Read an Excerpt
By Shirley Kennett
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Shirley Kennett
All rights reserved.
"SORRY, YOUR CREDIT LIMIT on this account has been exceeded. Do you want to pay with a different account?" The computerized voice managed to convey condescension.
Casey Washington frowned at her computer monitor, which displayed only the GlobeCom logo. "I've been trying to tell you I'm having a minor problem right now. Can't we work this thing out?"
"Your grace period for payment has expired. Your account has been referred to an authorized collection agency. As required by communications regulations, service to your household remains active at the basic access level. You may voice-activate 911 for emergency service, and key in all other communications. Effective immediately, all optional features are discontinued." The logo disappeared, replaced by a gray screen filled with text:
GlobeCom - Hawaii appreciates your business. Call terminated.
"Shit," said Casey. Sure, basic service was free, but nobody stayed at basic level unless it was that or starve. And that was a tough choice, especially for a journalist who depended on contact with the outside world for a living. She fished around in the capacious drawers of her battered metal desk and came up with a small keyboard that had seen better days. Sweeping aside the first level of clutter, she created a space on the desktop, enough to hold the keyboard without dumping it on the floor. She plugged it into the rear of the computer.
Grimacing, she typed in the phone number for Kenny Richards at AmerNet. She glanced at the time display in the corner of the screen. 6:05 p.m. No wonder she was hungry—she hadn't eaten since breakfast, and that had only been a couple of slices of bread smeared with chunky peanut butter. It was a little after eleven, Eastern time. Mentally she crossed her fingers that Kenny would still be there.
He probably would. Since his latest divorce he'd been spending a lot of time at work.
There was something sticky on the space bar, and sometimes the shift key stuck, making her words more emphatic than intended.
Call answered appeared on the screen. There was a pause while Kenny located his keyboard. He'd been alerted that the incoming call wasn't a voice call. The tips of Casey's ears burned with embarrassment. Now someone else knew her status, probably the first of many people. She had to go on working or she'd never get those GlobeCom options back. Letters crawled across her screen.
"Hi, Kenny," she typed. "It's Case. You moonlighting or on AmerNet's nickel?"
Casey hoped that Kenny would be tactful enough not to comment on her lowly phone status, or if he did, at least not notice the results of the erratic keyboard.
Jesus, kid, you back on basic? What'd you do to your keyboard? Spill syrup in it? When are you going to let me marry you and take you away from all this?
Virginity. Poverty. Freelancing. In that order.
"How'd you get the idea I'm still a virgin?"
Goes with your sweet face.
"A lot you know. Listen, Kenny, you said you could get something for me if I needed it. I'm sort of between assignments. Is that offer still open?"
Sure, Case. Got just the thing. Had you in mind for it all along.
There was a pause, and she pictured him rummaging around in the job jar that occupied a corner of his desk.
Yeah, right here. Perfect.
"Give me the bad news."
You like Rio? Hot nights? Nude beaches?
"What's the catch?"
It's a profile-on-location piece. Sunday supplement crap.
"God, Kenny, have I sunk so low?"
Don't knock it, sweetheart, it's the grease under the wheel of the advertising machine. The victim is Robert Gunner.
"The Robert Gunner? Of World Power?"
You got it. The corporation is starting construction on a dam someplace in Brazil. You go to Rio and then into the jungle, to the actual site. Snakes, natives, the whole bit.
"I heard about that project. You know I don't go for that. The whole thing's an ecological disaster."
Boss wants this piece real bad. Top dollar, open expenses, and maybe a follow-up when the dam's done.
"Looks like one of my alternate personas is going to Rio. Use a phony byline, something without Trixie in it this time, please. When do I pack?"
Not so fast, Case. There is one teensy little catch. You've got to land the interview yourself.
Casey sat back in her chair and sighed. There's always something.
"Kenny, how in hell am I supposed to get an interview with Gunner? He eats freelancers for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not to mention bedtime snacks."
Should be only a minor challenge for a resourceful pro like yourself. I'll transfer an advance over to you as soon as you set up a time with him.
"Don't hold your breath."
Good luck, Case. Send photos, preferably of you at the nude beach.
"You old lecher. Thanks for the piece."
Anything for you, sweetie. You know that.
Casey tapped the termination key. She stood up and began pacing around her third floor studio apartment. It wasn't much of a place—rents on Maui were unbelievable—but it was only a block to the beach, and the view was great, if the rooftop air conditioning units of the two-story apartment house next door were ignored. Outside the salt-heavy air hung like something tangible, a cottony cloud that stung the nostrils and made a person aware of every tiny break in the skin. Inside, the space was tiny and jammed with boxes, books, and stacks of old magazines. There was little furniture, and what there was showed a serious disregard for the conventions of decorating. Other than a cramped kitchen and a double bed on the floor in the living room, the rest was given over to work. Casey had few possessions, and none that tied her down. The same could be said of her relationships.
