell me why each dorm can't have their own bathing and toilet facility."
Lonnie tilted her head in askance.
"Have you sisters?"
"Did you have to share anything, and at the same time?"
Lonnie's lips curled up into a smile. "No. I never wanted anything they wanted and vice a versa."
Shari laughed. "Well, expect pandemonium. Our day starts at daybreak." She pointed to a sheet of paper on a bulletin board. "That's our daily schedule. We're expected to be on time for everything. For the first week, we'll be tested both physically and mentally to see what we're made of, and then we'll be assigned classes to develop us into proper ghosts. Any questions?"
"That's what I call it."
"How long have you been here?"
"A day. Do you play professionally?"
Lonnie glanced at her guitar case. "No. I just play for myself."
Shari nodded. "Do you have any preferences for a job?"
"Not to be stuck at a desk. But I don't want to be a soldier or law enforcement agent, either. They're expendable players to those higher up."
Shari nodded in appreciation of the observation. "The whole purpose of being the eyes and ears for HQ is not to be noticed, so doing anything besides keeping yourself safe, is frowned on. A trained observer is gold and not fodder, or so the present chancellor believes. I prefer as little travel as possible. Tvivs are fine with me."
Lonnie looked at her with disbelieve.
Shari grinned. "I like sleeping in my bed, with my pillow, surrounded by my walls. I want to be in complete control on my travel, even down to the pause button should I need a break. With Tvivs you decide if you want the smell, noise, and what to see as you travel."
"You're kidding, right?"
"Sort of. I have a fear of space travel. Does that surprise you?"
"I think of nothing but travel."
"You have the travel bug bad. Are you running away from home?" she teased.
"Is that what it sounds like?"
Shari nodded smiling. "Dinner's not for another hour. When you get your stuff unpacked, would you like a short tour of our small campus?"
* * *
After one year at HQ's school she was sent to her first off-campus trainer, code name Star Maker. He worked on a starship cruise liner as an entertainer. His job was to polish Lonnie's natural talent for dancing and get her established with a cover.
Nineteen years later
The early morning summer light flickered through the heavily leafed trees that lined the road. Lonnie picked up her pace as she neared her turn, preparing for the last lap of her run, the hill. Long muscular legs beaded with sweat, increased speed and momentum as the narrow dirt path loomed ahead. Her destination was home where a cold drink, a shower, a soak in the hot tub if there was time, and breakfast waited. The tiny Security Mobile Watcher, SMW, zipped ahead of her to spy out the top of the slope.
Bending forward, she dug in her toes as the gentle slope turned into a steep climb. After she crested the slope, her stride lengthened. Her eyes rested on Shari's figure still clad in her nightwear. She was leaning against the door jam with a towel in one hand and a bottle of water in the other.
That woman could be a heart throb if she had a mind to it.
Oddly enough, those were the very words Shari had told her after her last sitting for publicity photos.
Lonnie glanced at her watch. No, she was right on time. Shari was a late to bed and late to rise type of person, so whatever had wakened her it was not company or she would have dressed. Lonnie came to a stop in front of her roommate, reaching for the proffered towel, then cold water.
The SMW disappeared into its recessed home, letting other security devices take over the protection of the two occupants.
"Your new dance agent called again. Does he think you'll skip town?" Her voice was husky with sleep.
"Sorry…he woke you," Lonnie puffed, took a deep gulp of water, and then took a few more breaths. "No….Ben said…he handles….big name stars."
"What does he want with you then?" Shari stepped back. "Is he going to try to sell your contract to another agent? Don't forget if he does, that will null and void his legal rights on your contract, and then you're a free agent. It can only be sold and-or traded once."
Lonnie followed her into the house, watching the short silk nighty that just covered her buttocks move over her dark skin. Shari disappeared into the front room which doubled for her office while Lonnie continued down the hall. Shari's voice was muffled as orders were given and the soft hum of the cleaning bot came on. Apparently, she had given up on sleep. The laundry cabinet doors opened with a swipe of Lonnie's hand in front of the sensors. She stripped off her running attire, and tossed them into the washing machine. The machine clicked on. She dropped her water pouch into a basket, and lined her shoes up neatly with her gardening boots.
"Breakfast for one, my usual," she ordered as she passed the kitchen. "Deliver to my room."
Naked she ran downstairs to where there was a large bathing room that contained a bathtub, hot tub, and a large walk-in shower. Pausing on the dais to the shower, she waited for the soft chirp, signaling it recognized who she was and what water temperature she wanted. She had learned to wait for the program to switch before stepping in. Shari's preference for cold showers was too exhilarating for Lonnie. Finishing her water drink, the bottle was tossed with an accurate aim, into the recycler.
After her shower, she skipped her usual hot tub, ate a quick meal, and did yoga stretches in front of the bay window that overlooked ocean.
* * *
Too soon the doorbell chimed. She unwound her body from her Āsanas position and plucked a top from a hanger, dropping it over her head.
Shari's voice drifted to the lower level as she greeted the agent and from his response, he was curious about Shari, and her interest in his client. He would not be getting much information from Shari.
Lonnie stepped into the room and spotted De Erich Bettelheim near a bronze statue of herself, dancing flamenco with skirts and hands dramatically . His eyes were looking over the room with too much interest. She took a quick inventory of the room. Aside from the statue, there were no personal effects like knick knacks that collected dust, family, or people pictures on the walls or flat surfaces. One wall concealed a bookcase and office equipment, two were windows, one that looked into their tropical garden and the other over the ocean. The third wall was a plain white surface. For some, the room might appear stark, but for Lonnie, the natural views were enough to let her know she was no longer on a ship.
Leona Bestrolie listed this as her home - twelve secluded acres along a cliff with a view over the ocean, and the way it was situated, no neighbors within even telescopic view. It meant even if she were celebrity status, news agents would find it difficult to get unsolicited photos or information on her. The agent assumed that Shari, a mixed species of Cleatian and Human, was his client's lover and supported her when she was home from her tour. Her dancer's salary would be insufficient to afford the rent or to hire someone of Shari Sing's services, he thought superciliously. Mentally shrugging his shoulders, he decided as long as his long-range plans were met he would not spend any more credits investigating them.
"De Erich Bettelheim," Lonnie greeted, entering the room. Lonnie's field of vision encompassed Shari. She was dressed flawlessly in designer slacks and top, looking elegant as well as wealthy, which would impress someone like Bettelheim. Shari batted her eyes mockingly at Lonnie, and then closed the door quietly behind her, giving agent and client privacy.
The tall Aleutian turned to face his new purchase, legally referred to as a "client". His dark eyes set back in their sockets, scrutinized his merchandise. His broad green scaled forehead was thrust forward, and his hands were clasped firmly behind his back.
De Erich Bettelheim had bought out De Ben M'Clion's contracts with various entertainers and sport players. Bettelheim was making his rounds to inspect his new stable of performers.
Dama Leona Bestrolie dressed tastefully, though understated, something he didn't expect from an entertainment figure… but then that was her flaw. She didn't attempt to stand out - a form of free advertisement.
"Dama Leona Bestrolie, how do you do?" His voice was gruff and carried some rebuff, a reflection of his quick assessment.
Lonnie gave a polite nod. She hated to be called Leona but refrained to point that out this early in their meeting. Since his species was sensitive and could read Humans easily, she didn't bother with a verbal reply, and was careful to keep her thoughts minimal. As he sized her up Lonnie was doing her own study. The Aleutian dressed and carried himself like a prosperous agent. Exactly what an aspiring performer would want, only she was perfectly happy with her present contract.
Lonnie gestured to the couch where he would be comfortable lounging, while she took the chair near the fireplace.
"Shall we get to business?" Erich pulled out a compositor and opened up a document - the contract she had signed with Glimpser's Talent Management Company nineteen years ago.
"Your present dance partner, Mar Righ has no desire to change agents and I don't want my…" catching the Human's raised eyebrows he amended his thought and smoothly continued, clarifying a point, "Your professional partners will be only those I manage. It makes it less stressful for all concerned when negotiating payment and getting a replacement if something should happen to one of you."
He left unsaid that should there be a disagreement he would find ways to clog the problem client's life, until it was resolved to his satisfaction. Lonnie knew about those type of agents and was grateful Ben had not been like that.
Erich looked down at the old contract and the sections he had highlighted. He was annoyed at the freedoms Bestrolie had regarding port excursions and collecting money for any recordings of her dances, or lessons she chose to give. From what Ben told him she liked to climb cliff faces, race unsafe vehicles across the wild lands, skydive off high mountains, and disappear into the outback for the duration of her vacation, any of which could cause her an injury that would prevent her from performing, or make it difficult to reach her should he need her on a last minute basis.
The fact that Ben received one third of her salary, a high amount for an agent since they usually received a flat fee for each scheduled performance that they arranged, in return for her being able to control any other income she earned, did not make a difference to Erich. He thought Ben should have made the shrewd deal for any salary she earned. A contract to Erich meant he managed the individual in the major aspects of her or his life, or depending on how sellable the "client" was. Some performers did not mind having their life managed as long as they had room for their mad moments.
Lonnie smiled, guessing what was running through his mind, pegging him for the type of agent she had successfully avoided for so long in her career. It was a twenty-two year contract to expire in three years, and any changes couldn't be made without her consent, and she was not about to change one word of it without a favorable incentive for her.
So, why was he here when a simple letter would suffice? Her present gig had a faithful group of fans that prebooked on the liner for various lengths of time over the ten month cruise which made it profitable for her, Old Ben, and the cruise liner. She relaxed, thinking he would be foolish to change her dance schedule, for all of them would loose money. Besides, he could not break her contract with anyone without her written consent.
"If you don't like my management of your professional life you have a choice of finding someone to buy your contract from me or breaking it. Breaking it means you only dance for yourself in the privacy of your home for six years."
Lonnie picked up on his stressing the "management of her professional life", knowing her contract was more specific to what exactly her agent managed.
"So who's my new partner?" Lonnie thought it had to be a real hummer or he would just have sent her a letter like any other agent, confirming her change of agent and making suggestions in how he would like to get more money out of her, by booking more performances, and then slipping in her new dance partner.
His calm appearance was betrayed by a slight twitch of his forehead. "Diva Kali Maxine," he announced grandly.
Her expression gave nothing away, but the image of a bear superimposed with the diva's image nearly had her head exploding with the ludicrous image.
"I'm pairing you two."
Ben M'Clion had said this cruise line dancer never gave anything less then her best, but since she had never been billed as a star Erich had low expectations. If he was not so desperate for a neutral and isolated place for his star to regain her balance and still perform, he would not have picked a cruise liner.
"Why me?" Lonnie asked in an even voice.
"You're not a man and you have no ambition; therefore, you pose no threat to her way of thinking." He waited for her reaction, and when he got none he continued. "Though I like my clients to be ambitious, since I'm in this for the credits, the situation makes you the right person for this."
"This? What is this and what's in it for me?"
"If you stick it out for a year with her I'll give you your contract at the end of this tour …plus a bonus." He only added the bonus because he had a feeling ending her contract was not enough of an incentive.
"Just what exactly does this entail, besides pairing up with her?"
He leaned forward and handed her a dance plan on the compositor. She read it through and laughed heartily, then handed it back to him.
"You have quite a challenge here. You must know something about her that the public doesn't. These dances are not her style and I've never heard her dance with anyone but men."
