Lilly bulb shoots unobtrusively trimming a bland condominium complex in a Sydney suburb were carefully parted as a small figure in an overcoat and fedora slipped into a window under the cover of darkness in the wee hours of a Sunday morning.
Once inside the condominium of former IASA employee Amelia Parker, the figure deftly snuck through the condo and found it to be unoccupied. The overcoat and fedora was then discarded to reveal Chiana in nothing but a red haired wig and a coating of paint that made her appear fair skinned. The sleuthing Nebari stuffed the overcoat and fedora into a large spare purse and helped herself to a closer inspection of the area.
An abruptly abandoned Sydney condo was all Chiana needed to see to be convinced that the haughty Amelia Parker had gone with the wind. But Chiana hadn't gone to the condo to savor her victory. Amelia's very sudden departure was sure to raise some suspicion with the IASA as well as whoever the Styx people were. Chiana expected someone from each party would also be paying Amelia's former home a little visit, and since there had probably been no trace of Amelia through Saturday, they would probably be coming to her condo as soon as this coming morning.
In addition to an overcoat and hat, Chiana had three small pieces of note paper, each featuring the address of the business in Newport that Payne intended to visit. Without too much effort, Chiana was able to forge one word, Monday, in Amelia's hand writing onto the notes. Whoever Amelia was conspiring with might think her careless if they found one, but whomever would be inspecting for the IASA might find it more interesting, probably going by the place later to set up some surveillance for Monday. Probably too late to catch Payne going there but she had ideas to fix that detail.
Although she had managed to enter under excellent cover, leaving could involve a little more risk. So Chiana continued to the bedroom, where she rummaged around until she found a fancy shrouded hat and burgundy dress with massive shoulder pads that formerly belonged to Amelia. Seeing her own reflection in the glass lined closet door beside her, Chiana smiled and interrupted her business for a moment of pleasure. Or humor at least. Pulling a digital camera from the purse she'd brought, she hazarded a flash shot of herself posing fetchingly, with her hands and the camera obscuring her face. Something she might toss into a communication to John some time, just to shake him up a little. Or maybe poor Jack, if he seemed to need the harassment. That done, she slipped into Amelia's gaudy clothes.
Planting one note on a night stand beside Amelia's bed, Chiana saw a picture in a frame of Amelia posing in the nude. "Mm," Chiana appraised, "tight. But who else would it be...." On a hunch she looked up and smiled to see that she'd guessed right. "Mirrors." Shrugging to herself, Chiana smiled anyway to see from her reflection that her makeup, wig and Amelia's clothes seemed likely to allow her to be mistaken for Amelia if anyone were to see her sneaking around in the dark.
Whether Amelia had left on her own or had been abducted was a question Chiana didn't have any sense of one way or the other. Amelia had left in a hurry for certain, but not in such a hurry that there was much information left behind. Human gadgets like a computer, portable phone or other gizmos belonging to Amelia were on Chiana's shopping list, as were any address books or anything that might have some information of any possible associates of interest. No such item remained that she could find.
In the kitchen area, Chiana discovered a few pictures that she assumed to be family, since she wondered if the obnoxious Amelia had many friends around here. None were familiar, but she took a picture of the pictures anyway, if just to keep from feeling that she'd found nothing worthwhile to snurch. Under a gaily polka-dot patterned ceramic spider refrigerator magnet, she planted another of the notes.
Finally, with the hat further shadowing her face in the night, she slipped outside, not so accidentally dropping another of the notes on the way from the door to a walkway that led her from the complex. No one seemed to see her and she couldn't keep an excited smile from her face. As she swept through the shadows she whispered her delight, "Too easy."
Payne parked his Porsche at the Melbourne Building, stepped out and took his sunglasses off to better take in the beautiful day and impressive building. Every line, window, wall or landscaping feature seemed to be calculated to make its conservative statement of affluence and assumed prestige. Altogether the most impressive triumph of the business architectural lexicon that he'd ever seen.
From her vantage point behind Lena's black Camry parked on a higher tier of parking overlooking Payne and his Porsche, Bob watched Payne get out of his car and pull a few envelopes of papers he had stashed between some huge cute stuffed animals occupying the back seat of the tiny sports car. A smile figuratively stretched from ear to ear on her face and she figured the stuffed animals were probably either gifts for a lady, maybe herself, or were kept in there to charm potential lady passengers. More likely kept in there, she guessed, from the way he had things scattered between them.