Casey was thirty-five years old and tall enough to see eye-to-eye with most men. She had an athletic build, fair skin, and a sprinkle of freckles across her nose. Long blond hair rested in a heavy braid down the center of her back, the style unchanged since her college days. Large blue eyes with golden brown lashes dominated her slightly rounded face. She was wearing a loose T-shirt and there was a ragged hole in an intriguing portion of her cutoff jeans that she kept meaning to patch. Her girl-next-door appearance smoothed the way for her sometimes, and she wasn't above using her charm to get over, under, or around obstacles. She drew the line at the bedroom door, though.
There had been a series of men who'd made it past that line, none of them Mr. Right. The relationships would start out fine and then turn sour, mostly over the fact that they were never alone. Her career was the third point of a love triangle.
Casey went back to the screen and did a little research, then cleared her personal ID so the recipient of her next call would not immediately know who placed it. She looked up the number for World Power, Inc., and keyed it in before she could think of all the reasons not to.
The first level of defense, as at all the megacorporations, was Public Relations. There was no discernible pause as the answerer adjusted and responded at basic level.
Good evening. Thank you for calling World Power, Inc., your source for creative solutions to energy needs. How may I help you?
The battle is joined, Casey thought. She decided on a direct approach and tried to type confidently, hoping the erratic keyboard would come across as a transmissions glitch and wouldn't make her seem like a kook.
"I want to speak to Robert Gunner."
One moment, please, I'll transfer you to his administrative assistant.
The administrative assistant, like all of the public interface points to World Power and the other megacorporations, was not a real person. It was a computer program, a glorified menu that responded to callers' choices. But it had all the stubbornness and arrogance of its human predecessor. With considerable persistence and a good deal of outright lying she reached Gunner's appointment secretary program.
Defense level two, Casey thought.
"I want to set up a meeting with your boss."
Please identify yourself and state the purpose of meeting.
"I'm Sonya Wanton and the purpose of the meeting is none of your damn business."
Casey had claimed to be a wildly popular movie actress, a voluptuous redhead who scampered through scenes designed to maximize her obvious talents and minimize such trifles as dialogue and plot. There was no immediate response from the appointment secretary program. Casey was counting on its fuzzy logic, the programmed-in ability to handle ambiguities, to get her through this.
She knew what was running through its little microchip brain. Would the real Sonya Wanton deliberately erase her personal ID and call from an obscure location on Maui? The last public record of the actress's location indicated attendance at a party in London two days ago. Casey knew that; she'd already checked. There was ample time for the actress to surface in Hawaii. No travel records under that name, but public figures frequently traveled under a different name. Why would a movie actress want to meet with Gunner for a reason she was unwilling to state? Why would this particular movie actress, one with no publicized business acumen, want to meet with Gunner at all? How badly would Gunner react if the meeting was denied and it turned out that he would have approved it? What if the meeting turned out to be a waste of time? The program was probably considering checking with Gunner personally, but that would reflect lack of confidence in its own decision-making capacity.
Ms. Wanton, Mr. Gunner is free for lunch at the Garden of the Seven Orchids Restaurant at 12:30 p.m. Bangkok time Friday, August 30. He would be pleased if you would join him there. Please indicate if this is acceptable.
"I'll be there."
Now Casey just had to get Kenny to free up money for reservations to Bangkok.
Piece of cake.CHAPTER 2
Albert Gantry was a hat and raincoat man, so he didn't have the excuse of an umbrella blocking his view. He did have his head tilted down, walking from the conference site to Saul's Deli, and that accounted for the collision with the woman.
She came from a storefront with a green awning and leaded glass door. He saw her from the corner of his eye, but momentum ruled the moment.
Gantry rebounded slightly and dropped his briefcase into a puddle. She fell over backward, landing hard on the curb. Her purse flew in a trajectory reminiscent of charts in physics textbooks with bullets traveling from Point A to Point B. As the purse hit the ground and splattered its contents, her shoe fell off into the rain-filled gutter.
"Oh, sorry, my fault." He bent over to offer her a hand up, and the rain accumulated in the brim of his hat poured down the front of her dress. She scrambled to her feet, breathless. The umbrella was a tragic sight, ribs askew. She struggled with it and succeeded only in poking a hole in her dress.
"Please, wait under the awning out of the rain," he said, "and I'll retrieve your things."
"I'm so sorry. I just didn't see you." Her voice was a natural melody, like a gentle rain striking a pond.