"Remember Jerah and Sarah?"
"Yes. In their time they were the hottest broadcast dance team."
"I think there's a place today for their style and timed right can turn into a galaxy wide trend."
Lonnie's lips curled up into a smile. "And you think she can pick up this style well enough to get back in the spotlight as a trend setter, even if the trend will be short lived."
There were two points in favor of his idea provided it did not end up gutting her career, one was dancing Flamenco with Kali Maxine and the second was ending her contract early. Dancing Flamenco with Kali Maxine won her over without much struggle, but then, she distrusted agents out for themselves. Did he know how tempting the offer was to her? She began her career dreaming of the youngest dancer to make it on the diva list and here was the offer to partner with her.
She gave him her nicest smile. "I'm game but I gather you haven't spoken with your diva yet."
He tilted his head in askance.
"It hasn't made the paper."
"I confirmed your contract on Stanley's Liner for the ten month tour season," he replied, ignoring her comment. "We'll start out using your fan base. Depending on how the five months go before the two week break, we may consider a larger ship for the return trip. I also booked port shows…"
"I have two full days of shore leave at each port, and I intend on taking them."
"It's the same day you arrive in port, so you'll still have your two days. You'll be debarking earlier than the other passengers. I have you on the…" he looked down at his notes, "SDL."
"Special Disembarking List."
"The shore shows are advertisement and will serve to build a galactic fan base for Diva Maxine." There was a noticeable pause before he continued, "I noticed you also have two weeks off at the halfway point, before the trip back. What do you intend on doing during that time?"
"Relax," she said.
What could have passed for a quiet mental sigh she read in his eyes but he did not verbally express his dissatisfaction at the answer.
"Are you satisfied with the contract with the added proposals I have presented?"
Finger print and blood test were required for all contracts and important agreements to verify the person's identity and mental competence, but she would wait until it was reviewed by Shari before signing. He made too many assertions and she suspected she needed to heed the small changes that there might be on the contract.
"After my lawyer reviews it and finds it satisfactory I will accept it," she stated, wondering what Shari was going to say about this. "You can download it to my mail."
He tapped his send. "Please return it signed within a week. There are arrangements that need to be finalized with others."
She showed him to the front door and waited until the security gate locked behind his departing cab. She then went in search of Shari, guessing she was in her bedroom.
Ten months of the year, Shari had the roomy, two-bedroom three-tiered home to herself. It was built solidly into the rock face of a cliff. The living room, the only floor on the top of the cliff, bathing room, and bedrooms had a grand view of the ocean. It was a secluded location with a security system that was kept updated.
For Lonnie's two-month stay, she enjoyed roominess of the entire house, and sleeping on a bed softer and bigger than what she slept on aboard the liner. Both women preferred wide open spaces with few collectibles.
Even before Shari was recruited to work for HQ, she was establishing herself as a money maker. She loved to make deals and making other people wealthy, which along the way she had accumulated her own wealth. She had insisted she could make Lonnie prosperous no matter how much she earned, all she had to do was travel. Skeptical, Lonnie took her up on the offer, and in five years, she was right. Lonnie enjoyed her travels, rubbing elbows with people that were fully engaged in living. Her natural talent for seeing beyond the surface of smiling faces gave her glimpses into things that continuously amazed her.
After training with Star Maker for a year on a space cruise liner, learning more than how to dance, Lonnie was introduced to a professional entertainment agent, Ben M'Clion, affectionately called Ben by his clients. He wasn't with HQ, but whether due to HQ influence or his own interest in Lonnie, he teamed her up with a veteran dancer on another ship, continuing her training in dance, and how to survive ten months of living on a mid-sized cruise liner without resorting to drug addiction. The Gypsy, he liked to refer to himself as, and he was to Lonnie, the last of the old dance masters, who could learn any cultural dance and turn it into a show.
During the tour, the ship cruised from one planet to another allowing its passengers two days to experience each planet's special attractions, or on scheduled shuttles, be flown to a nearby planet and enjoy the sights. On her leave time from the ship, while wandering the outbacks, flying off cliffs, or riding whitewater rapids, Lonnie sent information back to Shari on property investments she wanted to know about, and embedded in her reports information for HQ.
Lonnie plopped down next to Shari, who was folding her laundry. Though they had an automated maid, Shari preferred to do some things herself, like fold her clothes. Lonnie preferred not to do any chores while at home and took advantage of the auto-service.
"You were so right about this guy."
"What's that? Did he demand that you give up your port excursions and a percentage of all your earnings?" Shari asked.
"He has the typical agent attitude that he owns my life. I'm now expected to give an off-shore performance at each port we arrive at. He didn't say anything about how much he's paying me for this. If I see credits on the contract I'll give him points for honesty."
"The way your present contract reads, unless he books it on the property of Stanley's terminal, it opens up new salary negotiations," Shari said. "I'll take a look at the contract and see how much he's paying you and make sure he's not running over into your two days off. He can't change your contract with the cruise liner without your input and he certainly can't book any performance without paying you. He's an agent with limited input."
"He downloaded the contract to my mail. Right now he needs me for a project of his and I don't mean HQ stuff, but as soon as that's finished, he intends on dropping me."
"Oh? What's his project?"
"He wants me to partner with Diva Kali Maxine for a year. In exchange he'll give me my contract at the end of this cruise and a bonus."
Shari paused in her folding and gave Lonnie a long stare of disbelief then burst out laughing. "Kali Maxine? This is really ironic." She laughed some more then sobered up and asked, "You really think you can keep your head clear around her?"
"I don't have a crush on her, Shari, I just thought she had great potential at one time. She was the diva when I started in the business."
Shari gave Lonnie a disbelieving look. "Do you still have that returned fan mail some flunky handling her mail sent you?"
Lonnie laughed with embarrassment. "No, and I don't have her poster any more."
"She's trouble in real life, just like this new agent of yours is."
"He's booked us on Stanley's liner, Earl Gray. He's not changing my gig."
"Like he has any choice. You have a binding contract with them, which would need your signature, not his, to end. You're also making money for the cruise liner with all your returning fans. He would be burning a very lucrative bridge for his future clients. What does he plan on doing about your agreement with the liner for the remaining years?"
"All of this is speculative. He still has to get her on the liner for ten months." She grinned. "I have a feeling he wants me to tame her."
"Tame her? She's a drug addict and destructive to all her partners. Since when are you a drug counselor? Are you taking up a new profession?"
Lonnie waved her hand dismissively at the rumor. "They were all burnt out performers heavily into drugs. They couldn't even clean up enough to take advantage of their partner's fame to get back into serious dancing. Remember Jer and Sarah?"
Shari's eyes opened wide. "You've got to be kidding."
"He also used the name Jerah instead of Jer. Does that tell you something?"
"He's not asking you to get a sex change. Since they lost their following when it became known that Jerah was now a Jer I'm sure he doesn't want to make the same mistake. Lucky you." Shari slapped her arm as Lonnie reached over to help with the folding. "Get your hands off my underwear. You don't even fold your own, you use the automaid."
For a few moments they wrestled for the thin fabric. Lonnie shifted to get out of the way of Shari's fingers that were grabbing her skin. Lonnie tossed the cloth at Shari who caught it, rolled it into a small packet and stacked it next to the rest of her panties.
"You do cut a handsome figure dressed in those tight fitting gauchos. Just think of all those people who'll pay so they could drool up close. But that diva; all she has to do is open her mouth and there go your fans." She stopped folding for a moment. "Though, it's only for one tour…ten months." Shari's eyes became distant as she mentally rearranged Lonnie's finances and investment portfolios in anticipation of her early retirement.
"I have a feeling he's going to run into big resistance with her on this plan," Lonnie informed her. "I'm not putting anything solid on it just yet."
Shari gave an undignified snort of amusement. "You're going to run into big trouble if you don't lose that wide-eyed look of adoration."
"I don't adore her!" Lonnie denied indignantly.
"Just be careful, Lonnie. It's not just that it sounds too good to be true…" Shari's voice trailed off. She shook her head perplexed. "I…this just doesn't feel right. I follow the entertainment journals just as much as you and perhaps more for the benefit of my clients, and nothing was hinted that Ben was selling out his stable of clients. Have you heard anything from HQ about it?"
"Not about this. It wasn't even scooped by the entertainment news rats. I find it hard to believe that he wanted to run this by me first, unless…"
The two women gave each other a knowing look.
"He wanted to check you out first." Shari gave a short laugh.
"He must have liked what he saw, because he offered me a deal."
"He's getting rid of someone whose contract he doesn't like," Shari said, "But why you?"
"Because I'm isolated; because I don't cause ripples in the industry; because I don't do the drug scene. Let's face it Shari, if he needed a place for her to clean up her act, and if he had a guy with the same qualifications, he would have taken his deal there. Lucky me."
"Clean and pure," Shari laughed. "Oh, gods. This is really funny in a twisted way. But think about this, without an agent most nice places won't hire because of their charter with the entertainment industry."
"You don't think I can get another Ben-type agent?"
Shari snorted in amusement. "Consider the realities like how long more can you keep up your physical regime. You're an athlete that's aging. How long will your knees keep up with your hobbies? No matter that with today's medical technology will keep you going as long as your credits hold out, but don't you want to settle down, find someone to share your leisure hours before you hurt something?"
"Am I showing my age?" Lonnie mockingly made as if to preen herself. She never had worried about aging and so far her body was not hurting from the wear and tear, but that was because she took taking care of herself physically and mentally, seriously. "I haven't really thought about it. I was going to give it another two years before I started to make plans. I could open my own dance hall… no agents allowed." She gave Shari a wide grin and then shuddered. "Gods, what a management headache that would be. All those massive egos to deal with and no agent to baby-sit."
"Can you live with the idea of ending your contract and your traveling as a paid entertainer?" Shari's light tone belied the seriousness of the question. Both understood the importance of Lonnie's job as an observer for HQ and for their business, as well as the comfort Lonnie found in the schedule she followed for the last nineteen years.
"It's not life threatening, Shari. I'll do what I need to do."
Shari nodded, satisfied that Lonnie was thinking about it.
"Talking about getting lost…did Jenny find out any more about those two ghosts disappearing?" Shari asked.
"Nothing more than they're from same pod but different occupations; therefore, involved in different situations and information gathered."
"There's a connection between the woman in the picture you showed me and the first one that disappeared. They were roommates for a short time in training."
"Do you think the situations are related?" Lonnie asked.
"I'm not one to believe in coincidences."
"Hm. Keep in mind, we're a small community and chances are we're going to know someone that knows or is one of the missing Observers."
"Yes. We are a small community, and protective of each other."
"So, what have you been finding out besides the relationship?"
"The woman in the picture had been moved out of Observation to Agent."
Lonnie shuddered. Violence was something she abhorred and on most occasions had avoided. Only twice in her adult years had she not been able to avoid blood shed in a violent and impersonal way and both times she had escaped with her life. It left an impression on her that whatever she did with her life it was to bring joy into people's lives. Dancing was her primary vehicle.
"Make sure you take precautions when you leave ship, Lonnie."
"You make sure you're careful. You're isolated up here."
"But better protected," Shari returned.
* * *
"How long this time?" Shari handed a small overnight bag to Lonnie. Her sitar case was already in the back of the autocab.
