The hilarious adventures of human chameleon Ciel Halligan continue in the fourth installment of this original urban fantasy series from Linda Grimes, All Fixed Up.
Ciel Halligan, aura adaptor extraordinaire, has a lot of experience filling in for her clients--as them. A rare genetic quirk gives her the ability to absorb human energy and project it back out in a flawless imitation. She's hard at work, posing as a well-known and celebrated astronaut, about to make a stunning announcement on behalf of the space program...when the photographer documenting the job sees right through her aura. Worse, it soon becomes apparent that he not only knows Ciel’s not who she's supposed to be, but means her harm.
When Ciel's elderly Aunt Helenalso an aura adaptoris murdered in Central Park, and the same photographer shows up at the funeral, Ciel starts to feel even more exposed. Then more adaptors are killed in the same way, and she becomes terrified her friends and family are being systematically exterminated ... and it's starting to look like she's the ultimate target. She turns to Billy Doyle, her best-friend-turned-boyfriend, for help, but when an unexpected crisis causes him to take off without a word, she's left to rely on her not-so-former crush, CIA agent Mark Fielding.
Staying alive, keeping control of her romantic life, and unraveling the mystery of why adaptors are being pursued becomes a harder balancing act than ever in this new Ciel Halligan adventure from Linda Grimes.
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All Fixed Up
By Linda Grimes
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Linda Grimes
All rights reserved.
Weightlessness, I decided, was overrated. My stomach concurred.
I took deep and steady breaths, willing the breakfast I now regretted eating to stay where I'd put it. Really, I should have known better. But in my defense, I wasn't supposed to be here. I thought I'd be sitting at a news conference, dropping a bombshell on a NASA-friendly press corps, doing my patriotic part to keep the nation's interest in our space program amped up enough to ensure future funding.
Of course, the press conference was still ahead of me. Only now it would be a tad more challenging to keep a smile on my face — and, you know, breakfast in my stomach — while the cameras were rolling.
The plane providing our zero-G experience by alternately climbing, then diving, at a steep pitch — a fricking airborne roller coaster was what it was, and I didn't even like the earthbound versions — neared the bottom of its arc. Gravity was restored with a vengeance, pressing down with a force that made me feel like I weighed three hundred pounds, pinning me just long enough for anticipation to build to another crescendo in my solar plexus. I lay quietly on the floor of the cabin, holding myself still, as per the instructor's orders. It was supposed to prevent, in most cases, the nausea a flight on the aptly nicknamed "Vomit Comet" was famous for, but I feared I wasn't a "most case."
This on top of the preflight physical I'd been subjected to that morning. With shots. (God only knew what they were inoculating me against. Airborne cooties?) Not a good day for an admitted needle-phobe who had only recently started to get over her fear of flying. But I was coping. I counted that as a victory.
I opened my eyes long enough to check out the ASCANs around me. ASCAN is short for Astronaut Candidate, and it's pronounced exactly like you'd expect it to be. Ass can. (Yes, I giggled like a middle-schooler when I first heard it. What can I say? God blessed me with a juvenile sense of humor.) All the ASCANs looked significantly less green than I felt. Huh. They probably actually used the antinausea medication issued to them. Me? Yeah, well, when you're dealing with a nickname like "Iron Gut," it's tough to justify the sudden necessity.
"Behind your ear," the photographer assigned to document my return to the space program said in his adorable Australian accent, speaking loudly enough to be heard over the engines.
I turned my head to see that he'd landed right next to me. Alec, his name was, Alec Loughlin. In his mid-forties, he was the rugged, distilled-by-life kind of middle-aged, not the soft, no-reason-to-even-try-anymore kind. Too old for me, but hey, nothing wrong with appreciating what gifts the future might hold. After a second or three of appreciating the finer points of keeping in shape as you age, it occurred to me that if stray lascivious thoughts were entering my headspace, then maybe my airsickness wasn't going to be as bad as I thought. Was random (and, okay, inappropriate) lust a possible cure for motion sickness?
He reached up and stroked a spot that happened to be one of my most sensitive erogenous zones. I felt my eyes widen, and mentally apologized to my boyfriend, Billy Doyle. Not that Billy had a problem with lust inspired by outside sources — which he claimed was merely a sign of a healthy libido, and therefore a good thing — as long as I came to him to act on it. But after a recent lapse in judgment on my part, I was still a little sensitive about it myself.
"Right here," Alec said. "It's an antinausea patch. New, faster-acting stuff. You'll be fine."
I lifted my hand to check, bumping his hand out of the way. Sure enough, there was a smooth patch I hadn't noticed before. "But I didn't —"
He shrugged, floating upward as gravity released its grip on us once more. "I had a spare. Slipped it on you when I was adjusting your collar before our preflight camera check. 'Iron Gut' or not" — this accompanied by a sardonic lift of brow — "I don't like my footage spoiled by random puking. Should be kicking in by now."
Of all the nerve! I rose next to him, trying my best to control my limbs. Pro tip: Air is not water. Swimming motions are useless for moving around in zero-G. Though apparently highly amusing to others who have more experience with the situation. I gave him a dirty look.
