Joe reveled in driving this particular section of road, for just this reason. He loved the rev and whine of his car’s engine as they rocketed up, and then just a hint of tapping of brakes as he and his car went into a headlong rush down.
At the bottom, he reluctantly reined in his car’s power, slowing down enough to match the local speed limit, though just barely. There was no one for miles; this stretch of road went quite a distance between towns, and one could easily see any other approaching vehicles long before they ever passed each other.
Or ones stopped alongside the road. Joe frowned as he caught sight of a small, white, imported car pulled to one side, tilting drunkenly, one tire obviously flat.
As he approached, Joe kept his eyes on the car. He could make out only one figure standing next to the vehicle. A young woman. He slowed the G-2 so he could assess the situation more fully before he would be required to either come to a complete stop or simply continue driving on his way.
A touch of a smile curved a corner of his mouth as he watched the young woman struggle to remove a spare tire from her car’s trunk. Dressed as she was, in a lightweight summer dress and strappy hot pink sandals, she had obviously not picked out the outfit with the thought that she might be changing a tire during the course of her day.
Giving one quick glance to his communicator, which remained quiet, Joe slowed and pulled his car in behind the girl’s vehicle.
She dropped the spare tire down and brushed a stray strand of hair out of her face. Then she caught sight of Joe stepping out his car. Her eyes narrowed.
“Hey,” Joe said by way of greeting. “Need some help?”
“Does it look like I do?” she retorted, carefully trying to balance the tire so that she could roll it over to where it needed to go.
“As a matter of fact,” Joe said, rubbing his chin with one gloved hand. “It does.”
She gave him a glare. “Well, as it so happens,” she responded haughtily, “I do not.”
He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. As he watched her roll the tire over to the flat tire was, Joe took the time to study her. She was probably around his own age, and definitely stubborn, given the defiant look on her pretty face.
Oh yes, she was that and more. Her honey blonde hair was caught up in a high ponytail, around which she had tied a gauzy hot pink scarf. The flower patterned shift dress she wore showed off her generous curves to perfection, ending mid-thigh to accentuate her long, well-toned legs. But it was her face to which Joe’s eyes returned to again and again.
Her face was heart-shaped, framed with wisps of blonde curls, which she kept brushing out of her eyes as the wind blew them at her every turn. Her large, almond-shaped eyes were the color of aged rum in the sunlight. Joe’s eyes drifted down then, to take in the sight of her generous mouth. It was no struggle at all on his part to imagine what it must be like to give – and receive – a kiss from those full, coral-pinked lips. Which were now set in a full-on pout. Joe blinked, coming out of his reverie, to take in what was playing out in front of him.
She had her hands on her hips, one hand holding a tire iron, and she gave the impertinent tire a kick. It turned lazily on its axle.
“Yeah,” Joe chuckled. “You don’t need any help.”
“Well, I could do it,” she explained defensively, “but the mechanics used a power screwdriver, or whatever that thing is, to put the lug nuts on, and now they won’t budge.”
“Uh huh,” Joe said, walking over to her. He held out his hand, into which she placed the tool. “Lower the car until I tell you to stop.”
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Why would I want to lower it? I need to get this tire off.”
Joe smiled. “I understand that, but I need you to lower it just a bit, and then we’ll get the tire off.”
She raked her eyes over his face and form; he could see her assessing his own attire … and intentions. Coming to an internal decision, she began to move.
He watched with some amusement as she went to the car’s jack and began lowering it to the ground. Just as the tire kissed the ground, Joe ordered her to stop. Within seconds, he had all of the offending lug nuts off.
“Okay,” he grinned. “Now we can raise it up.” Joe took the jack in hand and lifted the car up a few more inches and stopped. With the flat tire now completely off the ground, Joe heaved the tire from its seat and rolled it to the side. He tilted his head as he contemplated the tire.
“Looks like you picked up a nail,” he observed, pointing to a bit of metal, which reared its shiny head up out of the black rubber. Joe stood and leaned against the car door.
“Figures,” she sighed. “And just when I’m running late, too…”
This last statement was suddenly accompanied by the loud, shrill, and insistent barking of a dog. Joe glanced into the vehicle’s interior but did not immediately see anything in the car’s front seats that would be responsible for such a racket. He glanced around, but saw nothing, even though the barking continued.
“Where is that noise coming from?” Joe finally asked.
She giggled a moment, then nodded to the back seat of her car. At her direction, Joe bent down to peer directly into the back seat where he saw a small puffball of beige fur, dark eyes, and white teeth. It barked again.
Joe blinked in surprise. “Is that a dog?”
“You’re looking at Trouble,” she said, coming to stand next to Joe.
Joe looked back at her. “You’re not kidding.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and laughed. “That’s his name. Trouble. He’s a Pomeranian,” she explained. “They can be … a little … possessive, you know?”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Joe said, stepping away from the car, and out of the dog’s – if such a tiny, fluffy creature could actually be called that – line of vision. Sure enough, the barking stopped. “So, uh, if his name is Trouble, then your name would be …”
She smiled at him, the corners of her eyes crinkling ever so slightly, her mouth pursed in feigned effrontery. “And why would you need to be knowing that?”
Joe gave her his own half-smile as he again leaned up against the side of the car. Trouble picked up his barking. Joe chose to ignore him this time as he answered, “How else will I know who to send the bill to for changing a flat?”
She looked from him to the tire still leaning against the car and back again. She smiled as she shook her head. “Doesn’t look to me like you’ve actually finished it yet.”
Joe waved a hand. “A mere technicality. So, you still haven’t told me what your name is.”
She dipped her head down and offered him a shy smile. “Simone.”
“Nice to meet you, Simone,” Joe said. “I’d offer to shake your hand, but, well…” He held out one gloved hand, which now bore traces of dirt and grease from the tire.
Simone smiled and nodded. “Of course. I understand.”
Joe walked back to the tire and fitted on the spare, then carefully put the lug nuts back on and tightened them, each in its own turn. When he was sure the tire would hold, he lowered the car, then went back to more fully tighten each nut.