"Overnight, at the most, per Jenny. Are you sure you don't want to join us?"
"Nope. I've too much work to do. This is my busy season."
Lonnie knew it was. While it was time for her to wind down from her ten month tour, it was a season of real estate buying and selling fervor, keeping Shari up at all hours day and night as deals and contracts needed work.
Lonnie slid into the cab and it took off as soon as the door was closed. Ten minutes later it stopped at a corner and picked up Jenny.
"Hi. Change of plans." Jenny pulled out a key and inserted it into a slot in the dashboard and the cab made a neat left and then right onto another road going in a different direction.
"Why the change?"
"Someone was following Cari."
"Where did it pick her up?"
"Her home. She ran a scan in her place and found it was bugged. She's notified HQ and put a bug in their ear to remove them before she returns home."
"How did she know they were theirs?"
"I have a lot of misgivings about this new management," Lonnie said. "I'm not happy with them in this assignment that moves me out of the Observer role. I received assurance that I don't have to do anything but show interest, but there's been too many staff changes to make me feel like our neutral position is respected. I get the feeling we're being handled to fit in a bigger scheme of things."
"And that's why we're going to monitor this game HQ is running. Now, it's three ghosts missing from the same pod."
"Three?" Lonnie asked.
"It was passed on through the mouth to all the pods."
"We watch each others backs already. This is further distracting us from being unobtrusive observers. We're successful because we move among the normal populace doing normal things. If we're hyper vigilant we'll call attention to ourselves. That puts out a different type of energy that others who are tuned to that will pick up," Lonnie said.
"Well, we're going to have to come up with something that will protect our pod," Jenny said.
"Is there any more information?'
"I'm not getting any information from HQ. On going investigation, they say. They won't discuss it and we're the ones whose life is on the line."
"Lonnie, this is our corner."
Lonnie instinctively grabbed her bags and looked out the one-way windows.
"Are you ready?" Jenny asked.
"At the light I'll go. Looks like a good crowd to get lost in."
"Right and left. Meet you at Inga's Coffee Shop. On the corner."
Lonnie pulled her vest in place, identifying her as a street corner musician, and fixed a hat firmly on her head with the brim covering half of her face. It was a quick exit into pedestrian traffic that swarmed around their cab when they stopped.
Lonnie walked into the coffee shop's backroom, where the others were waiting. They then left out a back door and grabbed another cab. From there they stopped in an old warehouse that was filled to capacity with new merchandise.
"Where do you find these places?" Lonnie asked Cari as they followed her into a room in the back.
Cari grinned but offered no explanation.
"What is our business?" Lonnie asked.
"To find out why they want you to pose as someone interested in buying property on a closed planet."
Niamh held her hand up for attention. "It's not officially closed. Off the books it's closed. So, why are they using a ghost to act like she wants to buy property on a closed planet that has no middle class, has a rigid class structure, practices infanticide among the wealthy to keep the side effects from their inbreeding at a minimum, and pay a lot of money to keep it that way and still remain part of the Galactic Community?"
"They're interested in why these people presented me with a picture of an agent of theirs that disappeared," Lonnie said.
"But who can buy property there when it's closed to off worlders and for that matter anyone outside of the ruling family?"
Lonnie stretched her legs out to ease her tension. "There's a growing movement on Tuloc, led by the prime minister, to open the planet up to all visitors," Lonnie explained. "This couple I know that lives on the planet, brought that up two years ago, and said if that happens, they have a parcel of land I could retire on that would cover my interests. At the time I thought they were joking." Lonnie stopped for a moment and reran the actual conversation. Did they use the term retire or was that just a slip of hers because Erich was interested in ending her contract and she was confusing issues?
"The last leader of a movement to open up the planet disappeared before his term ended," Niamh said.
"What's the background on this?" Jenny asked.
"About eighteen years ago I met this couple from Tuloc. Over the years we've met on cruises and talked about what I did when the ship docked. They mentioned they don't have to travel far from their home to hang glide, go river rafting, camping, and hiking. Two years after the conversation, they sent me a picture of them and a group of hikers, heading up a hill that is supposed to be part of the parcel they want to sell me. There was a string of servants, carrying their equipment. Shari recognized one of the servants as a ghost turned agent that disappeared years ago."
"Shari is good at face recognition."
"Was this agent a sleeper?"
"I don't know." Lonnie frowned as she again went over her doubts about both HQ and the Tuloc couple.
They were all quiet for a few moments, with Jenny finally voicing all of their big worry, "With the disappearances of those three ghosts, and the picture of this woman, I smell something unpleasant here."
"Or, maybe they aren't related at all."
"You said the missing ghosts were asked to do more than just observe for HQ?" Lonnie asked Jenny.
"There's a rumor that's going on between the other ghosts, not from HQ, that they were asked to step out of character and be somewhere that they wouldn't normally be at."
"So, what do we do?"
"Wait, but be vigilant. And most of all, don't trust any messages from HQ or from each other unless it has…" Jenny lifted her eyebrow for the others to quietly nod that they knew what she was asking. It had been prearranged that should anything from the outside threaten their group, a new code would be initiated. What was an exercise in training classes for them was serious business that as paranoid neophytes they took to heart.
Each woman nodded.
"Any information we send to HQ, let's send it a way that can't be traced to us. And let's not use the same place of deposit. It would be too easy for someone to trace it back to us. We'll discontinue using anything HQ issued. Dump it or hide it in a public locker. There's plenty of spyware on the market that is in some cases better than what HQ gives us."
"And nothing deadly," Lonnie said. "It would be out of character and I don't want to attract that type of energy."
The others nodded. Their common interest was political activism through non violence. HQ's recruitment of Observers was through their philosophy of change for the better using nonviolent methods. After a few hours of arranging their safety from any HQ treachery, they broke up with Lonnie finding a place on the popular walkway and situating herself to play her sitar. With the disappearance of other observers, Lonnie's pod wanted to know if anyone was aware they were gathering and who. Each woman took a different role and scattered among the crowd, using their powers of observation to pick out anyone or thing not fitting.
Lonnie stepped out of her hotel room and elected to walk the thirty minutes to the studio Erich Bettelheim rented for three days of practice. For their first day it was rented only for an hour and a half. It would be a light day of exercise, so Lonnie had spent her early morning hours in the workout room at the hotel and took a run around its track, working off as much of her nervous energy as she could. Whether the diva and her got along or not, had no bearing on, in three days the ship would begin its cruise through the galaxy with them billed as a dance couple. From the dance rags Kali Maxine was catching a lot of bad publicity for either public displays of tantrums or partying. Lonnie was smart enough to know the tantrums were no doubt provoked by reporters looking for emotional outburst so they had something to report. She hated being in the spotlight for that reason.
The walk would help her further adjust her thoughts to a professional attitude. She was sure there wasn't any of the giddy fan's infatuation present. After all, she had her dignity to consider. Frowning, she looked inward. Surely, she was not like one of those goo-goo eyed fans that followed a star around all the time.
As Lonnie opened the door to the practice hall, shouting echoed in the building. There was no mistaking who was doing the shouting. Her heart quickened at the thought of meeting Diva Maxine in person, along with trepidation. Was the yelling because she did not want to dance with her?
Lonnie followed the sign for the dressing rooms. Each of the small dressing rooms were shared with a partner because space was limited in practice halls and rooms were expensive. The rooms traditionally had a large mirror on the door for performers to check themselves before they went on stage. Lonnie always suspected that the mirror placement was actually intended to discourage door slamming since it echoed throughout the performance hall. Superstition says that breaking the mirror would give seven years of bad luck, and performers were a very superstitious lot. Within the dressing room there was usually a partition for costume changes. It doubled as a place to drape the next change or to discard the last costume. Lonnie found her dressing room entrance blocked by a big goon with his six arms folded across his barrel chest and his two heads looking at her as if she were the enemy.
"Hi," she greeted and tried to step around him. He didn't budge. "Do you mind? I'm Lonnie Bestrolie, Diva Kali Maxine's partner. We share this dressing room."
He remained where he was, one set of eyes looking at her and the other looking around him, still not budging nor giving any indication that he would. She was sure she could change that if she used force, but that would be stepping out of character.
Determinedly, she headed to the stage area where she could see the diva, looking too glamorous for a workout, holding up the music sheets and yelling at Andres and the bored looking musicians. This person was nothing like the publicity photos she liked to stare at. It was more like what the tabloids liked to show. Since the musicians were paid hourly, they were waiting until their contracted time to start playing. Lonnie noted Erich had hired two of the musicians she had suggested. She moved in front of the furious diva when it became apparent she was being ignored.
"What do you want?" Diva Kali Maxine shouted at her.
Pale green eyes bore into her and a breath reeking of alcohol assailed her. Lonnie wondered if she was a morning drinker or never stopped drinking. Not wanting to appear weak when her knees were shaking at facing someone that still had a commanding presence in her eyes, she forced herself to speak.
"I want to start rehearsal on time…" Lonnie began. Now was not a good time to doubt if she really had the forbearance to put up with a spoiled diva.
"Who do you think you are!" the diva demanded not giving Lonnie a chance to finish.
"Your partner for the cruise who wants to use OUR dressing room to change," she returned. "So tell your bodyguard to let me in."
The diva's mouth fell open in shock. "You're Lonnie? I thought Lonnie was some sheilaglipatrous. Where's my agent! Conessa, get my agent! Now!"
Maybe she needed to rethink her expectation of the partnership and just aim for the moment in getting along with her, Lonnie thought.
Diva Maxine stamped toward their dressing room, shouting profanities at everyone, while interjecting instructions and comments to her assistant. "I'm not dancing flamenco with a woman!" was the last they all heard before the door to the dressing room slammed shut.
Erich left some important details out to her partner.
And she thought her new partner was a sheila glipatrous? A homosexual male? She trusted her agent too much not to look up her name to see that Bestrolie was female. She was the only Bestrolie in the dance directory.
"Hey, Lonnie. I heard old Ben sold your contract to the Bettelheim consortium. Erich sure must have been on something to match you two up," Lila teased. "But he's a hustler. If you want stardom and willing to work for it, he'll get you there."
The clock in the hall noisily clicked the hour. The musicians picked up their tuned instruments and waited. Lonnie changed quickly into her dance shoes.
"Remember this?" and Lila began an allegro dance number on her guitar that was good to loosen up with.
Warmed up from her walk, Lonnie began dancing without stretching. It was an old gypsy guitar serenade to a lover. Her body moved easily to the flamenco tempo. The atmosphere in the room changed as the music and the shoes' rhythm echoed through the large building. Soon the cheers from an audience cancelled the unpleasant first meeting with the diva. After the first set, Lonnie went to her bag and retrieved her castanets. She began a slow start with the castanets, then with her feet. Her two instruments set the mood to a cachucha rhythm. As the musicians added their sounds she began to move around.
Lila sang to cover the diva's shouting voice from backstage. As Lonnie danced she was aware that street traffic had drifted in and sat with the others against the wall to watch. When she finished they all whooped enthusiastically. While she caught her breath she noticed the shouting from the back area had stopped.
"How about some clogging music, just to work on my lung capacity," Lonnie suggested. "I'll throw in a pas de chat, and a ciseaux to work on my leg strength for leaps." She nodded to the master musician, Andres, to begin.