"My fault, I assure you," Gantry said. He reached for the contents of her purse, a collection of small shiny objects that perversely rolled away from him. As an afterthought he retrieved her shoe from the gutter. He stepped under the awning and got his first good look at the woman. She was Asian and lovely.
It wasn't so much a look as a sensory impression. The damp, fresh, female smell of her, the soft music of her voice, the cool touch of her fingers as she accepted the soggy items. Thin dress, wet from the rain, clinging to her body—she might as well have been naked. Firm calves, no stockings. One delicate, bare foot with perfect red painted toenails. Straight dark hair, just long enough to graze her shoulders, slick against her neck. Blood-red lips and eyes black enough for a man to get lost in and never find his way out.
She smiled as she slung the purse strap over her shoulder and tilted the shoe, dumping out some water. As she turned and bent to slip her shoe on, her buttocks, clearly defined under the wet dress, pressed momentarily against his hip. He reluctantly tore his eyes away and moved to pick up his briefcase.
The thought came to him that she was seriously underdressed for the weather.
"Your dress is ruined," Gantry said with a small catch in his throat. "You must allow me to pay for it."
"How gallant! But perhaps it would be more fun if you offered me your clothes in exchange," she said. There was a faint trace of British accent in her voice, probably acquired during her schooling. "Come inside and we'll dry each other off."
She turned back to the shop door, fished around in her wet purse and pulled out a set of keys. She stepped inside the darkened shop. An old-fashioned bell tinkled above the door, a charming anachronism.
Gantry, reacting to the dual mental images of exchanging clothes and drying her off, felt his cheeks burning. He hesitated, hand on the doorknob. She turned around impatiently, then her face softened when she saw the flush in his cheeks.
"Please come in. I was only kidding about the clothes. I'm not planning to strip you just yet." She flipped on the lights and the interior of the store glowed warmly. Gantry picked up her umbrella, stepped in and closed the door behind him, shutting out the noise of the storm and the traffic. It was a flower shop, and every inch of counter space was filled with fresh blooms in beautiful arrangements. The heavy, humid air was saturated with dozens of different scents.
She disappeared behind a curtain at the back of the shop. Her voice drifted out.
"I'll be back in a minute. Have a look around." A folded-up towel sailed out from behind the curtain and landed on the crowded countertop without upsetting a single vase.
"Good shot," he said. He was rewarded with a muffled giggle, the kind of sound she might make when pulling a dress over her head. Gantry derailed that train of thought. He toweled himself quickly, absorbing some drips from his hat and raincoat and mopping his briefcase dry. Time passed, and he wondered if he should quietly leave. Instead, he examined the shop, looking at the floral arrangements. To his unpracticed eye, they seemed exceptionally good. He noticed a camera in a corner near the ceiling, red light blinking, to deter shoplifters. The heat rose in his cheeks again at the thought that she, naked behind the curtain, might be watching him on the camera. It wasn't lost on him that the windows and the glass door were tightly covered with shades.
He was on his second circuit of the shop when the curtains parted. She was encased in a white terry cloth bathrobe, overlapped and cinched in no-nonsense fashion in front. Her hair was damp and glistening, and there was a spot of redness in each cheek, probably the aftermath of a hot shower. She carried a tray with a tea set.
"I know it's a bit early for tea, but I thought something hot would do us both good."
"Thank you, but I must be going. Are you sure you won't let me pay for your clothing?"
"Don't be silly. It's all washable. It'll be as good as new."
"How about this?" he said. He held up the smashed umbrella. "I think it's a goner."
"Stay and have some tea, and we'll call it even."
Gantry gave in. "All right."
He slipped out of his raincoat and pulled a stool up to the counter opposite her. Spoons clinked, sugar swirled. A simple cup of tea had never seemed so sensual. Over tiny seed cakes, their eyes met and held for a long silent moment, hers unwavering, his averted at last.
"A very pleasant shop," he said to fill the empty space in the conversation. "Do you work here?"
"It's all mine, such as it is," she answered. "I've always loved to work with flowers. Some say I have a real touch with them, especially roses. There's a small apartment in back, just a couple of rooms, so I live here too. At least until I can get myself a bigger place."
"You're ambitious, then."
"Not really. All I want is a chain of shops and a ten-room apartment overlooking Central Park," she said. "How about you? What do you do?"
"Government service," Gantry answered. "Environmental Protection Agency in Washington. There's an international conference going on. I lobbied for Amsterdam, but New York won the toss this year." It appeared she hadn't recognized him. His face had been plastered over the newspapers lately, since he was the head of the EPA.
"You don't look nearly stodgy enough to be in government service. Or like one of those eco-fanatics, either."
Excerpted from Burning Rose by Shirley Kennett. Copyright © 2002 Shirley Kennett. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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