“Don’t want to lose this baby when you’re rolling,” Joe said, casting a sly smile over to where Simone stood. She gave him a return smile.
“No, definitely not. It’s the only spare I have.”
Joe finished the job and helped Simone put jack, tools, and flat tire into the small, cramped compartment of her trunk.
“Say,” Simone said as she shut the trunk, “why don’t you let me treat you to a coffee or something? There’s a quaint little coffee shop just in the next town. It wouldn’t take us too long to get there…”
Joe’s initial reaction was to say yes; Simone had intrigued him and he wanted to continue their conversation. On the other hand…
“I thought you said you were already running late.”
“Oh,” Simone said with a wave of her hand, “never mind that. I’m already late, so what difference does it make if I’m an hour late or an hour and a half late. Late is late, right?”
Joe snorted, thinking back to the last time he was late for a briefing. Simone’s statement was one that Nambu would take serious issue with – and then proceed to define the term to her for the next half-hour. But Joe decided to spare them both that agony.
“Well, if you really think it’ll be okay,” he hedged.
Simone smiled broadly. “Sure it will. Besides, who’s going to tell me no? It’s my meeting. I called it, so I can be late for it.” Simone threaded her arm through Joe’s, her hands lightly caressing his skin as she did so. She glanced up at him through lowered lashes. “So, would you have anything to be late for?”
Joe looked at her, almost mesmerized by the way the light played in the depths of her light brown eyes. “Uh, no,” he said, struggling to recall about what time he told the gang he would meet them at Jun’s. “Not really.”
“Wonderful,” Simone declared excitedly. “Then it’s decided. We’ll meet at the small coffee shop, just on the outskirts of the town, called Café Venice, and I can buy you a drink or something to thank you for your kindness in helping me out now.”
“Oh, you don’t need to thank me…” Joe pulled away from her as they stopped at the driver’s side door.
“Sure I do,” Simone insisted. “Actually, it’s the least I can do. After all, who knows how long I would’ve had to wait until someone came by, and the roadside assistance that I have probably would’ve taken for ever to get here, and poor little Trouble would have had to wait for his spa treatment…”
“The dog goes to a spa?” Joe asked incredulously.
Simone giggled. “Of course he does. How else do you think he would stay so clean and fluffy?”
“Spin cycle and a dryer set on high?”
“Very funny,” Simone replied drily. “But no. Actually, it takes a team of three to get him to that point.”
Joe smirked. “So Trouble’s never looked so good?”
Simone smirked back. “Exactly. Now, shall we go? I’ll follow you.”
Simone opened the driver’s side door. From this vantage point, Joe could see her purse and cell phone lying on the passenger seat. Like her dress, the purse was a white and hot pink floral design; the cell phone had a decorative design done in hot pink and white rhinestones.
“No,” Joe said decisively. “I want you in front of me.” At the questioning look she gave him, he added. “I want to be sure nothing happens to that tire. Spares are notorious for not being as good as regular tires.”
“Oh,” Simone said. “Sure. Well, in that case. I’ll see you there.” At that moment, a small electronic bleep sounded. Simone discreetly glanced over to where her phone was and pursed her lips. “I just need to make one little phone call, then I’m all yours.”
Joe glanced back at her over his shoulder as he walked back to the G-2. “Sure,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I can’t wait.”
* * *
Once at the café, they claimed a small outdoor table as their own, especially since Simone insisted on bringing Trouble with her.
With drinks ordered, Simone smiled at him. “So,” she said, propping her elbows up on the table, and resting her chin on top of her hands. “What brought you out all this way today?”
Joe gave her an enigmatic smile. “Let’s just say that I have a talent for finding trouble.” At the mention of his name, the dog gave a small growl. Joe gave the dog a look, then slid his attention back to the dog’s owner. “So, you said something about calling a meeting. What sort of work do you do?”
Simone gave a small shrug and brushed her ponytail back off of her shoulder. “I’m a buyer for one of the fashion houses in the city. Maybe you’ve heard of it – Millicent’s?”
Joe shook his head; he had never heard of it, but he made a mental note to run it by Jun. If it existed, she would know it. Of course, it would also mean that he would have to explain to her why he was asking about it. On second thought, maybe he could just look it up on the internet…
At that moment, two things happened simultaneously – Simone’s cell phone chirped again, and the waitress arrived with their drinks.
“I’m terribly sorry about this,” Simone apologized as she stood up. “But I really must take this. I’ll be right back. Keep an eye on Trouble for me, please?”
“Uh, sure, no problem,” Joe replied, eyeing the dog, who gave him a small tooth-showing growl.
Simone smiled and stepped away, flipping open her phone as she went. Joe watched as she stood by the far side of her car, pacing, gesturing, then turning as the conversation apparently turned serious.
That was when his own communicator flashed. “Joe, where are you?” he heard Jun’s plaintive voice ask.
“I’m at a café,” he answered. “Keeping an eye on Trouble.”
A small pause of silence. Then, “you’re what?”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes, okay?”
A long-suffering sigh. “Well, all right. But don’t be too long. I can’t keep Ryu and Jinpei from the goodies forever, you know, and you promised you would be here before Ken.”
Joe gave a small laugh. “Yeah, I know. Okay, I’ll be right there,” he assured her, dropping his arm just as Simone came back to the table. She eyed the drinks before them.
“Ooo, well, don’t these look good?”
“Uh, yeah,” Joe hesitated. “Well, look, I hate to do this, but I really have to get going. It’s later than I thought.”
Simone smiled as she picked up her cup and took a small, delicate sip. “Sure,” she said with a nod of her head. “Maybe we can meet up again some time, then, Joe?”
Joe rose to his feet. “Sounds great. You travel this road a lot?”
“Then maybe we can meet here tomorrow?” Joe suggested.
“Sounds like a plan,” Simone agreed, holding out a hand. “Until then?”
