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Decapitation, I thought the second time the hand landed on my butt. Perhaps evisceration. Or I could just stick with a classic—dip him in honey and stake him out over a giant fire-ant pile.
I gritted my teeth and smiled at the man beside me, all the while glaring my murderous intent over his shoulder at Billy Doyle, who was supposed to be recording the incident, not passing the time of day with every female from eight to eighty who stopped to flirt with him. (Granted, that part wasn’t entirely his fault. His field of charm worked like gravity—once it caught you, it was hard to escape.)
Damn it. I knew I should have pushed him into the tiger habitat when I had the chance.
Billy, several yards away, widened his gorgeous eyes at me in the picture-of-innocence look he’d probably mastered in utero, and cocked his head toward his little sister, Molly. She was a miniature female version of Billy with dark, wavy hair (in her case contained by a thick braid that hung halfway down her back), inky blue eyes, and eyelashes lush enough that she’d never need mascara. She even had the Doyle dimples.
Molly had just pointed her brother’s high-end cell phone my way and, judging by her gleeful expression, was capturing my posterior for posterity. Trust Billy to foist his one chore off on the nearest willing relative. Why do something yourself when you had an adoring sibling within reach?
But I couldn’t stake this entire job on a ten-year-old’s aim with a phone.
The hand squeezed. I jumped.
“Sorry, Thelma. Did I startle you?” the owner of the offending appendage said, the ogle in his voice matching the one in his eyes.
Biting back the retort that came naturally to my tongue, I said instead, “Oh, not at all, Mr. Brown—”
“Leo,” he interrupted.
“Yes, um, Leo … I must have backed into you by mistake.”
I even managed not to choke on the last part. I was getting better at staying in character.
The real Thelma Parker was a mousy thing whose overwhelming desire in life was to get herself appointed to the Friends of the National Zoo—aka FONZ—board of directors without having to form a love connection with Mr. Grabby here. I’d developed a certain reputation for dealing … efficiently, shall we say?… with matters of l’amour, so here I was, dealing. Granted, I had more experience making than breaking said connections, but still. How tough could turning off a guy be?
Mr. Brown patted my sixtyish (but apparently still alluring) derriere, breathing like it was his first time in a Zumba class, making me glad I’d worn one of Thelma’s industrial-strength body shapers. At least there was that extra layer between me and Sir Pantsalot. Geez, the things I do for my clients.
Sometimes I question the wisdom of my career choice. Just because I can slip into somebody else’s life, does that mean I should?
Philosophy aside, at least I get to help people. Not everyone is adept at getting around life’s roadblocks. Take Thelma, for instance. She’d be traumatized by this jerk. If I could spare her that by the simple act of assuming her appearance, and arm her delicate sensibilities against further assault, didn’t I have a moral obligation to do it?
Especially when it paid so well. (Hey, a girl has to eat.)
Besides, I—Ciel Halligan, aura adaptor extraordinaire—happen to be pretty good at maneuvering past roadblocks. Well, as long as they aren’t my personal roadblocks. Those I tend to suck at.
My job is made possible by a tiny genetic quirk. It’s all about altering energy on a biomolecular level, and if you happen to be born with the trait for it … well, let’s just say interesting career opportunities abound for enterprising adaptors.
I glanced back at Billy, who’d moved on to making a big show of pointing at some sort of marmoset (a golden lion tamarin, according to a nearby sign) and saying to Molly loudly enough for me to hear plainly, “That one reminds me of Ciel—tiny and fierce, and likely to fling poo if provoked.”
I managed to keep from rolling my eyes. Barely. Billy, my best friend and honorary cousin (my mother and Billy’s stepmother were sorority sisters—cute, huh?), had a habit of showing up at my job sites and lingering in the background to annoy me. Why had I thought it would be different just because this time he was supposedly assisting me?
I refocused on Mr. Brown. Beads of sweat glistened beneath the few strands of gray hair stretched across his pink head. Normally D.C. was cooler in September, but summer apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that it was time to leave. He dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief, giving my rear end a temporary reprieve.
“Why don’t we get out of this sauna?” he said. (Huff-puff-wheeze.) “My office is air-conditioned, and I keep it cold enough to make you shiver.” He winked, reaching out again.
I sidestepped him nimbly, pretending to sneeze. (I perfected fake sneezing at an early age. It beat the heck out of fake stomachaches for playing hooky because you could eat ice cream without making your mom suspicious.) Undeterred by the possibility of germs, Mr. Brown readjusted his aim, following through to his target.
Gawd. If anyone ever tells you a job is easy money, run the other way.
Thelma was a referral from a nonadaptor buddy of mine. Actually, Monica was more Billy’s friend than mine—he’s the one who’d had a gargantuan crush on her back in high school. But I’d had a soft spot in my heart for her ever since she’d failed to get sucked into his gravitational field, so I’d agreed to take the job on short notice. Quick fix, collect my not unsubstantial fee, sayonara.