"You had no right," I said, indignation propelling me into an unintentional cockeyed somersault.
He shrugged again (an attractive mannerism on him) and reached out to steady me. "How's your stomach?"
I stilled, considering. No longer felt impending barfage. "Fine," I admitted. Grudgingly. "Doesn't mean — hey, wait a second ..." I eyed him suspiciously. "Are you who I think you are?"
Billy. It had to be. He had a habit of showing up on my jobs under the pretext of helping me, but really he just likes to annoy me. It's a holdover from growing up together, raised as cousins, even though we're not. Our mothers were sorority sisters, which makes our cousin status strictly honorary, and therefore not in the least perverted. But that doesn't keep Billy from zinging me with a teasing conversational "cuz" at every opportunity. He claims it's habit, but I suspect he just likes getting a rise out of me.
Mr. Too-Old-But-Still-Gorgeous shrugged again, giving me a decidedly odd look. Suspicious, one might say. "Depends on who you think I am, I suppose."
"You know. But I thought you were, um, otherwise occupied." Billy was supposedly busy with one of his vast and varied moneymaking schemes — something terribly clandestine, and probably not legal in the slightest. He'd never hurt an average Joe, but had no such compunction about those he deemed to be the rich assholes of the world.
Alec looked at me blankly. "This is my assignment. Where else would I be? Look, we only have a limited time up here. How about you introduce yourself to the camera? Try to look all gung ho NASA, and tell us why you're back with the program. And if you're going to puke, don't get it on my equipment."
Okay, maybe he really was the photographer.
"Your precious equipment is safe. So, will this be shown at the beginning or the end of the press conference? Wouldn't want to spoil the big announcement."
"The beginning. Do it right, and this will be the big announcement."
All right, then. I pasted a suitably patriotic expression on my face and gave him a thumbs-up.
"Hello! I'm Philippa Carson, NASA astronaut and lab geek, soon to be the first woman to conceive a baby in space."
The ASCANs tried to mill closer without spoiling the shot. They'd heard the wild rumors, of course, watercooler gossip being what it was, but it appeared confirmation was still a shock. The women looked incredulous, the men speculative. I quickly went on to explain my field of research was conception in off-earth environments, and that thus far all experimentation with animals had been limited to the tiny variety.
"If all goes according to plan, I'll be the first mammal bigger than a rat to conceive in a microgravity environment," I said, squeezing it in right before the floor came up and hit me again.
I lay back, making sure my pose was as far from "porn star" as humanly possible. After an announcement like that, the last thing you need to do is add any visual innuendo. Of course, if the PR guys at NASA hadn't come up with the bright idea that a zero-G ride would make great "optics" for the mission reveal, I wouldn't have to worry about it at all.
Alec kept shooting, aiming the camera down at me from his kneeling position. (Not generally recommended for those trying to retain their stomach contents. Apparently not a concern for the intrepid photographer.) I tried not to look like I was gripping the padded flooring beneath me with my fingernails, and hoped to hell my oh-God-I'm-being-plastered-to-the-floor-again face didn't in any way resemble an O-face.
"Since my husband and I were planning to start our family soon anyway, and I already have the astronaut training, I figured I'd be the perfect candidate. When I presented the plan to my bosses, backed up with comprehensive research to show the risk to me and my future offspring is minimal, they agreed. Can't wait to get up to the ISS!"
"ISS?" Alec asked on behalf of the future audience.
"International Space Station," I clarified. "I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to my first visit."
Ugh. Not. Thank God it would be the real Philippa Carson going and not me.
Because, yeah, I wasn't Philippa Carson. I was a rather impressive copy of her, though. An exact replica, appearance-wise at least. Even the exceedingly thorough NASA doctors couldn't tell us apart. Well, as long as they didn't decide to run a random DNA profile, which was unlikely.
Thanks to my extensive dossier on the woman, I also had her personality down pat. The one face-to-face meeting I'd had with her — long enough to grab her energy and chat about life in general — had been enough to pick up her mannerisms. I have a knack for people-reading. Which is a good thing, considering my job. What good is looking like people if you can't pull off the subtleties of their behavior?
My job? Ciel Halligan, Facilitator, at your service. I fix other people's problems for a living. Got a situation you, and only you, can take care of? Move over. I can handle it for you. As you. And probably better than you, seeing as how I'm not bogged down by whatever baggage is keeping you from handling it yourself.
How is it possible? Easy, if you happen to be an aura adaptor. Because of a genetic anomaly — a mutation that originated quite a few generations back — aura adaptors can alter the energy they project to take on the appearance of another person. There's a complicated explanation for how and why it works (my brother James, the scientist — who, ironically, didn't inherit the adaptor gene from our parents — can explain it better than I can), but I find it's easiest to think of our kind as human chameleons and leave it at that. I mean, I don't know every detail of how my cell phone works either, but I don't lose any sleep over it.