Joe took her hand in his and gave it small shake.
It was not until he was a good ten miles down the road that he realized that although he had never told her, she already knew his name. Joe frowned in thought. Perhaps it was not just the dog who was trouble…
* * *
The glowing computer screen cast a blue light into the small trailer as Joe booted up his laptop. He leaned back and waited until the computer connected. His fingers hesitated over the keyboard for a fraction of a second, then he quickly typed in the name “Millicent’s.”
1.78 million hits.
Okay, he breathed out. Need to narrow the field a bit. He thought it over for a minute, then typed in “Millicent’s fashion designers.”
Joe smirked. That was more like it.
Half an hour later, he learned more about the fashion industry than he ever cared to know. He also found out that Simone’s last name was Denelli and that she held the title of buyer, just as she had said. She also seemed to be related to the president of the company, a woman by the name of Millicent Denelli.
Joe recalled Simone’s remark about it being “her meeting” she was missing. If her mother – or some other relative – ran the business, then her attitude about being late to the meeting was no surprise. After all, she would not face the same repercussions as any other employee would.
He was, however, disappointed that there were no photos of any of the employees, just the company’s current fashion lines. Joe drummed his fingers lightly on the keyboard in thought.
If he couldn’t get any further along this line of information, then he was going to have to take it to the next level, and he wasn’t looking forward to it.
* * *
“Millicent’s?” Jun asked as she wiped down the already-clean counter with a white cloth. “Sure I’ve heard of it. The question is, how do you know about it?”
Joe slumped into the bar. “Look, I’m just asking, okay? I just wanted to see if the place was legit.”
“You thinking about switching careers?” Jinpei joked as he rinsed off a dish. “Trading in fast cars for women’s clothes?”
“Jinpei,” Jun admonished, swiping at him with a snap of the cloth. “Behave.” Jun turned back to Joe and picked up a glass. Trading the dirty cloth for a clean one, she nonchalantly began to wipe the glass. “So, Joe, why do you want to know?”
Joe shifted in his seat slightly and contemplated the glass of Orange Crush Jun had put in front of him when he first sat down. A bead of water slowly trickled down the side of the glass and spread as it hit the bar’s mirror-like surface. Joe moved the glass, drawing a water line in front of him.
“I ran into someone the other day,” he said slowly, choosing his words carefully. “I want to see exactly how much of the story they were handing me was true.”
“Oh?” Jun said noncommittally, carefully keeping her focus on the glass in her hand. “Anyone we know?”
“Doubt it,” Joe answered quickly. Too fast, he belatedly realized, as it rated a glance up from Jun.
Jinpei sniggered behind her. “Always a pretty face that suckers you in, huh, Joe?”
Jun took a blind backhanded swipe at Jinpei, but this time he anticipated her and managed to dodge another snap of the cloth.
Joe took a swallow of the soda and carefully placed the glass back onto the bar. “Let’s just say I have my suspicions.”
Jun stopped wiping the glass and Jinpei wandered over from the sink. Even Ryu, who had been sitting on the stool next to him, leaned in closer. “You, uh, think she might be some kind of Galactor operative?” Ryu asked, as he ran a hair through his hair.
“I don’t know,” Joe said, taking another sip. “But I want to find out anything and everything I can first, before I really get in further with this.”
Jun’s eyes narrowed in thought. “Why don’t you tell us exactly what happened?”
Although Joe didn’t tell them absolutely everything, he gave his teammates a good overview of the events of the previous day.
“So, uh, you gonna meet her again?” Ryu bluntly asked the obvious. Three pairs of eyes swung to Joe, waiting for an answer.
“I don’t know,” Joe said, pushing his glass away and sliding off the stool. He thrust his hands into his pockets and headed for the door. “Maybe.”
The message was very simple. One word, actually.
To which he responded, “Sure.”
Which was how Joe ended up sitting in the glass-enclosed, cathedral-ceilinged cafeteria that was at street level in the building that housed Millicent’s.
Joe took a seat at a table in a far corner, his back to the one actual wall that the cafeteria had, and watched as people came and went. He was vaguely surprised by the number of women that all had the same look – dark suit, high, high heels (most were black or blue, though one rebel wore dark gray), their hair pulled up into sleek chignons. They also looked very gaunt, as if they hadn’t seen edible food in days.
And maybe, Joe considered, they hadn’t, as most left the cafeteria only clutching large Styrofoam cups of the beverage of their choice.
There were a few brave souls who actually sat down and ate what passed for food – salads, mostly, though there were those who tried the soup. The remaining offerings looked either washed-out or dusty. It made him long for the Snack J and one of Jinpei’s specialty sandwiches. He skipped the entrees and opted for a safe choice of a garden salad.
If this was a Galactor base, Joe thought wryly, we could just send in Ryu and Jinpei. Ryu could easily break just about everyone in half and they both could out-eat the entire cafeteria.
Then a bright spot of color appearing at the main entrance caught and held his eye. Simone. It had to be her, there was no other.
He watched as she walked up to his table, her flirty, gauzy skirt of bright yellows and oranges swaying with each step. Her sleeveless top was fitted, showing off her curves to perfection. As always, Trouble accompanied her, his yellow collar with orange rhinestones glittering in harmony with Simone’s outfit.
“Hi,” Simone greeted, putting down her tray, pulling out a chair and placing Trouble on it. “Did I keep you waiting? I did, didn’t I? I’m so sorry. I got pulled into a think tank session and, well, I guess I just lost track of time.” Simone pulled out another chair and sat down. “I really am sorry.”
Joe shrugged one shoulder. “Been here for a bit, but no problem. You work with an interesting collection of people.”
Simone giggled and leaned in closer. Joe could smell the light, flowery scent of her perfume, which instantly brought to mind the colorful flowers of Spring. She held up a hand as she whispered, “see the girl in the blue Tahari suit?”
Joe followed her gaze, but since it led to a group of girls, all of whom were wearing blue suits, it made it hard for him to identify exactly which one.