Despite having stayed up all night yet again, Bob didn't feel a bit tired or foggy. She was thrilled to be involved in her adventures and more importantly it she felt great to know that she was achieving so much on her own wits. So far she hadn't even frelled up once yet, as far as she knew. Staking out Amelia's abandoned condo though the dawn and early morning had proven worthwhile. Two people had turned up, neither of course being Amelia but each of which found one of the notes Bob had planted.
At some point in the dawn, a tall, thin tan blond babe of a lady arrived, one who had a striking resemblance to the tall, thin tan blond babe of a model she'd seen playing a character called "Six" in a human entertainment she had seen on the thing the humans called a television back at the cabin. The glamorous woman's vehicle was an over-sized Hummer that was painted in a chocolate brown, color-co-ordinated with her fancy leather jacket. A parking sticker on the bumper of her vehicle, easily read by Bob's Nebari vision even at a distance, was the same kind she'd seen on vehicles at the IASA and suggested that she had some kind of relation with the IASA.
Early in the morning there had been a second visitor to Amelia's condo. A conservatively good-looking man in a fine tailored suit and black Lexus. That black Lexus was just now pulling into a parking stall moments after Payne.
Bob spat out the core of the kiwi she had eaten into a glop on the side of the Melbourne Building's office wing she rested against. Taking a last look into the reflection of the fancy gold tinted utility room window she'd used for a mirror, she made a final check over the makeup that made her skin appear to be a light shade of ebony, modeled after Lena. Carefully making a last few adjustments to her curly dark brown wig under her classy little fedora, Bob stood back and took a last look at her clothes. Her gray business suit and long skirt wasn't a perfect fit, being a bit too big in places, but it wasn't bad. She still cut a very svelte figure.
Walking in a crisp, statuesque elegance on her black high heels, Bob approached the Camry and tapped on the side window. "Looks good?" Bob asked Lena for her opinion.
Lena put down the window and looked Bob over again. "Girl, you look f*cking hot," Lena said with a wink, then laughed. "Very impressive. Very impressive. If you need work, you should go into selling makeup, or maybe be a makeup artist, you're a natural."
Bob beamed in glee. "Thanks," Bob said. "Wish me luck." Lena giggled into the magazine she'd brought to read as Bob hurried off, still managing her mannered walk while trying to hold up a slightly loose skirt with one forearm.
Glancing around, Payne saw Taylor Gramm getting out of a black Lexus nearby. Payne met him in the parking lot and, from a vantage behind a large eucalyptus not too nearby but within range of her better-than-human hearing, Bob eavesdropped on the two men. "G'day," Taylor said. "Nice little office building here isn't it?"
"Well, it's not Scottish Parliament," Payne nodded with his thought.
Taylor looked to Payne twice. "Eh? Well no. Thank God. Have you seen Richard's office?"
"No," Payne replied, "but I imagine it's as excessive as the rest."
"Tacky, actually," Taylor described it as he straightened his sharp suit. "Tell me Mr. Adams, do you know Richard? And how did you come into your rather interesting vocation?"
"No, the only Stepson I know of was an uncle or something," Payne told him. "Certifiable crackpot, but I owe him a debt of sorts for getting me interested in aviation. And space, in a way. My dad always said he was forever trying to patent crackpot things he'd invented for spaceflight. I guess the idea of space flight stuck," Payne told Taylor while they walked into the building.
A cavernous entrance area lurked behind the doors of the Melbourne Building. At the center, an indoor planter packed with Wal-Mart variety potted plants surrounded a bronze statue of a delicate ballerina. "Shouldn't that be a bronze dollar bill?" Payne wondered out loud. He looked around at the tinted windows and plain black wall paneling. "The designer who did the exterior obviously didn't do the interior," he commented.
"Bill," Taylor gestured slightly with his briefcase to the attendant at the reception desk, who was pre-occupied with a game on the Internet. "Anything interesting happening with the subjects?" Taylor asked Payne as they swiped their cards on a device by the elevator.
"Nothing interesting ever happens with a man like Crichton, Taylor," Payne said as both men entered the elevator, Taylor absently making way for a lady to enter the elevator as well and take a place behind them. "This elevator is just as morose as the lobby."
"Really?" Taylor seemed surprised. "Amelia said there were interesting finds?"