When Lonnie finished the set whistles followed by cheers provoked her to bow politely. She took a drink from her water and nodded to Andres for the next one.
Her next solo was one of Jerah and Sarah's dances, a bolero style. It was set to a slow rumba rhythm, sensual and romantically playful. As she moved she caught sight of the diva standing stiffly in the wings with Erich. She danced over to the diva and gave her an opening to join her. She could see anger in the darkened eyes and before the diva could refuse, she playfully danced away. Most dancers knew this routine, but Kali Maxine obviously liked to do things her way because she took the lead. Lonnie followed. Sensing Kali Maxine would not be able to sustain the lead, and half-way through, Lonnie skillfully took the lead role back.
When the dance finished the musicians began to pack their gear. Kali gestured to the musicians. "What's going on here?" she asked breathlessly.
"Their time's up. One and a half hours. This was supposed to be your first rehearsal to find out how you two would fit. You look fine together," Erich reassured her briskly. "Next two days you can get your routines worked out before you sail off."
Lonnie pulled a towel from her case and wiped her neck and face, aware of the diva's confusion. Kali Maxine let out a little huff of air as if she was trying to catch her breath to say something.
"Mind if I grab a ride with you back to my hotel, Erich?" Lonnie asked.
He appeared to be relieved. "Not at all. Let's go. I've got a meeting to finish that I was interrupted from."
After giving the autocab the hotel's destination, Erich leaned back and regarded his client as she changed shoes. "You're good," he remarked, a little surprised.
Watching Lonnie dance, in a quick moment he realized that her talent and passion was what he wanted Diva Kali Maxine to exude, and he knew the diva had it somewhere within her. Now if only this dancer could impart those qualities on the diva, as old Ben had reassured him that she could.
"Thanks for the compliment."
"Well, this is your chance, so go to it."
"Go to what?" She blotted her face again and tucked the towel into her bag.
"Tell me what you think of being paired with the diva."
"She's your problem. I love to dance, but I can do other things."
"I can lead tours into the Viking Canyons or join Bellah Abzugs Tour Group staff and take tourists on the three month tour of climbs on seventeen planets…just to start with."
He thought about it for a while and decided if she was telling the truth, then he had nothing to worry about. "I did some research on you. I like to know the strengths and weaknesses of my clients. I think you would survive, but I also know a part of you would miss professional dancing."
She smiled wondering what he had up his proverbial sleeve. "Go on." This paring obviously was very important to him…or maybe not.
"What if I were to have your name placed on the settlement list on Abrazan so you can purchase land on Tuloc? I know you have your roommate working on it but I know Hebr Mo'lu personally. Just stick the tour season out with her."
"Put it in a contract."
"I'll make an amendment to the present contract and send it to you."
"Send it to my roommate to look over. She's my legal counsel."
He nodded smiling. Another bit of information on her that he filed away. He dropped her off at the hotel with a polite ado and a wish for good and safe sailing.
Wait until Shari and the others hear who's nibbling at HQ's bait.So, did HQ know and that's why they didn't say anything about him buying Ben out? I liked it better when I just reported what I observed. It was less complicated.
Lonnie bypassed the hotel elevators and ran up the stairs to the second floor. Shari was going to really be spinning her mental wheels on this.
The hotel was not far from the air terminal where she would catch a shuttle up to mid-sized space cruise liner Earl Gray. The first five months aboard would take them on a cruise to twenty ports with two weeks off for the crew, and the last five months they would hit seventeen planets on the return trip. That meant they had thirty-seven planet engagements, and four nights a week of shows aboard ship.
* * *
After the hotel masseuse left, Lonnie soaked in the hot tub. This masseuse had advertised as an athletic masseuse. Having never experienced such a technique, she decided to give her a try and compare her technique to Gish, her masseuse from the cruise liner. The hot oiled rocks were very nice and her muscles felt pleasantly relaxed.
"Message on," she ordered. "Send to Gish Lav aboard the starliner, Earl Gray. Gish, this is Lonnie. Have you heard of massaging with hot oiled rocks? I had one and it felt darn good on the deep aches. There's a shop nearby that sells the kit. I still owe you so let me know if you're interested. See you soon, gal. End message. Stamp with hotel return information."
Leaning back in the hot tub she smiled, thinking of Gish's massages. They had helped her physically survive years of stress and strain she put her body through from her dancing and other physical activities she participated in on her days off. Gish was one of the twenty-five masseuses on Earl Gray, and over-worked to Lonnie's way of thinking. Her body bobbed on the surface as her mind wandered, not resting on any one subject. The timer reminded her that she wanted to go out for a few hours.
Lonnie lifted a long muscular leg and waved it in front of the sensor to shut the water jets off. Pulling herself out, she picked up a thick towel and while drying off she studied the advertisements for night spots as they flashed across the room's screen.
* * *
Dressed for the evening, Lonnie stepped out to the line of autocabs parked along the hotel curb. She was taken to Carobs Corner, a popular nightclub. Lonnie was neither a drinker nor a serious bar cruiser, so arriving before the hardcore regulars seemed a good solution to solving her restlessness as well as her distaste for crowds.
Tables were scattered in an arc around the dance floor. Lonnie's eyes scanned for the exits, closets, telecom area, and the locations of various private rooms, the stairs, and manger's office. Those areas were to be avoided as potential dangers.
Once orientated, she signaled for the bartender. The bartender was Aberlian. Having six arms and two heads helped in many service jobs.
"I'll have a Queen's Lime Banana."
"Not much of a drinker, huh?" One head smiled while the other watched the action on the floor.
Lonnie provided her eye for a scan and once her identity was verified she was given her drink.
Lonnie felt someone slide onto the seat next to her. The energy of the person gave her unpleasant goose bumps on her arms.
"Lonnie? Lonnie whatchamacallit. The dancer. Right?" a young Erulian gushed. Her green antennas were twitching. She stuck her hand out with her fingertips quivering.
Lonnie knew that the tips of her fingers had minute suction cups that could be coated with an enzyme to make her defenseless. She ignored the woman's hand, wondering how the Erulian knew her because she didn't look the type that was interested in traveling on space liners.
"I just want to shake your hand. Woman, I saw you dance at the festival three months back. You were great!"
"It must have been someone else." She dismissed the woman with a nod and returned to her drink. She thought back to the festival on Cau'M. It was a private celebration and not one the Erulian would have been invited to, even as worker. So who were the people at her table that put her up to approaching her and knew of the party? Lonnie decided on the wait and see approach.
The bartender returned to Lonnie, watching the Erulian walk away disgruntled. "Word of advice?" the bartender offered in an undertone.
"If it doesn't cost me a fortune, I'm willing to listen."
"Hire yourself a bodyguard tonight. That kid runs around with a rough crowd. I don't think she's pleased with you getting past her game. We have good autocops that keep close tabs on who goes into the private rooms, and we usually don't let anyone leave here that's been drugged, but it doesn't mean when we get busy that they can't haul you off someplace."
"I saw you and that blond babe, Hea Conway, at the Fallen Inn on Elcons Fati. I didn't want to bother you, but seeing as how it's out now." The bartender took a deep breath from one mouth. Suddenly his second head's neck stretched out long and peered over the bar counter as if looking for a snoop, then came back. "I was on my second honeymoon with my spouse of fifty-seven years. You gave us a memorable last two nights." Four sets of eyebrows bobbed up and down suggestively.
Lonnie laughed. "I remember her. She lasted two nights and that was it. She decided dancing like that was too hot for her. Settled down in Nar'oth on Vitma, the last I heard."
"There's only mining and heavy industry on that planet, and some wild bars. What she going to do there?"
"Produce more workers I would imagine. Her family married her off."
The bartender gestured with two of six arms to another Aberlian that joined them. "This is my spouse, Elimie and I'm Dirm."
Lonnie nodded at Elimie.
"She needs a bodyguard, Eli."
Elimie glanced at the crowd that the young Erulian was sitting with. "I saw her try her con. They've been warned often enough to not bother customers. I was hoping the new security system would deter them. I guess they're on drugs again and have no sense." She looked at Lonnie. "I'll give you free of charge protection just in return for that freebee you gave us on our second honeymoon about a year back."
Lonnie felt embarrassed. "I didn't do it for anyone. I just felt like it." She then smiled shyly. "I sure had fun for those two nights." She also put a successful bid on a mine for one of Shari's clients and gave HQ Intel on the new mine owner's drunken son who had all the makings of a psychopath. It made her wonder about the parents.
"You wouldn't happen to be in the mood, would you? I mean, I'm not asking. I know you artist types need a break now and then, and the crowd in here may never have seen that type of dancing." Elimie leaned forward with one head and added in an undertone. "They don't know what they're missing."
Lonnie thought about the new agreement. She was not on the ship; this was her own time; and it was advertisement, which would thrill Erich. "I'll make a deal with ya'all. Two dances for bodyguard services for the time I'm in here."
"Woooh! I'll take that!" Elimie said.
"Okay. You pick the music."
Dirm shut the music box off and turned another light on. He shouted down the noise and gave Lonnie a proper introduction and a warning that anyone who got close to the performer would be bounced to the sidewalk for the rest of the night.
Lonnie examined the crowd. They all looked too young, too into themselves, and not the type to take planet cruises. As the music began she immersed herself in the tempo. She tested the sounds of her heels during the first dance. Not the same sounds she was accustomed to, but it would do. When she finished the first dance she could feel the crowd's interest. The intro to the second was an old flamenco song and wondered where Dirm found it. Her dance was sensuous and flirtatious with an imagined partner though she suspected no one realized that. When she finished, the applause, whistles, and hoots were thunderous in the suddenly small night club. Smiling to herself she decided she did her part in introducing the young to a great art. Bowing, she turned to step off the floor when she was grabbed from behind. By the position of the arm around her the person was shorter than her, and by her bodyguard's surprised and happy expression it wasn't something for her to worry about. Looking over her shoulder, a puff of alcohol greeted her from Kali Maxine.
"You think you have it made now that I'm your partner. Well just remember it's for ten months and then you're back to dancing in bars for pittance," was the slurred semi-threat.
Another song began and her new dance partner more or less pushed her into the next routine. A rough bump of Kali's left hip against her right would have been bruising if Kali wasn't so inebriated and lacked full weight behind it.
The sound advice of, never upstage a diva, ran through Lonnie's mind. If Lonnie knew this was where the diva intended to party she would have picked another bar. Any more of these type of encounters with the diva their partnership may never leave port intact.
When the music finished and the diva was busy wooing the crowd, Lonnie moved quickly off the dance floor. Elimie was behind her immediately, and amid the cheers and a pressing crowd that had grown suddenly, she wrapped two arms protectively around Lonnie. Her other four pushed a path clear for them. Autocabs were disembarking, stacking one behind the other as people hurried into the club, hearing from friends already present that a dancer was giving a performance.
Lonnie made a safe escape.
The next morning Lonnie was sitting in the weak sun having breakfast after a heavier than usual workout in the hotel exercise room. She was not expecting much today in the way of working on dance routines. She had a feeling it was going to be a waste of time with the diva jockeying for dominance when in the long run, it was a partnership that would make the ten months either a long haul or a pleasant one.
A compositor was dropped in front of her. She looked up startled. Erich looked furious.
"Am I late for a meeting?" She glanced at her wrist calendar and timer. It could not be the diva reporting her for bad behavior because it was too early for her.