Simone’s blue eyes sparkled. “The one with the streaked blonde hair,” she elaborated. “Kinda tall …”
Joe snickered. “You just described three quarters of the women here.”
Simone rolled her eyes and gave a mock huff. “The one with the white blouse, cut down to there, and the hideous rhinestone pin on the left lapel.”
“Oh, okay,” Joe said with a nod. “I see her now.”
Simone shook her head. “Said her boyfriend gave her that pin and now she wears it with everything. Personally, we don’t think she even has a boyfriend.”
Joe quirked up an eyebrow and gave her a look.
Simone smiled. “We think she bought it herself. Anyway,” Simone said, waving one hand while picking up her white plastic fork in the other, “rumor has it that she’s trying to oust that girl in last year’s Kas-, uh, the girl standing two people over on her left and get her job. Not that I blame her in the least…”
“Why? What’s so special about her job?”
Simone’s eyes went wide. “She’s the buyer in the Western market.”
Joe shook his head. He attempted to eat the lettuce, but gave up. He put down the fork and sat back in his chair, arms folded over his chest, and listened to Simone in amusement.
Simone sighed, then smiled. “That means she gets to go to all of the couture shows for the Fall lines. How wonderful it all must be.”
Simone sighed again, speared a piece of pale red tomato, and popped it into her mouth. She chewed for a moment, the swallowed hard. Her eyes went wide.
“Okay,” she said, holding a hand out. “It’s okay. Don’t panic.”
Joe immediately went on alert, sitting a little straighter in his chair. His eyes swept over the room, but he didn’t see any immediate threat. “What’s wrong? What is it?”
Simone gave a single nod with her head in the direction she was looking. “See that man over there? The one with the three assistants around him?”
“Yeeeah,” Joe acknowledged, drawing out the syllable, casually dropping a hand to where his gun was concealed in his pant leg.
“That’s Ernesto. And he’s looking at you.”
“So?” Simone repeated, nearly rolling her eyes at him. “That means he probably wants to shoot you!”
Joe’s hand moved closer to his weapon, but fortunately, he did not draw it as he watched the group of men in question. True, all four of them were now looking directly at him and the one called Ernesto fluttered his hands around his face as he spoke.
“What makes you think that?” Joe asked cautiously.
Simone gave a sly smile and a small shrug. “Because you’re yummy to look at.”
In the time that it took Joe to slide a glance over to Simone and back, he found Ernesto and his chorus rapidly approaching their table. As they neared, Joe rose to his feet.
“Something I can help you gentlemen with?”
Ernesto stopped short, placed the fingertips of one hand to the center of his chest and said, “I don’t recall seeing you here before. Do you work here? Are you new?”
“No,” Joe replied shortly. “Just visiting.”
Ernesto tipped his head. “Pity. I could use someone like you. You have very good bone structure. Has anyone ever told you that?”
Joe narrowed his eyes, but gave a half smile. “Can’t say anyone has.”
“Well, you do,” Ernesto insisted. “Take it from me. Have you ever modeled before?”
“Would you like to?”
Joe heard Simone’s intake of air over his own voice. “No.”
Undeterred, Ernesto snapped his fingers and an assistant leaned towards Joe with a business card held between two fingers. Joe looked at it a moment, then reluctantly took it. It would make a good target for shooting practice.
“My card,” Ernesto said. “You change your mind, give me a call. You have a unique look. Handsome, but not in a pretty way. If the camera loves you, you would definitely not lack for work.”
“Yeah, great, thanks,” Joe muttered, shoving the card into his pocket. He was grateful that the guys weren’t here to see this. He’d never hear the end of it. He glanced at Simone, who had a look close to awe on her face as she watched Ernesto leave.
“That … was … amazing!” she breathed. “He never goes out his way like that.” She smiled at Joe. “You really are something special.”
A chime sang out and Simone flipped open her phone. “Rats,” she frowned. “I really have to take this. Would you be a dear and watch Trouble for me? Thanks!”
Without waiting for an answer, Simone stood with the cell phone pressed to her ear and was walking away even before Joe could sit down again. He stared at the little dog, who blinked his black button eyes back at him.
“So,” Joe said conversationally. “What do you get for lunch?”
The dog yipped once.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Come on,” he said. “We’re going for a little walk.”
Trouble jumped down from his perch as Joe picked up his leash. Together, they headed for the door. Joe caught Simone’s eye and pointed to the door. She held up a hand and nodded, then turned back, never stopping the conversation.
Once outside, Joe and Trouble set off at a brisk pace and found themselves at a chain burger place. Joe ordered lunch, then glanced down as he heard a yip down by his ankles.
“Don’t worry,” he assured Trouble. “I didn’t forget you.”
In record time, he and Trouble polished off a burger and fries and headed back to Simone’s building. She was standing at the main door, hands on hips, foot tapping.
“Where did you guys go?” she demanded as they got close enough. “I was worried sick.”
“Oh, ah,” Joe looked down at Trouble, who looked back up at him and barked once. Joe smiled. “We just started walking and lost track of time. Great day to be out.”
“Well,” Simone said with a flirty smile. “I guess he really does need to stretch his legs once in a while. Thanks for watching him for me. Well, uh, I guess I better be getting back to work. Maybe we can meet again some time?”
“Sure,” Joe said, handing over Trouble’s leash. “Just let me know.”
A few days later, another invitation was issued, this time for the cafe where they had gone when they first met. When he arrived, Joe was slightly surprised, and vaguely disturbed, by the fact that Simone’s car was nowhere in sight. Belatedly, he realized that he had simply expected her to already be here, waiting for him. Lying in wait for him? He pushed the thought aside as he got out of his car, his hand just lightly brushing the edge of his gun’s grip.
Just as he took a seat at the table they had sat at before, Joe saw Simone’s sleek little car pull up. The spare tire was now gone and all four tires looked shining new. He couldn’t help but smile as he watched her bounce out of the car, pausing only long enough to scoop Trouble out of his doggy seat.