It went against my grain to take a job without a thorough investigation of the client. I pride myself on being completely familiar with all aspects of a client’s life before going in to fix whatever the problem happens to be, but since this job didn’t entail dealing with anyone who knew Thelma well, I figured it would be okay.
I removed Mr. Brown’s hand from my backside and wagged a finger at him. Not the finger I wanted to wag, but since Thelma wasn’t the type to flip off any man, much less the one who was dangling the FONZ board membership over her head, I held back. Restraint is an essential part of the job.
“Ah-ah-ah, you naughty boy,” I said. Which he somehow mistook for encouragement and came at me again, this time with both hands.
I blocked him with my own, giggling nervously, just as Thelma would have—the paycheck, Ciel, think of the paycheck!—engaging in what amounted to an absurd game of patty-cake. Geez. Bashful clients were the worst. If I could get through this interview without whacking Romeo upside the head, I would have earned every freaking penny Thelma was paying me.
Feeling the impulse for violence grow, I threw a panicked look at Billy and Molly, who were apparently so entranced with the diminutive golden-red primates hopping freely through the trees that they didn’t notice me. They wore radio collars so the zookeepers could keep track of them. (The marmosets, I mean, not Billy and Molly. Though, honestly, that might be something to consider in the future.) I leveled the glare at them (Billy and Molly, not the marmosets) that I wished I could direct toward the dipwad I was doing the deranged keep-your-hands-off-my-ass dance with. Molly caught on to my dilemma and tugged on her brother’s sleeve.
Billy finally focused the telephoto lens of his outrageously expensive camera on me and Mr. Brown, grinning in a way that suggested he was enjoying my situation a little too much.
The ants, I decided. The honey and the fire ants.
But not until after he gave me the evidence I was going to need to convince Mr. Brown to recommend Thelma for her board position sans any hanky-panky. (No, blackmail isn’t, strictly speaking, an attractive behavior—or, you know, legal—but where the welfare of my clients is concerned, I am not above it. Besides, think of the favor I was doing poor Mrs. Brown.)
“Come on, Thelma. Just one little kiss. Stop being coy.” The hands were getting busier.
At last Billy gave me a thumbs-up, indicating his photographic efforts had been fruitful, and sent Molly scampering my way. She shoved herself between me and the human octopus, hugging me around my waist.
“Aunt Thelma, it’s so great to see you,” she said.
Billy joined us at a more leisurely pace. “Yes, Aunt Thelma. Thanks for inviting us.”
I smoothed my short, faded-brown hair and, once Molly had unlatched herself from me, tucked my tailored shirt more tightly into my sensible, knee-length skirt.
“It’s great to see you, too, sweetie,” I said. “Both of you. Mr. Brown, may I introduce my niece Molly and my nephew Billy? They’re visiting from out of town and thought it would be fun to see the zoo together after my meeting with you.” The last part was true, anyway.
Molly sneezed into her hand (not fake—she was getting over a mild cold), wiped it on the seat of her shorts, and extended it toward Mr. Brown enthusiastically. Polite, if not precisely hygienic.
“Pleased to meet you,” Mr. Brown said, not sounding—or looking—pleased in the slightest. He ignored Molly’s hand.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Billy said. “I see you’ve been sizing up Aunt Thelma.”
Mr. Brown’s left eye twitched.
“For the board position?” Billy added disingenuously. “I got some great shots of the interview. You know, for Aunt Thelma’s scrapbook. I’m sure she’ll want a reminder of the day she got fondled—I mean, FONZed.”
More twitching. “Yes, uh, well, I’ll do whatever I can to convince the other board members, of course.”
Did he look paler? Yeah, definitely chalkier than he was before. Sweatier, too, but that could have just been the heat.
Billy clapped his shoulder heartily. “I have the utmost confidence in your powers of persuasion. Maybe you could even get your wife to help. Rumor has it she’s a real pit bull when she sets her mind to something.”
Mr. Brown’s huffing and puffing amped up to an alarming extent. Boy, his wife must be something else if the mere mention of her elicited this kind of reaction.
“Mr. Brown? Are you all right?” I asked, not having to pretend to be flustered this time. If this guy croaked how was I going to explain it to Thelma?
He looked at me, his mouth opening and closing like a beached bass. The hand that had recently groped my ass now clutched at my shoulder.
“Tiiim-berr,” Billy said under his breath.
Sure enough, Leo came crashing down—onto me, his face landing square in the middle of Thelma’s matronly bosom.
“Damn it, Billy,” I said, reeling under the weight, “how in the hell am I supposed to finish the job now?”
Copyright © 2013 by Linda Grimes