"Did you have to cause a riot?"
"What are you talking about?" Lonnie looked down at the compositor. Laughing, she gestured disdainfully at the compositor. The images were outrageous and obvious fakes. "You're my agent. Sue them for slander."
The collection of images were of someone that looked like her, and Diva Kali Maxine. The person that was supposed to be her had a bruised eye, and Diva Kali Maxine was shaking a fist at her. Then there was a person not even wearing the same clothing she wore last night, lying under a fist flying diva, mislabeled that it was her. Lonnie was impressed the diva knew how to fight, if the image was real.
"Were you there?"
"Yes, early in the evening, and I left just as the regular crowd was arriving. I also danced two solo dances and a third was commandeered by my partner who showed up with her group. I left after that dance."
"You two didn't have an argument?"
"I didn't speak to her. She did all the talking and it was during the dance where no one could hear what she said."
"None of what is written happened?"
Lonnie read the entire article, a short one paragraph bit of nothing, meant to scandalize. When finished she looked up and grinned. "The only thing truthful was we danced one dance together."
Erich sighed and tapped his wrist communicator. He ordered papers to be filed to sue the news media for character assassination. He tapped it off.
"The public remembers pictures better than retractions. I'll schedule some public rehearsals where you both can be great chums. Wear a nice costume tomorrow," he said.
Lonnie's brows lifted in amusement. "If it looks too professional they'll know it's been staged and have a lot to say about that."
"Plain – black - nothing fancy." He nodded more to himself as he pictured what he wanted. "Well, what did she tell you?"
"What every self-centered diva would say in her position."
"That you're nothing without her."
Lonnie nodded. She wondered if he would give her a pep talk or just leave things as they are, hoping the relationship would develop better on the cruise.
Erich studied her. "You know, you keep surprising me." He leaned forward. "You remind me of someone that's just waiting until her contract runs out so she can leave, whereas, with Kali Maxine, she has the talent to get back to the top of dance, and she will do it if she can get it together. I'm putting her where she doesn't have distractions so she can concentrate on losing this contentious and problem child aura, and where she can see what being professional is really like. Old Ben told me you could be a good mentor to aspiring dancers but you don't want to be bothered. I'm asking you to do me this favor and work with her. She's got to stop putting herself in these situations where she gets negative publicity!"
"She's a keg of dynamite ready to blow, Erich. She's so pissed off at everyone that she doesn't know what being nice is anymore. I'll do what I can, but I won't take the abuse she dumped on her previous partners."
"You two have today and tomorrow to prepare. I'll get some publicity shots setup. Everything has been arranged on the liner so you shouldn't need to see me before you sail. I need to spend some time with my other clients. Why can't they be as amiable as you?"
"Ah, a stable of unambitious performers," she said. She did not feel he heard much of what she said. He had his goals and that was what he was focused on.
"You're more than what you give yourself credit for." He then left.
And don't think I didn't catch all your subtle and not too subtle innuendos. You're pressing too hard for me to end this contract…Now what's up with that? Is he afraid I'm going to compete against the diva? Hardly. If he's done all that research on me than he knows I'm content where I am. So why does he want me out of the business? Does he know about HQ? He bit HQs bait.
* * *
Kali didn't show for practice the remaining two days so Lonnie and Andres reviewed tapes on Kali and arranged a program. Of course, there were plenty of publicity news photos as Erich said there was going to be but it was of the diva without her cruise partner. According to the media she planned on taking a year off to work on a new show.
Lonnie took that time to perfect some new steps. The ship shows were billed as partner dancing, interspersed with singles. She enjoyed her solos which made up for not having a particularly good partner, and in this case, not having a particularly pleasant one.
On launch day, Lonnie didn't see any sign of Kali or the entourage Lonnie imaged she would be traveling with. She was hoping the diva was reviewing tapes of the practice sessions. Andres regularly taped practice sessions to use as teaching tools for the musicians and dancers. After stowing her gear, she met the musicians for a warm-up, and a sound check on the remodeled stage in Earl Gray'sFlorentine Showroom.
Still no Kali. However, scuttlebutt had it she was aboard. The ship's atmosphere was different than what it had been in the past. Lonnie was certain it had to do with a 'real' star being on board.
Lonnie stood in the center of the stage, dressed in new black sequined short jacket with solid black pants rather than a dress she had worn with previous male dancers. This was a different gig. Her shortened hair was slicked back, showing off her strong jaw line and cerulean eyes that darkened to purple during extremely passionate dances. Her castanets were cupped in the palms of her hands curled on her hips as she waited for Andres to begin the introduction of the first dance, cachucha.
The audience's murmuring had ceased when the lights went low. Lonnie gave up hope that her partner would show early for a warm up and now just hoped she showed in time to do her solo dance. Lonnie's opening dance was long, not just because she enjoyed the music and the energy her loyal following put out but it helped her get rid of her first night jitters. The usual feel of skirts swirling around her legs was absent, and so was the heavy bun at the base of her neck that kept her long hair in place. This cruise was different on a lot of levels.
At its finish while the applause filled the room and broke the spell of her dance, Lonnie's eyes searched for the diva or her representative. Music for the next dance began and Lonnie continued without her. Her second dance was a lighthearted flamenco. Again applause filled the hall as the audience whistled and whooped following her bow.
Her dance routines and costumes varied from year to year as did her dance partners, to keep it fresh for herself and her audience. Her shows filled enough seats in the two hundred seated auditorium to be assigned the hall twice a week for her performances. The rest of her performances were in smaller theatres.
After her second solo, the musicians began to play Diva Kali Maxine's opening solo, an adagio, usually part of the classical pas de deux in ballet. The pas de deux (duet) usually starts out with the male partner supporting the female partner while she did turns and balances, then the male does a solo and then the female does her solo. They then finish with a fast coda, dancing together. Lonnie was curious what the diva was up to since Andres said it was to be her solo.
Lonnie's breath caught as she spotted the diva on the other side of the stage, staring out at the crowd. She was stunning. In that moment she realized what Bettelheim saw. She had a magnetism that radiated around her…when she was in performance mode. As the diva regally stepped out onto the stage to take her mark, Lonnie studied her.
Not long into the dance routine Lonnie became disappointed, and by the sounds from the crowd that she just warmed up, they did too. For all her airs and perfectly executed dance steps, it lacked passion. An adagio was not meant for a cruise crowd.
Lonnie returned to the stage after having switched the black embroidered short coat with a long tailed red one. She started the next dance with her castanets clicking and her feet echoing. The guitars played softly as Andres sang a cachucha style song from a time before most of the attending audience was born. Lila sang the female part.
Kali Maxine was back on stage in a different costume, on queue, and the dance went without noticeable irregularities; that is, if she disregarded the diva's avoidance of any embraces, holds, or touching in anything more than a hand to the shoulder or hand to hand. That would prove a problem in future dances. Kali apparently had studied the tapes as Andres and she hoped, and found somewhere to practice alone because she knew the dance routine perfectly.
Lonnie was surprised as the diva pulled a switch in a promenade hold. Their height difference was in inches, though their body types, one slight and the other more solidly built set them apart. The position placed them side by side, facing the same direction, with the dominant position, slightly behind the partner. Left hands were joined and held up and the right hands were joined and held up behind the forward partner. In that position, the diva led the next gigue a deux, a jig for two. It was a mocking gesture that the audience mistook as part of the performance and gave the two performers a resounding ovation when they finished. Both women bowed and when the curtain fell for a final time, Lonnie immediately left.
Back in her cabin, Lonnie was gathering her clothing for a workout in the crew's gym when she heard the diva's voice yelling at someone. She announced in a loud voice that she was looking for her dance partner in the disgusting belly of a beached whale…or something to that effect. Words translated into another language sometimes lose their effect. Lonnie quickly grabbed up her bag and towel and tapped on the adjoining cabin door. Morti, a chef from the fifth level dinning room, opened it promptly, his purple eyes wide in alarm at hearing the diva's angry voice in the corridor.
"Can I escape through your cabin?" Lonnie asked.
"Yes. Do you think she'll give me her autograph?"
"Morti, listen to her. Do you think she's going to do that without damaging you first?"
He gulped audibly. "Maybe you can ask her for me."
"Sure Morti, when I get to be her best friend."
Lonnie peered down the corridor through his door. When the diva disappeared into her cabin, she escaped down the corridor and into the crew's stairway to the gym.
Lonnie's workout was longer than usual. There were few crewmembers in the workout room at this time, as was her intention. When she had no more muscle groups to work on she headed to the crew's hot tub.
She could not do this every time the diva looked for her. If Shari heard about this she would be laughing and giving her "I told you so" for a long time to come. Miserably, she slid further down into the bubbling water. She also had to admit, every time she touched the diva it thrilled her. If she did not know the steps by heart, she would have misstepped. The worst part was when Diva Maxine took the lead, and her heart beat so hard she was afraid she would have a heart attack. This was something she would have to get over quickly.
The soft ding reminded her that she had an appointment with Gish. Pulling herself out, she dried off and wrapped herself in her robe.
"Hi, Lonnie. I got your rock kit and tried it out on Hari," Gish said. "He knows about that technique so he's helping me with the timing of moving rocks to body without leaving burns. How about tomorrow, after your performance, I give you one?"
"I would love it. Is that your slow time?" She dropped her workout bag near the massage table.
"Don't worry about the time. We've been upgraded with a gizmo for those of us that perform services. Get this - it has a meter that tells us when we're working too hard. For you though, being a regular and all, just send me your schedule and I'll make the arrangements."
Naked, Lonnie flopped onto the draped massage table. Under Gish's hands Lonnie felt her muscles pulled, stretched, and then smoothed out.
"Don't you feel kind of dictated to with that thing?" Lonnie's muffled voice floated up from the table.
Gish chuckled softly. "We can override it. It's merely a device that let's us know when we're doing too much. Five months is a long time to work five plus hours a day on peoples' bodies. At least they finally posted the species each masseuse does so we don't have to shuffle around customers."
"Uh huh," Lonnie agreed. Her thoughts drifted into a peaceful sleep.
"Hey my lovely, wake up," Gish whispered near Lonnie's ear.
"You interrupted another great dream, Gish." She yawned. Rolling off the table she paused to stretch to get her blood flowing again. After dressing she moved to the eye scan to pay for the visit.
"This trip you get all yours free. You have my sympathies. Rumor has it, that you'll quit before the end of the tour. I plan on protecting my investment."
"Naturally there would be a bet ridding on this." Lonnie yawned again until her jaw cracked. "I hope those betting against me aren't planning on sabotaging this gig for me."
Gish looked worried. "I hope not too. But listen, if she gets rough, don't feel like you have to stick it out because of the betting."
"I don't care about the betting unless it interferes with my performance. And she's not going to do to me what she did to her male partners."
"Okay. You need anything, let me know."
"Thanks, and see you tomorrow."
As she was scanned for entrance to her quarters, she noted she had company. Since Lonnie had no roommate, a nice bonus for being a regular on the cruise ship for so long, she guessed it would be the diva, no doubt unhappy about something.
"Where have you been?" began a venomous voice. Without waiting for an answer she began a string of insulting remarks.