She was in a bright lime-green suit this time, its pencil skirt skimming her thighs like plastic wrap, with Trouble wearing a matching green collar studded with yellow rhinestones.
“Hi,” she beamed as she bounced into the seat next to him. “I almost didn’t come. I didn’t really think you would.”
Joe pushed around the napkin on the table with his fingertips. There were a lot of questions he had about this girl, and he wanted to take things slowly. “Why not?”
Simone brushed a length of hair off her shoulder and gave him a coy look. “You know how it is. A good looking guy, some promises, a stood up girl …happens all the time. And after the last time we met ....”
“You don’t look the type who gets stood up very often.”
Simone laughed, tossing her head back. “You’re kind, but you’d be surprised.”
“Yeah, I guess so then,” Joe said vaguely, still not totally trusting Simone. Once again, her cell rang. She frowned as she checked the caller ID.
“Darn. I have to take this. I’ll be right back.” Simone slid out of the seat and wandered over to her car. Joe watched her intently, wondering who was calling her, what the conversation was about … and then felt something tap his arm. He shook it off and continued to watch Simone as she paced by her car, every so often giving a glance back to Joe. Once, she even waved to him. Then … more taps to the arm.
Annoyed, Joe looked over, ready to pound whoever it was for disturbing him, only to find himself looking down into Trouble’s face as the dog tapped his arm again with a tiny front paw. The second he had Joe’s attention, he gave a small bark.
“What’s your problem?”
Rowf, rowf, grrrrrr came the reply.
“Oh, please,” Joe scoffed. “Be a real dog, will you?” Another growl and Joe tossed a piece of biscotti to him. The tiny dog caught it neatly with his gleaming white teeth and settled in to noisily crunch on it.
He was just polishing off the last of it when Simone re-joined him. “Sorry,” she breathed in apology. “Certain calls you just have to take, you know?”
Joe’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “Yeah, I know.”
Simone turned her attention to Trouble. “And have you been a good boy?” The dog wagged his tail in response and gave a small bark. “Aww, such a good boy.” Glancing over the table, Simone grabbed a small piece of biscotti and handed it off to Trouble, who gently, delicately, took it from her and daintily began to nibble on it.
Joe snorted. Obviously, the dog knew who he was dealing with, and how to work things to his own advantage.
As soon as the waitress departed with their order, Joe began to ask questions – some typical, others more searching. Until he had his suspicions confirmed or denied …
Even before the shot could be heard, even before it shattered the large plate glass window off to the side of where they sat, Joe was in motion. Simone gave a squeak as he threw an arm over her shoulders and pulled her down with him. His gun was instantly in his hand, though he didn’t even remember reaching for it.
Joe lined up his shots as the racing motorcyclists flew past the café, and was able to hit one rider off his bike and throw another as his bullet punctured a rear tire. The remaining four riders disappeared around the bend of the road before Joe could stand to get a clear shot.
Just as it was over, pandemonium broke out in the café. Inside, Joe could hear people begin screaming, some running out, even though they would have been safer inside.
As the realization that this was definitely a Galactor hit registered in his mind, Joe glanced down to look at Simone, who remained crouched, knees on the ground, using the table as a shield. In her arms, she tightly clutched Trouble. Like Joe, she did not know when, exactly, she had grabbed the little dog, but there he was, just the same. He stared back at Joe and gave a barking growl.
“W-who w-was that? W-what just happened here?” Simone managed to stutter, trying to overcome her fear.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Joe snapped back as he grabbed Simone by the arm and pulled her to standing. He could the low rumble of the motorcycles returning. “Come on, we’ve got to get out of here.”
“What? Why? Where?” Simone resisted slightly as Joe led her to the side of his car and opened the door.
“Just get in.”
“What about my car?”
The motorcycles were closer. Joe ran to the driver’s side, leapt in and turned over the car’s engine. “We’ll come back for it,” he replied, “if there’s anything left to come back to get.”
Simone turned large eyes, wide with fright, on him and squeaked as Joe hit the gas pedal.
The Galactor motorcyclists surrounded them in a matter of minutes. With some maneuvering, Joe was able to take out the ones that had pulled along either side of the car by giving their bikes glancing blows with the fenders of his car. A few shots pinged off of the car’s body and one hit a side window, the tell tale spider web cracking blooming in the center of the glass.
Simone ducked and covered Trouble with her own body as much as the shoulder harness seat belt allowed as Joe’s car left the roadway and descended down an embankment. The motorcyclists followed, then a few minutes later, another sound could be heard. Simone lifted her head slightly, trying to identify it through her fear.
“A helicopter?” she asked. “Are they going to help us?”
Joe gave only the briefest of glances skyward. “Doubt it. Unless you’re with them.”
Simone gasped at his words, then risked a glance out the window only to see a motorcycle literally explode in front of her eyes.
Joe expertly handled the car, dodging the motorcyclists. On a tight turn, his tires just skimming the soft shoulder of the road, he finally lost them as they spun out and over the cliff’s sheer drop. With the motorcycles gone, the helicopter seemed to give up as it banked sharply to the right and flew out and away.
Simone finally turned to sit properly in the passenger seat, her hands locked around Trouble, who just sat there and panted, his dark eyes wide as he stared at Joe. He gave a small whine as the car slowed down somewhat.
Joe glanced over at the dog, a corner of his mouth lifting in a small smile. “You like speed, boy?”
The dog barked in response. Joe grinned and even Simone gave a tiny laugh. From somewhere, something electronic beeped. Simone gasped and retrieved her cell phone from her pocket.
“Oh, no,” she moaned as she flipped it on. “No, no. This is not good.” She looked over at Joe. “We have to go back. I have to get my car. I’m late for my meeting and I can’t be late …”
Joe quirked an eyebrow at her. “Another one? I thought you said it didn’t matter if you were late.”
Simone closed her eyes briefly and huffed out a sigh. “Yes, then. This is a different meeting, and not one of mine. If I miss this one …” Her voice trailed off as tears filled her eyes. “If I miss this one, it could mean the end of my career. Please. We have to go back.”
