A familiar scenario was happening once again. The young man jogged down the hallways of Center Neptune and shuffled into Chief Anderson’s office. He took a minute to catch his breath and then propped his hand against the door frame.
Anderson eyed Jason with disdain, folding both hands neatly under his chin. “Well-“
“It was the traffic, Chief; I got here as soon as I could.” Jason replied.
“Not soon enough,” The Chief responded sharply, “the team went on without you…”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Jason argued,” besides, no one else has to deal with traffic like I do. Even Princess can get through it on her bike.”
“No excuses, Jason!”
“Yeah, whatever you say, Chief, but it’s the truth.” Jason turned his back to his superior and started to leave.
Anderson pounded his fist on his desk. “Jason, you have not been dismissed! You will address me with respect, unless you want to be demoted!” He shouted.
Jason stopped in his tracks, keeping his back to the Chief.
“Sorry, Sir.” He muttered under his breath sarcastically. “What else is there? You must’ve thought the team could handle things without me. There’s no need for me to be here.”
“Jason, you know that your presence on the team is just as important as anyone else’s. The team is only on patrol right now, but I have just received some new information that might be a clue about Zoltar’s next move.”
Jason’s eyes widened as he turned himself back around to face his superior once more. “Are you going to call Mark?”
“I tried. Zark's visual influx capacitors are jammed, and he can't get through to the Crab Nebula at the moment. I’ll need you to take care of this mission.”
So, the lowly second-in-command is needed after all…Jason smirked, and sat down on the couch. “Fill me in, Chief.”
Anderson projected a map onto the wall.
“The underground city of Lulo has had a sudden rush of tourists. A woman named Marcia Tate recently discovered a gem mine in the outskirts of the city.”
“Gems? What kind? ”
“Many different kinds… emeralds, rubies, diamonds, tourmalines.... Ms. Tate has opened a business called the Lucky Strike mine. Tourists can buy buckets of soil and rock, and sift through to find gems. Then, they take their finds to Ms. Tate’s experts, who can appraise their goods. The experts offer to have the gems cut and made into jewelry, for a price.”
“Sounds like a legitimate tourist trap to me, Chief.”
“My informant tells me that he has seen Spectran crab tanks in the vicinity and we have reason to believe that Ms. Tate may be connected to Spectra in some way. I’d like for you to stay in Lulo, and get as close as you can to the Lucky Strike mine. Find out as much as you can about Ms. Tate.”
“What about Mark and the others?”
“I’ll fill them in as soon as I can. Zark is still trying to contact the Phoenix as we speak.” Anderson stood up by his desk as Jason started for the door.
“Jason…” His features softened a bit as he spoke. He realized that his second-in-command had grown tired of walking in the Eagle’s shadow and playing the “black sheep” of the team. Jason was just as capable as Mark, only much more strong-willed. It was time for Jason to lead a mission.
“Be careful, and good luck.”
“Yes, sir!” Jason replied, as he ran out and headed for his car.
Jason pulled up outside the Lucky Strike mine. The place was bustling with tourists. All around him, people were sifting through buckets of dirt, jumping for joy and squealing when they found something that looked valuable.
A man dressed in a flannel shirt, with overalls, a floppy hat and an artificial-looking gray beard walked up to Jason and introduced himself.
“Welcome to the Lucky Strike!” He drawled. “Ya want a small bucket for $10, a medium for $25, or a large for $50? If yer’ real serious, I can getcha the giant size, for $100.”
Jason shook the old man’s hand, and waved the other hand in the air. “No, thanks, Mr.-“
“Fred…Prospector Fred Gorham…” The old guy grinned, revealing a row of grimy teeth.
“Ok, Mr. Gorham,” Jason began, “I’m Jason, and I’m looking for a job.”
“A job?” Fred’s eyes twinkled; he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, why didn’t ya say so? We’re so busy right now, we can hardly keep up. Ever used explosives?”
“Well, actually…” Jason wanted to say ‘that’s Princess’ job’, but he nodded instead. “Yes I have.”
“Good! Good!” Fred clapped a large, dirty hand on Jason’s shoulder, and led him over to the gift shop. “Let’s go meet the boss. She’s a little rough around the edges, but you’ll get used to ‘er.”
Mr. Gorham rapped his knuckles on the office door in the back of the shop. “Ms. Tate? You in there?”
“What do you want, now, Fred?” A deep, female voice bellowed.
“I brought someone here to meet you. Says he wants a job.”
“Come in, then, but make it quick. I’m busy.”
The door cracked open and Jason walked in.