Lonnie dumped her damp clothes into the auto-launderer, hung up her robe, and stored her bag. She turned to study the diva…Kali Maxine, she quickly corrected. This was just another partner that would be passing through and needed to be clued in what her rules are for the time they were partners. The only difference was that Kali Maxine was Diva and in the business a lot longer than her.
Her green eyes were especially green, maybe because of the clothing she was wearing. Her soft full lips were pulled into a tight angry line, and her cheeks reddened as her tirade continued. Discreetly, Lonnie sniffed the air. She couldn't detect any alcohol or drugs about her uninvited guest, but she did have that scent on that she picked up when dancing with her. Lonnie sighed, giving a small shake of her head to clear her thoughts in what she was about to do.
"Shut up. You're being too loud."
Kali stopped in the middle of her tirade to say, "Don't you dare…"
In a blur, Lonnie jabbed her in two spots at the base of the neck, and then guided her hapless victim gently to the couch in a reclining state. Lonnie knew this was a dangerous thing to do with someone that had control issues. She leaned over the diva, ignoring the feelings her own body was transmitting.
"Number one, we are in a partnership where we show respect for each other in public and private. Number two, you will come to practice sessions and performances sober and on time. We are professional performers and that is how I expect you and me to act henceforth … and number three, loud voices are heard by many on a cruise liner and gossip is second nature in this small city. You will conduct your private life in a private manner."
Kali's eyes were wide open and furious, but no more than she had been when she came in. Lonnie's arms trembled at her nearness. She leaned back, putting space between them. Quickly she stood up.
"I'm tired and I'm turning in. Rehearsal is in fifteen hours. If you still have business to discuss we'll do it then." Lonnie tapped her again over the same points. She pulled the diva to her feet, and gave her a nudge out into the corridor. After closing the door, Lonnie activated the privacy bubble, picked up her guitar, found a comfortable position, and played until her thoughts were peaceful.
* * *
The next day Diva Kali Maxine was at rehearsal on time with her towel, water, her helper, and an attitude. Lonnie schooled a neutral face and was careful what type of energy she put out as her partner approached. Lonnie had received a list of the dances via her cabin console earlier in the morning. Andres had compiled the list from the liner's entertainment director's suggestions, his own experience with the type of audience that was on the liner, and what Bettelheim's long range plans for the diva required. Lonnie had fine tuned the list with Andres and now it was up to her to present it to the diva.
"Shall we warm up first before we discuss what dances we'll be doing tonight?" Lonnie asked.
"And I suppose you think that list of dances you picked will pack them in," Kali Maxine mocked.
Ignoring the remark, she continued. "What we need is to start the show fast and finish with a flourish. In between, we need to keep them awake. Both of us starting off with a solo is not going to work all the time. We need to mix up the routines…"
"Get to the point."
"Andres and I have no idea what your skill levels are in other styles of dance. The liner crowd likes tango, jigs, beguine, samba, flamenco and bolero because they personally can't do them well, and they're fun to watch. Andres is a master at reading the crowd's mood. If he senses restlessness, we can depend on him to change the music which means we must be ready to change styles. To do that we have to build up a repertoire of dances. Do you have anything to add?"
"Yeah, where's the bucket to puke?"
If her face color was not turning a tint of green Lonnie would have thought it was just another rude comment. While the diva took care of her upset stomach with her assistant providing little help, Lonnie went to speak with Andres.
Kali returned looking somewhat better.
They worked on two routines, then at Lonnie's askance, the diva showed them her solo. The moment she started it, Lonnie knew it was wrong for the crowd. Andres stopped the musicians and looked at Lonnie with a furrowed brow. The diva turned in midstep and glared at the musicians, and then Lonnie, who was already walking toward her.
"We already have two slow dances so if you add another it has to have something about it that will excite them. The idea is to make them want to leave here dancing, if only in their imaginations. Can you do bolero?"
"Then I'll show you." She signaled Andres to let the musicians go.
When they were alone, Lonnie demonstrated a short version of the dance sequence. Kali attempted the first four moves without success.
"Focus on the first thee steps, like the maldo but with movement in the hips, then take a big step out, sway the hips out and repeat once more and then two quick steps. That's right. And then speed it up."
A bell sounded, letting them know their time was up and another group would be using the hall.
"The dance steps are available on your viewer, under your name. If you need me to practice with, call me."
The diva's assistant glared at her and nearly pushed the diva out the door as quickly as possible.
Lonnie shook her head at the two.
Their second night in a smaller auditorium was packed and the Chief Purser of Entertainment, CPE, or the Entertainment Director as civilians knew him, had to ask people to leave. Kali saw it as affirmation of her talent but Lonnie knew the people were only curious, and unless they improved their dances, they would lose many of them. They needed more practice time together.
At the finish of their performance, the applause reverberated off the bulkhead. Lonnie was used to enthusiastic applause, but there was more to this one. She patiently waited for the diva to tire from taking bows and was relieved when the lights went out on stage, ending the curtain calls. The diva's costumes and whatever else fans had tossed to her, was gathered by the purser whom the diva's helper was ordering around. Lonnie waited until the diva's entourage was gone before she took her leave.
She showered in her cabin and then visited Gish for her hot rock massage. To Lonnie's bliss, Gish proved a quick learner.
Before retiring to her cabin, Lonnie rode the elevator to the ninth level to grab a sandwich from the mess hall. Back in her cabin, surrounded with pillows, she munched on her sandwich and read the entertainment available for viewing on the interstellar channels. She switched to interstellar news and was about to change it, when a word caught her attention.
She raised the volume.
"…authorities have attributed the rash of attacks on private vessels in this area to a fringe group led by Br'Mon. So far this group is limiting their attacks on small vessels that don't have much in the way of defense. Some feel they are using this as a practice run for the larger cruise ships and yachts that are not as solidly defended as military ships. Admiral Odon of Strategic Command Forces of Rizon Sector has issued a stern warning, should Br'Mon attack any ships from the Rizon Sector, that there shall be no safe harbor for the Br'Mon lot. I think Br'Mon had better be looking under their beds for the devil."
"On Cele, the other side of Orion's belt, the Enas Mik Clan reported their ship Murdelie has been found adrift in… "
Lonnie switched the channel off. "Just what I needed to hear."
Sitting at her desk, she sent an encrypted message to her handler with HQ. It may not be something she needed to concern herself with, but then again if this group was still in existence after all these years, and now operating in space, she didn't want to take unnecessary chances with her life.
"Now would be a good time to catch up on the trade news, since I can't go to sleep with terrorists on my mind."
She dialed up her subscription and found her services wiped out.
"What's going on here?" She tried a few more and then went into a menu. Her name was not listed. Sighing she picked up the com and called the chief pursuer.
"Hi, this is Lonnie… Yes…. No, I'm doing fine thank you; however, I just logged onto my program menu and I have none. I seem to have been removed from your database and don't have an ID or password… Yes, I would appreciate it. I was intending on catching up on trade news…. Alright. Thanks."
For a few moments, she stared at the screen, thinking about the law of averages of this happening to her. Should she be suspicious? There was nothing in her mail files or communication calls that would indicate she was anything other than what she portrayed herself to be, an entertainer on a cruise ship.
She sat up taller as a new menu appeared on her screen with a message from the purser that until her profile was back in place, she was giving her access to the Super Suites Channels.
"Let's see what the expensive class has to look at. Maybe female mud wrestling."
Instead she found a collection of professional journals. She selected Dance News.
The first article she read had her sitting up and cursing softly under her breath. "How telling, Erich. Did you not think I would hear about this interview?" For a few minutes she concentrated on her breathing. She read the author's name and then sent her veda to the writer. Of course she suspected that the deal with Erich for the exclusive interview was that her name would not be mentioned in the same report with the divas, but there were a lot of writers that would not pass up the scoop of selling it to someone that did not care about someone else's deal. She also sent her veda to another well known snoop who loved to scoop the more established reporters.
"You don't stab one client in the back for another, Erich, especially when you're depending on the one you're doing in, to carry the load."
Moving on to other noteworthy information she scanned as fast as she could, feeling her eyes droop yet wanting to get as much free access as she could. Finally, she turned the viewer off, rearranged her pillows, and went to sleep.
* * *
The next morning she was up early. Others she normally worked out with were already assembled, warming up. Their leader, Crackle, paired them up and had them go through basic patterns, no doubt wanting to see what they lost during their vacation.
Two hours later, Lonnie had a light breakfast, and then headed to the hall for dance rehearsal. She joined a few of the musicians as they walked in the same direction. Everyone was in a good mood. Jeanie, a purser that had worked with her for the last four gigs, had set out water bottles and towels.
After waiting twenty minutes for the diva, Lonnie told Andres, "Well, there went that short period of cooperation. While you all practice I'll go locate our diva and give her another one of my inspiring work ethic speeches."
"Maybe you didn't use the right incentive."
"Give me a little more time. I'll find out what makes her tick."
"It's only the third day. Think you can do it by the sixth?"
"Is this a bet you're wrangling for, Andres?" She could hear him laughing as he tapped his baton to get his musicians attention.
Lonnie left behind the sounds of the musicians tuning their instruments. She took the stairs rather than an elevator for both physical exercise and mental clearing. Outside of the diva's quarters, Lonnie waited for the scan to identify her and then pushed the now unlocked cabin door open. Peering in before stepping across the threshold, she could see a spacious room with four closed doors.
It figures she would have the owner's cabin. It was nice and spacious but it looked too clean for comfort. From what Lonnie assumed was the bedroom, she could hear snoring from more than one person. Bracing herself for what she may see, she peeked in.
"Gods," she whispered. It was a disaster area of scattered clothing, pillows, and… She sniffed delicately. Body odor. Someone had been sick and the air purifier had not been turned on.
In fact… Looking closer she realized it looked and smelled too staged. If it were an orgy, wouldn't the front area be in shambles too? Drugs in plain view were on a night table and perfectly arranged.
In the dim lighting she spotted Kali Maxine, snoring noisily on the bed as naked as the two adolescent boys wrapped around her. This was not how she wanted to see her partner. She realized as she looked around that if she kept getting exposed to this side of Kali Maxine, she would never be looking at another poster of her as a fan.
Lonnie's eyes returned to the table with drug paraphernalia. She thought about dumping the drugs in a waste receptacle except it would notify security that drugs were aboard and have her scent on them.
The third rough shake woke one of the boys. She dropped what she guessed were his clothes on top of him and then went to the other, giving him the same rough treatment. Not saying anything, the two stumbled out of the cabin after fumbling into their clothes under Lonnie's stern eye. One gathered up the drugs greedily. That left more clothes scattered around the bed then what the diva would wear. Lifting a shoe that was too small to fit Kali or the two boys, a small suspicion began to form in her mind.
Lonnie turned back to her diva and could see reddened eyes blinking open at her, looking confused.
"You missed rehearsal." Lonnie kept her tone neutral.
"Conessa must have forgotten to wake me." Her stomach made threatening noises, and her face turned pale.
Lonnie lifted a sheet from the floor and laid it on the bed.
"We rehearse everyday. You're breathing too hard after each number to not build up your stamina, and we need to work on our steps together."
"I'll be at tomorrow's." She pulled the sheet around her.
"Our show is in three hours; they've bumped our time to a noon show and moved us to the Tea and Orange room to cover for another group that came down sick. That's deck seven, aft. If you can't find it, ask." Lonnie turned and left.