Dr. Carson — "Phil" to her friends, which made her "Dr. Phil" to my giggling inner middle-schooler — was a PR dream for NASA. She had PhDs in aerospace engineering, biochemistry, and human reproductive technology — your basic brainy overachiever. And her atmospheric IQ came wrapped in a package worthy of the cover of a fashion magazine: tall, black, and willowy, with super-short auburn hair, high cheekbones, and translucent honey-gold eyes. In other words, gorgeous.
The reflection I saw in the mirror when I was wearing her aura was enough to set my insecurities nibbling at my ego with piranha teeth. Recently I'd been working on filing those teeth down, but it wasn't easy. When you're a height-challenged, next-to-boobless wonder, with freckles (ugh!), strutting through life with bravado takes determination. But at least my own strawberry blond hair and pale green eyes aren't too horrible, and, judging by how often I've caught Billy staring at my lips with lust in his eyes, my mouth must be okay.
One thing I didn't envy about Dr. Phil at the moment: she was at one of my undisclosed client hideaways, keeping company with a private (and very discreet) doctor and nurse while passing a kidney stone. A luxurious remote island setting probably doesn't help much when you're in pain.
See, kidney stones are a big no-no for astronauts. Once you have one — even if you pass it without complications — you're pretty much a permanent fixture on the No Go list as far as space flight is concerned. "Prone to kidney stones" is not a label the medical professionals at NASA are comfortable with, no matter how stoic an astronaut might be. If the Powers That Be found out their mama-candidate was dealing with the issue, they might decide to scrub the mission. Or worse, as far as Philippa was concerned, call in a willing understudy.
Phil, having worked long and hard on this project, did not want to hand it off to someone else at the crucial time. It would be the scientific equivalent of training your whole life for the Olympics, making the team, and then having to drop out at the last minute due to a minor injury. In other words, soul crushing.
Phil's brother, Rudy, happened to work with CIA agent Mark Fielding, aka my big brother's best friend and the primary star of my deepest fantasies before Billy entered the romantic picture. (Okay, okay. So Mark still sneaks into my dreams sometimes. The nighttime ones, not the daydreams. You can't control a sleeping mind, for Pete's sake.)
Phil's brother, whose Agency clearance was high enough to know about Mark's adaptor abilities, had approached him with his sister's dilemma. Mark could have done the job himself, but since he was pretty much always busy with some super-secret matter of national security, he'd asked me to do it. Which was incredible progress in our professional relationship. He used to be so obsessed with protecting me he wouldn't even consider referring a potential client to me. Proving myself capable in his eyes hadn't been easy, and I still wasn't sure I was completely there. I suspected this job might be some sort of a test — one I fully intended to pass with flying colors.
It was poor timing for me that the Vomit Comet flight popped up during my job. If it had been a few days later, answering questions from the press would have been the worst I had to contend with. But I was used to poor timing — it defined my relationship with Mark.
As the plane went into another dive, Alec leaned back, allowing me the space to rise again. Since the camera was still rolling, I tried to do it more gracefully this time. It was getting easier.
Once up and floating, I tucked my currently long legs (man, was I ever going to miss those) close to my chest and rolled forward — on purpose this time — executing one of the flawless somersaults I'd been told Phil had perfected on her inaugural Vomit Comet flight, back when she was an ASCAN herself. Score one for me.
"That seems more in character," Alec said.
I spun my head toward him. Crap. I was supposed to know this guy? He hadn't been in Dr. Phil's dossier.
"It takes a few minutes to get your sea legs back," I said, making it rueful. Maybe he'd attribute my lack of recognition to preflight nerves.
He nodded. When he lowered his camera the expression on his face was perfectly professional.
"Say, listen," I said, "sorry if I've been, um, distant. It's a bit overwhelming trying to reacclimate to the program." I gave him what I knew to be Phil's man-melting smile.
He cocked his head, quirking his mouth. "If you say so."
I didn't know enough about him to delve more deeply into any possible connection between the two of them. If I'd somehow offended him by treating him as a brand-new acquaintance instead of a friend, the good doctor would have to smooth things over when she was back.
On the other hand, if it was only Billy giving me some shit ... well, I'd just have to kill him later.
When the end-of-flight announcement came, we all drifted toward our seats at the back of the plane. After normal gravity was restored, Alec buckled himself in beside me, in preparation for the gentler descent of landing. One good thing — after surviving this, I doubted flying commercial would ever bother me again.
I settled back comfortably, feeling pretty cocky about how well my first reduced gravity flight had gone. A measly national news conference ought to be a piece of cake comparatively.
Alec leaned close to my ear and said, "Where's Dr. Carson?"
So much for cocky. I swallowed hard and turned toward him, hoping like hell to see the light of Billy's laughter in his eyes. If it was there, it was doing a damn good job hiding behind the cold, hard suspicion.
Still, I tried. "If this is one of your jokes, you can stop now."
"I'm not the one 'joking' here," he said, a hard edge to his voice. "I mean it. Who are you? Or should I say, what are you?"
Excerpted from All Fixed Up by Linda Grimes. Copyright © 2016 Linda Grimes. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another fix that only Cielo can get into. Love and danger abound for a satisfying read.