“Negative,” Joe replied. Though the word was harsh, his tone was sympathetic. “If we do return to that café, there’s a good chance more of those who were chasing us will be waiting. We can’t risk it.”
Simone sat a moment, her fingers nervously twisting at bits and pieces of Trouble’s fur. “I know,” she exclaimed, suddenly snapping her head up again. “You could just bring me. We’re almost halfway there now anyway. And then later, we can go and get my car. What do you say?”
At the moment, Joe was speechless. Go with her? Was she crazy?
Or was he, because he was actually considering it? If she really was a part of Galactor, then this would be a monumental setup. She did say it would mean the end of her career … and in Galactor, one screw up often meant just that … the end.
“Where is it?” Joe asked, disbelieving his own ears that he was even asking. “The building where you work?”
“No. It’s at the Carteret Building, downtown, Fifty-One and First…”
“Yeah, I know the address.”
Joe swung the car off the appropriate exit and headed for the city.
“So I have to ask,” Joe said in what he hoped was a conversational tone. “Did you know those guys back there?”
Simone blinked at him. “Know them? Of course not. How could anyone tell who they were with those masks?”
“Still,” Joe persisted. He cut his gaze over to her briefly before turning his attention back to the road. He wanted to see what her reaction was and she simply seemed … stunned. “They could have been waiting for you. You could have known that they would have been there …”
“Why would I have wanted that?” Simone interrupted indignantly. “And how would I have known they were there at all?”
“Because you could have told them,” Joe blurted out. “You could be one of them.”
Simone laughed outright. “One of them? Are you crazy? Did you see what they were wearing? Not in a million years would I wear that combination of black and green khaki.” Simone gave a delicate shudder. “And those ones on the bikes?” She tilted her head in consideration. “Okay, so they had decent figures, but come on. Those color choices? Seriously? I wouldn’t be a part of that if you paid me. Unless, of course, if they let me redesign the outfits … cute little numbers with maybe a racing stripe down one side, and a matching helmet …”
“Can we please stay on topic?”
“I thought we were.”
Joe watched as they neared the city limits. “You sure you want to do this?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Simone replied immediately. “This just might get me that promotion after all.”
Joe pulled into a parking spot and had a bad feeling as he stepped out.
* * *
In her natural element again, Simone perked up and sashayed through the main foyer of the building, her high heels clicking on the marble floors as she went directly over to the banks of elevators, Joe following a reluctant distance from her. She hit the ‘up’ button and turned to watch him catch up. A brilliant smile lit up her face.
“This is going to be awesome,” she breathed as the doors slid open. Together, they waited for people exiting the car, then stepped in. Simone hit her floor number along with everyone else.
Joe surreptitiously kept his back to the wall of the elevator and raked an appraising glance over the other passengers. Two very skinny girls in their early 20s, he would have guessed, only one of them holding what looked like a small salad. An older man, probably mid fifties, in a suit, looking incredibly bored as he scrolled through menus on his phone with one hand. No one seemed out of place, but that was usually how Galactor liked it …
But no. The man stepped out at the third floor and the two girls left them two floors later. At their own stop, Joe was surprised when the doors slid open and he found himself in the reception area of one of the newest rising fashion houses.
Jun would kill to be here, he thought as he looked around. He was pulled out of his thoughts as he felt Simone slide her hand possessively into the crook of his elbow and steered him through the frosted glass double doors. He felt his cheeks burn with heat as he watched the women there all pointedly stop and stare as he went by. A few gave him cold looks, but a few looked more than interested and probably would have approached them if Simone had slowed down even a little bit.
Simone, however, never broke her stride until she reached a frosted-glass-enclosed conference room that was carved out of the larger floor space and pulled open the door.
“You’re late,” the cold, crisp voice of an older woman seated at the head of the table informed Simone as she walked through the door.
“I’m sorry,” Simone said automatically, not sounding sorry in the least. “Unavoidable delay, don’t you know.”
Joe stepped back, keeping his back to the glass wall. He would have leaned up against it, but he wanted to be prepared for anything.
“Well, the others have already made their presentations, Ms. Denelli,” sniffed a slender, effeminate man in a loud blue and white checkered shirt with a yellow tie. “But since you managed to get here, you may as well show us what you have.”
“Uh, right,” Simone said, not in the least disturbed by the man’s tone of voice or words. She went over to where a stack of portfolios had been placed and flipped through them until she found her own. As she began her presentation, Joe’s mouth dropped open. Of all of the things he had been expecting, this was the last thing on earth he would have figured on. He could be wrong, of course, but the tail end of the car in the photo she just flipped over looked awfully familiar …
Her presentation would have been longer, but since she was late, Simone talked as fast as she could, outlining her ideas just as she had been practicing. When she was finished, she waited expectantly for questions.
That was when a small gathering of people caught his attention and he focused on trying to ascertain if it was a Galactor setup, or just a bunch of people gossiping. Then he heard his name and Joe turned his head sharply to look at Simone, who was now smiling benevolently at him. Trouble gave a small yip from his spot on the conference room floor and Joe got the distinct impression that the dog was telling him to run before it was too late.
But it was too late. One of the older women in the room fixed a steely gaze on him.
“All right, Ms. Denelli, we have seen your drawings, we have seen your samples. May I now ask why you have this man here with you?”
“Of course,” Simone said sweetly, nodding her head ever-so-slightly in the older woman’s direction. “You see, he, uh, has the look of the models I would want in the show.”
Joe arced a brow up as he continued to stare at Simone. She ignored him and warmed up to her new topic. “You see the predatory eyes, the lean build. A man built for speed, endurance, and strength.”
“And you think all of that will be accomplished just by someone wearing your designs?” the effeminate man sniffed.