* * *
Two and a half-hours later Lonnie was stretching behind the stage, keeping warmed up. She was about to send Jeanie to find Kali when she entered the backstage looking ill. Her costumes were draped over her arm, dragging on the deck. Jeanie rushed forward to take the costumes. Lonnie glanced at Andres who shrugged his shoulders.
"What happened to you?" Lonnie asked softly. She took one of the costumes from Jeanie and guided Kali into the small area for dressing.
"I got lost. No one could tell me where this place was."
"Let's get you changed. And later I'll explain how to find an information kiosk on every deck where you can ask for directions."
The two worked quickly, removing Kali's clothing and getting her into the dress, then combing her hair back and securing it in place. The good thing about their costumes was they were easily put on and taken off.
"Can you dance to that music?" Lonnie asked, hearing the intro music Andres started on time.
"Yes. It's beginner's stuff."
"Then go." Lonnie pushed her gently toward the curtain, hoping she was not going to fall flat on her face.
It was a beginner's dance, a bulerias, but a talented dancer would have replaced the simple steps with more intricate ones. Unfortunately, the diva did not improvise. Her perfectly executed simple steps didn't woo the audience.
Andres picked jigs and flamencos for the next four sets. It was a disappointing night for Lonnie. By the nervous glances Lonnie was getting from her partner, Lonnie gathered the diva was not immune to her poor performance. Lonnie saw no point in speaking of it further.
"Rehearsal is at seven in the morning in this hall. See you all then."
Conessa showed up as the musicians filed out. She made a move to push Jeanie away from Kali, however Kali inserted herself between the two, saying something to her. If Kali had not stepped between the two, Lonnie would have said something. Hired help abusing hired help was not something Lonnie tolerated.
Kali turned and stepped toward her as if she wanted to say something. The dancing put some color back in her face, and she was standing taller. At that moment, a group of young men entered the backstage. Spotting Kali, called out to her. Kali's charm automatically turned on. Laughing and in a gay and playful mood, Kali allowed them to escort her out, past her helper who was bunching up the costumes while sending glares toward their disappearing backs. Since the diva didn't bring a cart to stow them Conessa was left with carrying the arm load back to their quarters.
Jeanie glanced at Lonnie and made a face. Both women shook their heads.
"She's going to be a hard one," Andres said, joining Lonnie at the crews' elevator.
"Hopefully, she will loosen up before half the tour is over."
"I remember how persuasive you used to be, so I'm sure you'll get her in tow soon enough. I want to thank you for recommending me to your agent. He's impressive with his knowledge about talent." He glanced at her uncomfortably. "I got the impression he's very focused on getting this lost diva up in star lights."
"Uh huh. We didn't do well on that performance. I can dance with the syncopated rhythm, but it seems to confuse her. For now we need to keep the music so the main beat is clear enough for her to follow."
"Her tapes didn't show that difficulty. We have five months to work on it, then five more to polish it up but it could also be she's not feeling well. I noticed she hasn't been feeling too good these last few days."
"She wasn't on drugs tonight. She could be suffering from space sickness. Let's give her a chance to do something for herself. If by the next warm-up she's still ill, I'll step in. Do you know who those two boys with the metal in their ears and nose are?"
They both got off the elevator and walked toward their quarters.
"They're the nephews of the cruise liner's owner. Orwin is the oldest, and the taller of the two. He seems to think he owns this ship and does a lot of bragging, like nare-do-wells do. The younger one goes by Kal, but I got the impression he has another name."
Following rehearsal the next day Kali Maxine was hanging onto the sides of the bulkhead heaving her guts out. Kali was not on drugs. Lonnie figured Kali's problem was either psychological or physical. It was not stage fright that was certain.
Conessa was not around to interfere and with a nod from Andres, he would see they were not disturbed while Lonnie had her heart-to-heart talk with Kali. Jeanie handed Lonnie a wet cloth and bottled water and then left.
Kali Maxine slid down the bulkhead and sat with her head between her shaking legs. Lonnie sat on the deck beside her.
"This is about fear, isn't it?" Lonnie asked softly. "No one is taping this conversation." She held up her voice and image scrambler, located in a ring. "I have my trusty PD here."
"What is it?"
"A ring that blocks people from capturing my image or voice without my say-so."
Kali wiped the sweat from her brow with the damp towel Lonnie provided her, then took a sip of water. "That's why they couldn't take your picture at the bar?"
"Yes. They had to use someone else's picture and paint my face over. You've made yourself an easy mark for the one night glory seekers by not wearing one." After a few moments she returned to the current problem. "So, what is it about traveling space liners? Being out in space?"
Kali stared at her hands in her lap, clutching the wet towel. They were still trembling. "I thought I got over this."
"I don't… I just… I have bad memories about being on a ship."
"Were you alone? Did someone attack you?"
The diva snorted in contempt. A trembling hand wiped away a tear. "I was with my family."
Lonnie remained quiet.
"My family was one among many others. I remembered we moved often and always slept crowded with others, probably in the cargo bay. Nokie Drake was performing on that cruise. Every night he invited young girls from below decks onto the stage to dance with him, but when the more affluent passengers weren't around. He was looking for a talented child to mentor, he said. I wanted to be that girl. He liked the way I danced. Arrangements were made for him to have legal custody of me.
"He waited until my parents left the ship before he introduced me to his ways. I was kept secluded in his room until the end of the voyage. By then I knew what was expected of me." Her voice sunk so low Lonnie had to strain to hear it.
Lonnie knew about Nokie Drake. She wondered if he was still serving time for child molestation. Normally it would have been hushed up, but one victim had committed suicide in public, leaving a much publicized suicide note.
"How long were you with him?" Lonnie asked quietly, successfully holding her anger in check.
"Way past his interest in me. Where was I supposed to go? Nokie said I came from a family of labor nomads with no home planet. I decided to make the best of where I was. I had a job, a roof over my head, and regular meals. I became another member of his staff that took advantage of learning tricks of the trade from celebrities he associated with." Her hands were clasped together. "They all were like him, interested in children, so there came a time when I didn't have to worry about them."
"Why haven't you sought help for dealing with this experience?" Lonnie asked before she could stop herself.
"What does it matter to you?"
Her tone should not have taken Lonnie by surprise. Lonnie, after all, was not a friend and was meddling in a private affair. But she started it so she was going to finish it. "Do you want to be number one in dance?"
"I want off this cruise liner."
"You have an opportunity to face your demons. Don't waste it. You already know how tough it is to get to the top and stay there. Being captive to your fears sets you up with others that will know your vulnerability and take advantage of it."
Kali rose to her feet and tossed her towel on her suitcase. Lonnie waited, hoping she would say something. Green eyes flickered to hers, and then away, trying to hide the tears that were trickling down her face.
"Have you been on a ship since?"
Kali silently shut her bag and prepared to leave.
"Tonight we have off, and there isn't any rehearsal space available. Practice on your own as much as you can."
Nothing could be gained by pushing her, Lonnie reminded herself. "Are you going to be alright? Do you want me to walk with you to your cabin?"
Finding no other reason to stay, Lonnie was about to leave when she remembered her ring. The woman appeared pale, fragile, and too much like the proverbial damsel in distress. Taking off the PD ring, she slipped it on the diva's finger.
Conessa was anxiously waiting outside the door keeping the boys at bay. When she saw Lonnie exit she pushed past her to get to her employer. The boys who were going to follow stopped when Lonnie pointed a finger at them and gave them an icy glare.
"If you want to visit with the diva, there will be no more private meetings in her cabin, no drugs around her, and no underage sex."
"They're not our drugs. Conessa supplies them, and we get to keep what's left over," Orwin, the oldest cousin retorted. "And we're old enough."
"Her manager," he gestured to the diva's helper.
The way Orwin and Kal were fidgeting, she had a feeling Orwin had left a lot out, and remembering how she had found them she guessed what it may be about. "Conessa is not her manager, and drugs are illegal. You'll not be spending any more time in her cabin, or it won't be just security I'll be speaking with."
Orwin glared at her.
"I'm sure your free trips on your uncle's ships will end if Englo hears of your behavior."
Kal grabbed Orwin's arm and pulled him up the corridor. Orwin wrestled his arm free and stomped after his younger brother.
Englo Brighton was Clamont Stanley's secretary, and for a long time was thought to be one of Clamont Stanley's partners, giving him more say then most secretaries on business matters.
* * *
Lonnie spent an hour with the commander of security. She was aware that he had attended all her performances since she had worked aboard this Earl Gray. The commander's lover, Chief Purser of Entertainment, CPE, was also an avid fan of hers which was probably why she had originally been sought for a long term contract on Earl Gray. Of course it helped that she was perfectly content to work on the cruise ship. She and Jol Hrorian, the CPE, had a good relationship, and met often for lunch with some of the other performers.
Jol Hrorian had a good eye for picking out what type of entertainment the passengers would like. Though Lonnie didn't consider herself a main attraction, Jol and the ship's owner did. Her loyal fans that booked yearly to see her made it important for them to keep Lonnie happy, which meant seeing that fans didn't annoy her.
"Drugs and the politics of theatre society," Commander Maltieani Co said. "Nasty business. I'll look into this Conessa's background. She looked different the first time you saw her, you say? Maybe for her culture a maid or assistant is called conessa, like burg is always used after the name of someone that is a waiter on Alman." He studied her for a few moments. "You may get burned by that diva, you know?"
"Ah, her reputation extends into the reaches of space; however, I'm not her type, Maltieani." Lonnie's long legs were stretched out before her. She was enjoying a drink she was sure he didn't share with many visitors. It was a rare vintage wine from a planet the old Earl Gray docked at as a regular stop about four years ago. She wondered how he managed to get a bottle of their finest. She held up her glass and looked at the color. This was a new shade. She glanced at Maltieani and raised her eyebrows in askance.
"I'm not saying how I got it." He leaned back in his chair, pleased with his drink, company, and this problem before him. "By your description of this helper, would you say that she's acting like she's settling a score? I hear a lot of that goes on with stars."
Lonnie thought about it. "Could very well be. Do you think you can find out where Conessa is keeping the drugs without involving Diva Maxine?"
"I'll get someone I trust to look around." After another sip of his wine, he admitted, "I'm disturbed that she was able to smuggle drugs past our drug sniffers. That calls for an internal investigation of my staff." He stared at his wine glass for a few moments, his brow wrinkled in deep thought.
"We need to figure out what the repercussions are going to be if Conessa has something on the nephews and the diva that she's taking to the press. I'm sure the nephews of the owner were picked for a reason."
"I'll start research on Conessa's employment starting with who hired her. I personally don't like the woman. She's stirring up trouble below decks with rumors about you and Diva Maxine." He looked at her over the rim of his glass. "In case this runs into costs the cruise liner is not covered for, who do I bill?"
"Our agent, Erich Bettleheim. Send him a report and tell him it's on my request. His family is well-connected; let's see what he's going to do with this." Looking at Maltieani she caught his grin. "So, just what is she saying about us below decks that I haven't heard?"
Maltieani's grin turned into a big smile. He leaned forward to refill Lonnie's glass.
"Shall we compare notes to see whose mouths are better informed?" he asked.
Lonnie smiled back.
The captain's shuttle, the CSMermaid, was full with ship officials and others on the SDL. Disembarking to go planet-side normally took several hours from all the security checks and tourist information that was dispensed.