"Amelia," Payne made a single, sharp hum of amusement. "Interesting, yes. A lot has happened since then. Anyway I can't imagine why they passed me or anyone else up to give him the spotlight, but they did and so deserve the consequences. It would take plenty to make him interesting. Now the woman he thinks of as his girlfriend, hm-hm. She is interesting."
"That much I can agree with," Taylor replied.
Payne took a single glance back at the lovely, petite black business woman who followed them onto the elevator. The woman was so petite, in fact, that together with the big black eyes under this woman's droopy, frosted eyelids, she reminded him of Bob. That, in turn, reminded him of their date. He pursed his lips, irritated that Bob hadn't had the sense to accept his gifts and forgive him for the way John Crichton had made him act. More than that, Payne found himself unsettled to think that other women were reminding him of the intriguing Roberta. That hadn't happened before and he certainly didn't want it to happen now. He tried thinking of her as uncharitably as he could.
"Oh," Payne opened his briefcase and handed Taylor a picture. "I believe you've seen the petite Ms. Chevalier before, Mr. Gramm."
"Hm!" Taylor remarked as the two men stepped off the elevator. Taylor glanced back to see the lady didn't move forward with them and therefore must be continuing on the elevator. "Without a doubt the most petite body I have ever seen, and a dress to match," he glanced to Payne with his brow raised. "You followed them out?"
Payne laughed and told him, "No, that is what I got the little tramp to wear when I asked her out with me." Payne took the picture back while Taylor was still staring at it. "That copy is for Richard. Don't worry, there are certain things you can really only appreciate in a larger print, which I'll get you later. And if you like that, I might be able to arrange for you to meet Roberta, under another name of course. She said I could talk to her at any hour," he claimed and winked. "It'll be easy to interest her."
"Oh for a nominal fee?" Taylor shot Payne a wry look.
"Puh I'm insulted," Payne said with mock offence. "I'm being level with you. Anything in pants that looks at all successful will probably get whatever they want from her, I'm sure. I would've had her easily if John Crichton wasn't hanging around, as he knew, no doubt. And what a time that would be. If you're out with her, Taylor, you must bring up the subject of sex. She's vastly experienced, even more entertaining. It'd be difficult not to, she crackles with sexual energy like you've never seen before."
"You intrigue me. We might have to arrange something, discreetly of course," Taylor replied. "Oh by the way," he snatched the picture back from Payne, "we may come onto some bonus if you can provide more photos of Ms. Chevalier, I believe my boss is curious enough. The more interesting the better, I think you understand what I mean. Hm. The back side must be interesting too," he joked to Payne, who laughed with him. "Did it cost you much?"
"The dress, the date, or Roberta?" Payne teased. "I just buried her with flowers and gifts at her penthouse, walked in, and stole her from under John Crichton's very irritated nose. She became much more available than he thought."
"As easy as that? Aside from the virtual chaperon?" Taylor looked at the picture again. "Did she ravage the salad bar?"
"I expected her to," Payne laughed. "But she seemed to have no interest in food. Just men," he leered and snatched the picture back. "If you can get her away from her hounds, she'd be convenient. I doubt you'd need to arrange anything truly expensive. If you stay on her long enough, you can buy a cheaper bracelet and present it as a necklace," he laughed.
"Say she does sound convenient," Taylor remarked and laughed with Payne.
Far behind the two men, Bob stood in the recess in front of the window beside the entrance to the elevator. Having heard every word they said, she couldn't keep a smirk off her face. It was very informative to her, if hardly surprising from how she had already figured the creep Payne was like.
The idea of his accomplice, Taylor, excited her interest. She felt that he seemed to be putting on a front for his peer and she doubted he got around much, if at all. He might even be more interested in dating Doug than her. Still if there was any chance, the opportunity to learn more about what those guys were up to would be too good to refuse. Although John would try blowing it, frell him. And frelling John was something she really, really wanted to do just now, but she sneered and lectured herself that she had to keep her mind on helping with the mess he'd gotten them into.
Around a corner and at the end of a long, black paneled hallway, they reached an office door boasting an understated card reading "Richard Stepson." The two men finally stopped small talking about the body of John Crichton's fiancee, what was or wasn't on it and other dren, long enough to knock. Far behind them, Bob peered around the corner and watched as the door the two men stood in front of opened. Once they had entered, Bob took a mannered walk down the hallway.
Raising her nose slightly and closing her eyelids in a haughty expression, Bob primly walked into the offices of the construction materials supplier immediately next door to Richard Stepson's end office.