Simone shrugged. “Whether it is accomplished in reality or not is beside the point.” She narrowed her eyes at the man, her smile turning cold and calculating. “After all, we are in the business of selling fantasies, are we not? Make people think that a dress cut a certain way will make them look taller or that a certain color will make them look thinner. Doesn’t matter if it actually does or not, just so long as they buy into the idea of it.” Simone shifted her eyes back to the older woman. “Isn’t that right, Aunt Millie?”
Millicent Denelli gave her a cold stare back. “Indeed,” she replied stiffly. “Ours is a unique business in the world and I can certainly see how this young man, or models like him, could certainly lead the general populace into believing that they, too, could look dangerous and hungry. Is this all of your presentation, Simone?”
Millicent began to gather the piles of papers spread out before her on the table into one large pile. “Very well then. You may go. As to the rest, we will take a fifteen minute break and meet back here to discuss the candidates.” She glared at Simone, who was still loitering by the door. “I will let you know of our decision, Simone. It is not necessary for you to wait here.”
“Yes, Aunt Millie,” Simone breathed and turned to scoop up Trouble. Joe opened the glass door, simultaneously relieved and on edge about leaving that room. Again, as they strode through the halls of the fashion house, Joe found himself the unwitting center of attention, men and women alike.
Simone giggled and leaned into him. “By the way, everyone loves your look.”
“Oh yeah?” Joe queried. “How can you tell?”
Simone giggled again. “If you haven’t noticed, everyone around here kind of looks the same. But you stand out. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but if you get noticed by the right people, it could change your life.”
* * *
The second they stepped out of the building, Joe took a deep breath, feeling as though a weight had finally been lifted from his chest. It was a feeling that was short-lived as he caught sight of a suspicious looking vehicle slowly crawling down the street, a line of traffic held up behind it. A glint of sunlight off the barrel of gun held by the car’s passenger was enough to propel Joe into motion.
“Get in,” he ordered, swinging his car’s door open. He slid across the hood and into the driver’s seat. Simone barely had enough time to close the door when Joe hit the gas pedal and his car laid down strips of rubber in his attempt to get ahead of the pursuing vehicle. He swerved down the first right hand turn that presented itself and then continued making random turns, all the while glancing back into his rear view mirror to see if they were still being pursued.
A few moments later, a ringing shot announced that they still were, so Joe tried to put as many vehicles between them and the car as possible. It wasn’t until he got lucky with a box truck (which had just stopped to make its deliveries behind them, and effectively blocked the street) that they managed to gain some distance. For the Galactor following them, it would mean backtracking, then attempting to pick up their trail again. Precious time would be wasted, and Joe planned to be far from the city by then.
At the city limits, he pushed the car to go as fast as he dared without drawing undue attention. The ride was tense and silent. He kept glancing over at Simone, but she seemed subdued and quiet.
A movement from the top ridge of a cliff caught his eye and, sure enough, Joe made out the darkened shapes of waiting Devil Stars. Discreetly, Joe made it seem as though he were smoothing his driving gloves further down onto his hands and hit birdscramble.
“Those are those same ones on the bikes,” Simone observed.
“How did they know we were here?”
Joe cut a look in Simone’s direction. “Why don’t you tell me?”
Simone frowned. “That’s the second time you’ve said that to me and I still don’t know what you mean by it.”
“Fine,” Joe said, smoothly shifting gears in an attempt to put as much distance between them and the Devil Stars as possible. “Then let me put it to you this way. If you aren’t a part of Galactor, then perhaps you would care to explain exactly how it is that you knew who I was before I ever told you?”
Simone blinked a moment, then frowned again. “Seriously? Did you not listen to any of my presentation?”
Joe inclined his head. “Honestly? No, not really.”
“Well, if you had bothered,” Simone huffed in a slightly hurt voice, pulling her arms around Trouble as if the dog were pillow, “you would have heard about my ideas for the Next Big Trend.”
Joe snorted. He could actually heard the capital letters in her voice as she said the words. “And that would be … what?”
“The racing look.”
“Fashion goes in cycles. It’s well known and documented and everything. We’ve been through bohemian chic, rocker chic, the business look, the mod look, you name it. Now, it’s my idea to put racing in the spotlight.”
Simone began rubbing one of Trouble’s ears between her fingers. The little dog tilted his head and flicked the ear out of her hand. “Anywho, I knew who you were because in order to get ideas for designs, I went to a bunch of races here and there. It was kinda hard not to know who you were, especially since you’d usually win whatever race you were in and the announcers weren’t exactly shy about giving out names, you know.”
“Uh huh.” Joe mulled this over. It was plausible, but it didn’t explain everything. “What about your car?”
“What about it?”
“The tire, being stranded, even the road you were on -- that was a total set up, right?”
“What? I don’t know what -- eek!” Simone squealed as the Devil Stars caught up to them and rode level to their car. Joe saw one make a movement as if throwing something and instinctively swerved hard to avoid whatever it was. Sure enough, a small explosion behind them could be heard.
“Who are these people?”
Joe ignored the comment and concentrated on his driving. He had to outrun them, or somehow shake them loose. Out on the horizon, he saw a large dark shape suddenly form against the mauve and purpling of the sky robed for evening.
“What is that?” Simone whimpered in distress, one hand pressed to her mouth, the other firmly wrapped around Trouble.
Joe, however, grinned. “That,” he replied, “is on our side.”
As the Godphoenix approached, Joe watched as Jun and Jinpei were lowered to the ground and came racing towards them, guns blazing. Joe maneuvered out of their way, and their line of sight, wishing he could change into birdstyle as well, but with Simone and Trouble with him, that just wasn’t possible. With the Science Ninja Team running interference for them, Joe headed out for the highway, then began a large loop back, ostensibly so that they could see if there was anything remaining of Simone’s car.
* * *
By the time they reached the café, it was already closed, the shattered plate glass window now wearing a sheet of plywood. Simone’s car, however, was parked where she had left it and had remained unscathed. He parked beside it.