At almost every port Lonnie had something planned and in some cases friends were on hand. Her need for communion with nature was a bone deep urge that prevented her from being content with just space travel, even though the views of nebulas and stellar dust storms were awe-inspiring.
"Hey, Lonnie! It's so good to see you." Cora grabbed her and embraced her. "How did you get off so quickly?"
"I finally made the SDL." Lonnie spread herself around the group getting hugs.
"Aren't you special? We got your message about the performance at The Dance Hall. Luckily we purchased our tickets right then. Bea said it sold out by the afternoon. Everyone wants to see Diva Kali Maxine and you dressed in those tight fitting outfits." Cora wrapped her arm around Lonnie's forearm and walked her out of the busy terminal to the autocabs lined up along the curb. "Seeing you without long hair is different. It's going to make it easier on some of your activities."
"It is. Where can I dump my grip?"
"In the back." Lettie took Lonnie's bag and tossed it into the trunk. "We're going to have dinner at La Sinque. It looks like a dive on the outside but one of my client's says it has great food, good service, and it's always packed."
The group broke to spread themselves out into various autocabs. As her cab prepared to move out in a caravan Lonnie caught a glimpse of Kali Maxine looking lost amid the people grabbing at her for autographs. Without thinking she pushed open the cab door and hopped out. "I'll be right back."
Elma slid out to see what had Lonnie so concerned. "I'll wait with her," Elma told the others. "Go on and get things going." She slid back into the cab with a grin on her face. She always wondered what Diva Maxine was like in person.
Lonnie pushed and separated the youth surrounding the diva wondering why they were so young. How could they possibly know anything about professional dance? Her eyes spotted a group of news people taking pictures. She was hoping Kali remembered to activate her PD.
"You have a ride?" Lonnie asked when she was near Kali's elbow. Lonnie looked around for Conessa whom she would rather steer clear of.
"Lonnie," Kali greeted, sounding relieved. "I…no. Conessa told me she had some business to finish up, and I thought I could handle this."
"Are you protected this time?" Lonnie asked as she guided Kali through the throng of youth.
"Protected? Oh. Yes. I bought one of those rings like yours. I need to return yours."
"Good." Lonnie directed her to their cab. "What's with the kids? Is your publicist mixing your name with someone else?"
"Hm?" She looked back at the kids that were now milling around yelling and creating too much noise for politeness.
"They're not exactly the age group interested in professional dance," Lonnie said.
Kali ducked to enter the cab, then hesitated when she saw someone already in it.
"Hi, I'm Elma Lin. Do we need to check to see if your costumes arrived at the theatre or just head to the restaurant?" she asked.
"Let's head to the restaurant," Lonnie answered. "Andres is our musician manger this go-round. He'll check to see that everything is on site."
Knowing Lonnie's dislike to discuss business Eli wondered what she could say to relax the two performers. "So, Lonnie, find any new instrument to play?"
"No." The tone did not invite any more questions.
The cab ride was thankfully short. Everything was intentionally close to the transportation terminal. The rest of the group was already seated at a table enjoying appetizers and drinks. It was warm outside so the liquid refreshment flowed. The conversation was lively and about everything and anything that did not personally involve Lonnie or Kali's private lives. Lonnie had told Bea who made the arrangements that there was to be no alcohol at the table and was pleased that her request had been honored. After Lonnie introduced everyone she rose to go to the restroom.
"Where are you going?" Kali whispered anxiously.
"To the restroom. Need to go?"
Kali jumped up to join her.
At the sink while they both washed their hands Lonnie could see Kali's hands were shaking.
"Are you okay with the gang? I could drop you off at your hotel."
Kali shook her head. "I'm not staying at a hotel. I was going to just have a look at the theatre and walk the stage if I could."
"Are you alright?"
"I've never been out alone before. I wanted to see if I could do it." She let out an aggravated sigh. "It should be a no brainer, Lonnie. I listened to the directions. I memorized what to say to the autocabs, and what to look for should I somehow get off course. Yet, when I step into a crowd in unfamiliar territory I lose my sense of direction."
"It's like a new dance routine, Kali. Practice it enough and it'll be effortless."
"Are you patronizing me?"
"It's advice. At each port stop, set yourself a goal of what you want to accomplish. At this one, you wanted to get to the theatre on your own…and you will. You ran into a stumbling block, and a solution was found by using an outside resource. Me. You'll get to the theatre, but it's a nice delay, don't you think?"
Kali's laugh sounded relieved. "You're a nice resource to use and this isn't all that an unpleasant delay." For a few moments they both regarded each other through the mirror reflection. "Thanks for rescuing me and inviting me to join you and your friends, Lonnie."
Lonnie didn't dare bask in the relaxed conversation of Kali's benevolent nature least her mercurial temper suddenly turn sour. "We'll be heading to the outback when the performance is over. I usually spend two days at Cora's ranch, unwinding."
"What do you do on a ranch?"
"Depends on my mood. Sometimes I work livestock, help trap an injured animal on the wildlife preserve, run equipment to maintain the ranch, or just climb the cliffs not too far away. Then there's a lot of nice trails to walk or run early in the morning."
"In two days you do all that?"
"I try to live as much as I can from sunup to sundown. Come on. They're going to think we deserted them. By the way, what drug did you take before you disembarked?"
Kali looked at her suspiciously.
"Just so that whatever you eat and drink doesn't clash."
"A tranquilizer Conessa ordered for me."
Lonnie nodded and held the door open for Kali.
* * *
If Kali was on a tranquilizer, it was not doing its job. Her nervousness seemed to worsen as the evening progressed. She ate little and drank a lot of water. Lonnie knew little about the drug but she had always been under the impression that eating regular meals was recommended. Maybe her habit was not to eat before performances; especially since lately her stomach was upset.
At the hall, Lonnie and Kali headed to the performers side entrance and the others headed to the main entrance to take their seats.
"When was the last time you saw a doctor about your prescription for tranqs?"
"I hate doctors," Kali shivered.
"You trust Conessa over a doctor? Cora is a doctor. Do you hate her?"
"Cora? She's really nice."
"She is. She runs a clinic in the outback. I stay at her ranch when Earl Gray is in port here."
"Is she your doctor?"
"Oh. Do you have a lover here?"
That question took Lonnie off-guard and for a long moment she was silent. It was from extracting the thrill of Kali being interested in her life and her cautious nature of giving out that personal of information.
"If anyone is my lover, no one will know about it."
Lonnie glanced at Kali and smiled. "I do tend to like the unavailable. Dream lovers are nice and safe." She willed her heart to stop beating fast, but it was annoying that her own body was betraying her.
"Keeping distance," Kali said knowingly.
Lonnie studied Kali's face to see if she knew more than what Lonnie intended to reveal about herself.
* * *
Their act was the second of seven performances scheduled that night. That meant Lonnie would get enough sleep before getting up early the next morning.
Kali and Lonnie warmed up while Andres sized up their audience. When he came back, he nodded to Lonnie that they would stick to the program of a tango, flamenco and flamop, a mix of flamenco with old opera.
The intro had them holding hands. Lonnie squeezed Kali's hand that was trembling. As they danced, Lonnie found it necessary to whisper each move: bounce, bounce, chug, close, point and slide, cross, stamp, stamp, hop-point, and cut, bounce, bounce, step-out, out, out, cut, dip, stomp, stomp, jump and kick, slide, slide and close, cross, swing left, cross and dip. Kali's uncertainty had her leaning closer into Lonnie and holding on her longer than usual. It was an improvement in one case but Lonnie did not want to sacrifice Kali's confidence for closer contact. Lonnie attributed her lapse to the tranq.
They received a standing ovation at the end of their performance. Following their bows, Lonnie kept a tight hold on Kali's hand, though by the way Kali held on she did not think she would loose her in the crowd. Conessa was waiting near the dressing rooms, which Lonnie steered them away from and directly to the exit, letting the crowd run interference as Conessa, realizing they were not going to return to their dressing room, began to elbow her way toward them.
The vancab that would be transporting them to Cora's, was near the curb, and into it she pushed a now sluggish Kali.
"Let's get out of here quick," Lonnie directed.
"Yo, Lonnie. What's with her?" Bella asked from the front seat.
"Bad tranqs I'm guessing. Cora?" Lonnie asked.
Cora felt her pulse and looked in her eyes. Kali did not look well. Cora leaned over to the autovan's console and keyed in her ID. The van suddenly took off with a small light flashing. Cora used the body scanner from the van's small emergency medi-kit and gave her something to counter the drug's effects.
By the time they arrived at Cora's ranch Kali was sleeping peacefully. Cora gave a thorough exam of Kali, while Lonnie made use of the TPP, TransPlanet Phone. She didn't wake up Erich, but by the noise in the background, she was interrupting something fun.
"A gang from Eisen, calling themselves the Connections think they will own her when her contract with me ends. That's in seven years," Erich informed her.
"A gang? How did that happen?"
"Their lawyer claims she signed a contract with their conessa, a representative of their organization. The present conessa is a new member of their org. They don't know that much about her, just that she gets results. My inside mouth told me they want her sooner than seven years and this woman promised them that she would get the diva to break her contract with me in a year."
"She's been given some bad tranqs by Conessa. For this entire voyage she's been ill." Lonnie hoped her tone did not sound as upset as she felt about it.
"There's some dark business about this, but I know Kali was a free agent when she signed with me and she hasn't signed any contracts since."
"She's been over managed, Erich. Did you know that she hasn't been out in public without a manager for as long as she can remember?"
"I'm looking for a new assistant for her. I've already notified the captain, Conessa is no longer employed by me and she is to have her belongings moved out of Kali's suite before she returns from shore leave. I've given him a heads up about that woman. I'll talk to you later."
Erich's disconnect did not give her a chance to pursue her inquiry into just what this assistant would do. She hung up the phone and stared at it.
"Hey, gal. Don't stay up too late. We start early and I don't want you to be missing anything," Bella said. "Your diva, she'll be alright. She had a reaction to whatever was in that tranquilizer. Someone is buying her cheap stuff, probably pocketing the extra credits."
"That's my guess too. One more call and I'll get to bed." She called Commander Maltieani Co on Earl Gray and explained the situation. She added, "Maltieani, she has an unnatural fear of physicians so if he visits…"
"It's a woman, Lyn Pratt, from your neck of the woods, I believe. I know you never visit medical. You must have something against doctors too," he chuckled. "I'll pass that on to the Doc. What about Conessa? She's fit to be tied when her diva went off with you. She demanded I send out a squad of my people to drag her back here, claiming you were trying to kill her, among other things."
"Kill her? That's a bit overdramatic. Conessa's going to be a problem. Erich said he sent over some information to you on her."
"Yeah. He said she's a member of Connections, a gang back in ShpNer on Eisen. If Maxine was on drugs when this group signed her up, she probably didn't know what she signed. I thought they passed that intergalactic law that says all contracts signed must be accompanied with a bio-scan."
"That's what the agent is checking out now."
"I'll dig some more. By next port I'll have something. Have a great time and don't worry. I have the crew watching out for her. By the way, Conessa was paying the cabin purser to program the maid bots to leave certain rooms untouched. The purser thinks she was taking pictures."
"Ah. Selling to the news media perhaps or planting evidence. She's up to something more than discrediting Kali."
Both signed off.
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