Bob carried through the main office area unnoticed by everyone, excepting one lady at a desk, who only seemed to look over the outfit and figure of the interloper with apparent jealousy. Off to the side, a row of smaller offices backed up to the wall shared with Richard Stepson's office. Bob nearly turned to walk back out, but then noticed that one of the doors was different from the others. Walking over to it, she discovered that it led to a service room.
Once inside, Bob closed the door behind her and wedged it shut with a broom handle. Dismantled copy machines and all kinds of stuff cluttered one wall on shelves. Cleaning supplies and a huge, primitive communications network terminal took up other areas. On one corner was a ventilation duct leading into the adjoining room. It ran from the ceiling. On a hunch, Bob removed the side of the modular duct. The other end of it extended just beyond the wall. A quick look over it showed that it may be a divider, and was also able to be serviced or moved by simple dismantling.
Bob softly cackled in her glee at what seemed to be her continued good fortune as she worked at the galvanized or aluminum alloy tab-joined box that passed for ducting in this area. In a matter of moments, a small portion was removed and sounds from the office next door carried through to her listening ears.
A smile immediately plastered on Bob's face as she heard Payne, his accomplice and another voice she assumed to be Richard Stepson, all talking smack about her. Human males certainly seemed to be preoccupied a whole lot by females, romance and sex. Singing, dancing, talking or just social posturing, it seemed to mostly be about females. Whether they were bragging, insulting, objectifying, generalizing, rationalizing or complaining, she found their preoccupation amusing and charming.
"Of course I like a woman more generously endowed," Richard was nearly blustering. "Like my dear Lisa. Say you wouldn't know how much this bird weighs by any chance?"
"Roberta? Good question. I must find out," Payne amicably agreed. "It's too little, but I suspect if it troubles her at all, it's for being too much. Do I know this Lisa of yours?"
"I hope not," Richard joked. "Oh, here she is," he said. From their chuckles, Bob was certain the three were admiring a picture of some trophy babe of Richard's, named Lisa.
"Impressive," Payne commented. "That's a full set. I take your point. Normally, I agree. But many kinds of women have their own charms, and the odd Ms. Chevalier has hers. In fact, there's a certain attraction in her striving for a kind of refined, sculpted figure and having a willingness to use it. She makes others seem ordinary, vulgar even. But she has one flaw," Payne said.
"Besides slight breasts?" Richard retorted.
"Oh that's a shortcoming she makes up for with certain characteristics of what little she has," Payne coyly replied. "No, she has a skin disorder. As a result she has to wear substantial makeup."
"Rosea or whatever that's called?" Richard asked.
"No, when I asked about her makeup she told her skin was very pale and needed more color to look normal. I don't believe it's any form or anemia or anything, but then, that's hardly my field," Payne shrugged. "She seems edgy and mercurial, and so I suspect perhaps compounded by her skin condition, she may have depressive or at least reclusive periods. And that-"
"-finally explains the periods of isolation in that retreat of the Crichton's," Richard finished the thought. "Excellent, excellent. Gentlemen, this fills out our profile needs very nicely. In fact, with that explained, we can concentrate on determining where he has hidden the module."
Payne laughed, presumably at Richard's eagerness to get to what they were really after. "The module parts are not, I assume, at that retreat?" Payne asked. "Unlikely but I have to ask."
"Of course there seemed to be no possible way he could smuggle anything to his retreat, but I already made arrangements for a neighbor to search around the place in his absence," Richard explained. "He was able to confirm that the only unusual machinery there was a 1965 Pontiac GTO," he said to their mutual laughter. "Oh I'll give you his information, Payne. Should you go there for some unforeseen reason. If they return, he can advise us of any unusual comings or goings. As he owns a sporting goods store in their very small, remote town, he was confident he'd hear from them."
"Hank Mallory," Payne seemed to be reading from a card. "Good. Perhaps I can gain Roberta's confidence and use her to learn the little secrets of Jack's meat-head son, John," Payne cheerfully supposed.
"Yes I can see how hard that is going to be for you, Payne. But do be careful with this Ms. Chevalier," Richard kidded, "you don't want to break anything."
"I'd say the only thing broken would be John's poor heart," Payne laughed. "He seems to be determined to take her seriously, or rather for her to take him seriously. If ever someone deserved it....I suppose then that you have no idea where the module may be then?"