“Well, that’s good news.” Simone breathed a sigh of relief as she popped open the door and bounced out of Joe’s car. Joe also got out and walked over to where Simone stood, remote key pointing to the door. The car chirped as it unlocked. Simone put Trouble into his seat, then turned and was surprised to see Joe standing beside her. She studied the dark look on his features and tilted her head.
“You really thought that I staged the whole tire thing?”
Simone laughed, her hair rippling with the movement. “Nope. Completely innocent, Your Honor. I generally don’t try to run over sharp objects if I can help it. Tires are like really expensive shoes, only for a car, you know?”
Joe smiled at that, despite his desire to still be suspicious. After all, there were still questions out there …
“What about the road?” he persisted. “How did you know I would be by, and that I would stop to help?”
Simone shrugged. “I didn’t. I didn’t know any of that. When you did stop, though, I recognized you from the all those races I went to. No biggie. As for the road, well, I’m on this bit of blacktop a lot, especially since my best friend lives one town over, and she’s getting married in a few months. I’m her maid of honor and she’s total control freak in a big way. Always some emergency, and I have to drop everything to go and smooth it all out.” Simone gave Joe a small smile. “The last emergency was that the ribbons on the favors didn’t exactly match the linens for the tables and she was totally freaking out. I had to talk her down from the ledge.”
“And all of those phone calls you kept getting ... they were from her?”
Simone gave him a sad smile. “Pretty much, yeah.”
An awkward silence fell between them. Simone reached out and placed a hand on his arm. “I’m not going to be able to ask you to be my date for the wedding, am I?” she asked softly.
Joe shook his head sadly. “No. It wouldn’t have mattered, though. I wouldn’t have been able to, anyway.”
Simone gave him a querying look and this time, it was his turn to give her a small consolation smile. “Big race season,” he explained. “I’ll be out of the country most of the time. But, maybe we could still see each other from time to time?”
“Yeah, sure,” she said, nodding her head. “Especially if I’m on this road and I get a flat again, right?”
They hesitated again, and then, on an impulsive whim, Simone leaned in fast and gave him a brushing kiss on the cheek. “See you around, then,” she said as she got into her car. Joe lifted a hand in a parting gesture of goodbye and Trouble popped his head up to look out the rear window as the car pulled away and edged out onto the road. Trouble took one look at Joe and started barking. Even after the car was quite a distance from him, Joe could still hear him. He smiled as he climbed back into his own car and turned the engine over.
If he were a different person, if things were different and he didn’t need to be so … cautious. Yeah, he thought, that was the word, cautious, that he wouldn’t expect everyone he ran into to be a part of Galactor. But it was a part of his job, his life, himself. He was a part of the Science Ninja team and that meant more to him than life itself.
For just a brief moment, Joe regretted that he couldn’t have taken things a little further with Simone. He would miss her, for all that he had known her. But, he figured, in his line of work, the time that he had known her could be considered a lifetime, and it was the best that he could do.
Silently wishing her well, Joe likewise headed down the road, briefly debating about what he should do next. With his mind and heart full of what could never be, he headed for his trailer.
* * *
Gathered at the Snack J with the rest of the team, Joe sat pensively off to one side. They had been good about leaving him alone these past few months, but he knew it was just a matter of time before the guys started ribbing him about his exploits into the world of fashion.
The fact that Dr. Nambu located and deactivated a bugging device that a Galactor spy must have attached just on the inside lip of bumper just made him feel even worse. Joe had accused Simone of tipping off Galactor to their whereabouts, when it was actually on his own car the whole time.
After some careful thought, Joe recalled seeing a man he didn’t recognize in one of the pit crew uniforms hanging around his car at the beginning of the last race, right before he and Simone met, but since he didn’t see anything amiss, he put the entire incident out of his mind. That is, until Dr. Nambu found the bug ...
Joe gave a hard sigh without realizing it, and leaned in on his elbows against the top of the counter.
“Joe, I understand how you feel,” Jun said, slipping a glass of Orange Crush in front of him. “But you know that it had to end the way it did, right?”
“Yeah, I know,” Joe said, hunching in his shoulders. He still wasn’t ready to talk about Simone, even after all this time, and yet … “I just wish I had some way of knowing she’s doing okay, you know?”
“Hmmm.” Jun tapped a finger to her chin. “I wonder. Wait right here.”
Before any of the guys could say anything, Jun was out the door and they could hear her footsteps as she ran up the stairs to her apartment above. Within moments, she returned holding a thick stack of glossy fashion magazines.
“Whoa, Sis,” Jinpei whistled. “Where’d you get all of those? Rob a bank?”
“Yeah, you’re not kidding,” Ryu said, lifting off a thick magazine from the top. “Get a load of these prices.”
Ken lifted a brow. “You been overcharging customers, Jun?”
Jun shot him a dark look. “Some not enough,” she retorted back. “Don’t push your luck.”
“Seriously,” Jinpei said, flipping through one of them, pausing here and there when a particularly intriguing photo caught his eye. “This would equal four times the amount of all my comic books put together and you yell at me?”
Jun shrugged a slender shoulder. “Dr. Nambu gives me gift subscriptions for my birthday and such, ever since that mission of ours to Monalince. At least he understands that just because I wear a uniform doesn’t mean I don’t like to keep up with the latest fashions.”
Quickly, she flipped through several magazines until she found what she had in mind.
“Here,” she said triumphantly, turning the magazine around so that Joe could see the photo she was pointing out. “I thought I remembered seeing something.”
Four male heads bent forward over the magazine. The title of the article was “From Raceway to Runway” and detailed how the biggest, newest trend predicted was going to be something called “racing chic.”
Joe cringed slightly to see the jumpsuits that race car drivers typically wore had been transformed into stylish unitards, which were paired with close fitting, matching leather jackets, complete with patches of “sponsors,” and knee-high low-heeled boots.
A ghost of smile tugged at the corners of his mouth when he saw who the designer was. And Trouble was there, too, in her arms as always, wearing a collar that matched her outfit, with a small yellow “2” dangling among his tags.