There, behind a large desk with a cell phone in hand, was a very tall, very striking blonde. She appeared to be in her early thirties, and she had an extremely powerful presence. The Condor watched as her eyes slid up and down his form.
“This is Jason, ma’am.” The old prospector introduced the two.
“Marcia Tate. I am the founder of the Lucky Strike.” Ms. Tate held out her hand, and Jason squeezed it firmly. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Tate.”
The tall woman eyed Fred once more. “Leave us, Fred. Get back to work.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Fred replied. He turned on his heels and exited the office.
The statuesque blonde then stood up and motioned to Jason, “Sit down, Jason, and call me Marcia. Tell me about yourself. Where did you come from?” A soft smile curled on her ruby lips.
“Riga.” He lied. “I just got out of the army and moved back to Earth.”
“Interesting.” She tapped her long, red nails against her chin. “Do you have your credentials with you? Of course, we’ll need to do a background check…”
“I can get them to you…” Jason smirked and cocked his head to one side. He hoped a little flirtation would encourage her to hire him on the spot. “Fred didn’t tell me that his boss was so beautiful.”
“You’re too kind, Jason.” Tate’s spiked heels clicked on the wooden floor as she walked around her desk and over to the young man.
She traced her long, bony fingers along his jaw line, and turned his face up, so that he was looking directly into her steel blue eyes. “I would really like to have a handsome, strong young man like you working for me. But I must have these forms filled out as soon as possible.” She handed him a small stack of papers.
Jason stood up and looked Marcia directly in the eyes. There was no way he’d let this woman intimidate him.
“Ok, have it your way, Ms. Tate.” He was so close to her, she could feel his warm breath tickling her neck. She could feel her heart beating just a bit faster, as he finished his statement. “I’ll be back tomorrow, and I’ll be ready to work.”
Marcia grinned. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
She admired his lean, muscular form and firm backside as he swaggered out of the office. Just what I was looking for...you’re hired…she thought to herself.
Jason left the mine, and went on to the place he would be staying. Zark had arranged ahead of time for him to live in a small, fully furnished rental house on the outskirts of town. It was nicely decorated, with two bedrooms and one bathroom, and a small, cozy kitchen.
“Not bad, Zark.” He muttered as he walked in and plopped down on the couch. “Well, looks like this is home, sweet home for a while. I can’t say I’m gonna miss my beat up trailer.”
He sat quietly for a few moments, and then raised his wrist to call Chief Anderson. “Come in, Chief, this is Jason.”
“Jason,” Anderson’s voice was riddled with static, but Jason could make the words out. “What have you found out?”
“I met Marcia Tate today…creepy woman.” Jason answered. “She needs to see my credentials before she’ll hire me. Do you think you could come up with something?”
“I’ll get right on it, Jason.”
“Oh, one more thing, Chief. I told them I was from Riga, and that I just left the army and moved back to earth. I need you to make sure to have some references to demolitions, too. Not sure exactly why, but they wanted to know if I had experience with explosives.”
“Got it, Jason. I’ll have it to you tomorrow. Now get some rest.”
“Right, Chief.” Jason switched off his communicator, pulled out the application forms given to him by Ms. Tate, and started filling them out.
Early the next morning, Anderson’s fake credentials arrived at Jason’s door. I knew I could count on you, Chief…he thought as he signed for the delivery.
He looked over the “official-looking” documents carefully. Impressive…
Then, he made one last check to make sure that his application matched his new credentials before he left for the mine.
After everything was finished, he climbed into his car and made his way back to Ms. Tate.
Again, the place was packed; bustling tourists, with wild children running about, and babies whining, as they sat in strollers vying for their parents’ attention.
All were focused on their glittery goal, hoping to find “the big one”, the gem that would change their lives. Every significant find was announced over a PA system by Prospector Fred, himself, causing a frenzied buzz among the audience.
Jason waved at Fred, and continued on through the gift shop, where T-shirts, mugs, and magnets of all shapes and sizes were being purchased in bulk as though they, too, were made of solid gold.
Along the walls, two women sat behind long counters, while bright lights focused on the tables in front of them. Customers lined up around the perimeter of the store, waiting impatiently to have their treasures evaluated.
The Condor kept walking until he reached the back of the store, and knocked softly on Ms. Tate’s door.
“Who is it?” She shouted.
“Jason Allen, Ms. Tate. I’ve brought you my paperwork.”
Immediately, the harsh voice softened. “Jason, come in. I’m glad you were able to bring it back to me so quickly.”
Jason opened the door and noticed that Ms. Tate's attire was much more revealing than when he had met her before. He trained his eyes to avoid the cleavage that was calling his name.