"Suspicions. That is all," Richard replied. "I will ensure that Ms. Parker shows the genuine test results to you," he assured Payne, trying hard to make a sensitive change of subject sound natural.
"Ms. Parker," Payne nearly laughed. "From the way Ms. Parker left me in the records room, I'm certain she anticipated that possibility and isn't even in Australia by now. I am taking a leap of trust in assuming she forged her project on her own and no one else's suggestion," Payne bluntly pointed out.
"Alone," Richard assured. "I only know what she was telling us, and was as stunned to hear of her fabrications as I can only imagine you were to see it. Mr. Gramm, I trust, is as surprised."
"To say the least," Taylor Gramm chimed in. An awkward silence followed for a moment.
"There is one more thing that we know of," Richard added, breaking the silence. "Which the IASA is also aware of. John Crichton has an account in his name which appears to contain suspiciously substantial sums, the suspicion being that he took that money to do something with the module. The account is in New Zealand. The information," Richard made a pause filled with the sounds of papers changing hands, "for the account if you want to confirm it for yourself."
"I believe I will," Payne seemed to smile. "Tuesday," he said, in a thoughtful way that suggested to Bob he was telling them Tuesday with the intention of going sooner to surprise them. He seemed to have a lightness to his voice when he thought he was being clever. "Considering the 'evidence' I just saw Friday."
"We have given you all we know," Richard again assured him, consciously trying to sound honest. "You know of some of our associates, including Mr. Gramm here, and now you have the information of our associate nearby his vacation home and confidential information of evidence. Your cooperation and confidence is important to us. Whether you chose to accept our offer of joining our enterprise for developing future aeronautical missions, we require your assistance in our founder's desire to rid our mutual business of counter-productive publicity pets like John Crichton."
"It will be my pleasure," Payne assured him. "And if, after he is discredited, if IASA still refuses to consider my proposals, then I may be looking you up. I must ask however what you intend with his associates, Douglas Knox and Ms. Chevalier. Surely any value in the efforts behind John Crichton's hare-brained schemes were contributed by Dr. Knox, and Roberta has little interest in these things."
"We would welcome Mr. Knox. Do whatever you like with this Lolita. We want what you want," Richard assured him. "It's been a pleasure, gentlemen, I regret I have much to do yet today. Do keep in contact as needed. It looks as though you're getting compensated enough with Ms. Chevalier," he began leading them to the door.
Bob quickly reassembled the vents and peeked out the door. Seeing a man working at his desk in an office, Bob had mixed thoughts. On one hand, she felt sorry for the human, stuck in that room doing boring dren on this planet. On the other hand it seemed peaceful and somehow nice. She wondered if she wouldn't be happy doing the same for a living if she had been born on this world with these humans instead. If she had a narl, she'd like it fine if they had a life like that, she suspected. She fought a shudder, wondering what gave her the horrifying thought of having a narl.
When no one was around, Bob elegantly carried herself out of the offices and to the emergency stairs on the other side of Richard Stepson's offices. She briefly heard the men leaving the office, talking dren about her and her body again. She had to smile to herself at those crazy males as she hurried down the stairs.
The stairway opened onto the street. Bob pushed up the hill toward the upper parking lot, her mind preoccupied with ingesting what she'd heard.
Behind her, a car pulling up to the curb crashed into the car parked behind it. The owner of the already parked car just continued to stare in shock at the thin black business woman with the skinny rear showing under a slipping skirt.
"Sh*t I'm sorry mate," the guy who hit the parked car walked up to the man behind its wheel. "I could-holy...." the guy started to explain but completely lost track when he looked back to the woman walking up the sidewalk.
"Uuuuh?" the scuzzy, drunken man barely noticed him before craning his neck back to the sidewalk. As soon as the woman turned into the parking lot and went out of sight, the man groaned and dropped his beer can onto the street. "Forget it mate, go away," he said, letting his seat drop all the way back and turning onto his side for a nap.
Bob dropped into the Camry through the passenger side window and onto the passenger seat, then plucked the magazine out of Lena's hands with a devious cackle. "Ah what do you say....score?" she grinned wickedly.
Lena started the car and backed out of the stall, pausing for a moment to look at Bob. "Well? What was that devil in pants doing on you?"
"It's what I thought," Bob said, looking away and acting as if she were upset. "He's onto a co-worker."
"I'm sorry, honey," Lena said sincerely, driving out of the parking lot. "Men," she grumbled.
"Men," Bob echoed, fighting a smirk.