Marcia stood up and walked closer to Jason. “As you can see, we are growing too fast. We can hardly keep up. Our poor boy, Jimmy can’t haul the dirt in fast enough.”
Jason handed her his forms. He watched as she scanned them quickly and smiled. “Looks like you are over-qualified, Jason. We’d love to have you. How does $12 an hour sound?”
“Sounds fine, Mrs. Tate.” Jason replied. He would have taken any amount, so long as he was able to work at the mine and keep an eye on things.
“Jason, I thought I told you to call me Marcia,” Her deep voice softened to nearly a whisper and her eyes pierced right through him.
He grinned back at her, his own voice softening, echoing hers.
“When do I start…Marcia?”
Her slim hand slid around his shoulders, “Let me introduce you to everyone. Come with me.”
Jason observed Marcia’s visage hardening as she passed through the doorway into the front of the store. Her arm slid away from Jason’s shoulders as they approached the two women behind the appraisal desk.
“Renee, Kayla, this is our new deliveryman, Jason.”
The two women walked away from their desks and stood at attention when Mrs. Tate spoke to them. They both nodded and smiled at Jason, but didn’t dare to speak. He could feel their eyes boring through him. They each stifled a flirtatious giggle.
Marcia’s eyebrows knit together as she immediately noticed their attraction to the new hire. She glanced over their shoulders at the long line of weary customers and then regarded the girls icily. “Why is this line so long? What is the hold up, here?”
Kayla cowered as if she had been struck. “We’re sorry, ma’am, but it takes some time to finish an appraisal, and there are only two of us.”
“Shut up!” Marcia bellowed. “Get back to work, both of you!”
The two girls scrambled back to their former positions.
“Lazy bums, both of them.” Marcia mumbled under her breath.
Jason’s eyes knit together as he glanced back at his new boss in disbelief.
Scary…he thought to himself.
Marcia then led him to a back room, where an old gentleman sat on a stool, staring intently at something through a large magnifying glass mounted on his head. He jumped when Marcia addressed him.
“Olaf, did I scare you?” Marcia chuckled in low, soft tones.
“Ma…Marcia, it’s you…” He breathed a sigh of relief and flipped the large lens up onto his forehead. As he turned, Jason noticed his unusual blue eyes. The color was so light, it nearly matched the whites of his eyes.
Her voice became soft, almost sickeningly sweet, and similar to the way she sounded when she addressed Jason in the office.
“I wanted you to meet the new deliveryman. This is Jason Allen.”
“Nice to meet you, Olaf.” Jason extended his hand.
“That’s Mr. Mannheim to you, son.” Olaf barked. He kept his hands in his lap and sneered at the new recruit.
“Sorry, *Mr. Mannheim*.” Jason emphasized the title sarcastically and narrowed his eyes back at the old man. This guy reeks of Spectra…Jason thought to himself.
Ms. Tate interrupted his thoughts. “How are things going, Olaf?”
“Very well indeed, Marcia, dear. I’ve never had so much work. The girls are doing a fine job of selling the jewelry.”
The tall blonde’s voice took on a harsher tone. “I’ll be the judge of that.” Her eyes took on a distant look, as though she was deep in thought.
Olaf cleared his throat, in an effort to snap her out of it.
She looked back at Jason. “Let’s go. I want to introduce you to the person you’ll be working most closely with.”
She led her new deliveryman to a large pickup truck, and handed him the keys.
“This is what you’ll be driving back and forth from the mine site. Jimmy will load it with rock, and you’ll bring it to the area behind the office. Once you arrive, Fred will help you load it into the buckets.”
Marcia drove separately in a red sports car and led Jason to an area at the very edge of the city.
Jason peered through the windshield as he drove, glancing up the rocky crater walls at the sparkling shaft of light that poured down into the city.
Most of the underground city ran on solar power. The only natural light came from solar panels that covered the top of the huge crater where Lulo was situated.
The car in front of him slowed down and pulled in near another pickup truck, identical to his own.
A young, muscular blonde man ambled up to the ruby colored vehicle. “Hi there, Ms. Tate.”
“Getting a lot done, Jimmy?” She inquired, her demeanor became more authoritative.
“Yes, ma’am. Just finished another blast, and I’m loading my truck up now.”
Jason climbed out of the truck and approached the pair.
“Good. I have some news for you. Jason, here is going to be helping you with deliveries from now on. I expect you to take him under wing.”
Jimmy nodded enthusiastically, his eyes wide with curiosity about the newcomer. He held out a beefy hand to his new partner. “I’m Jimmy, but most of my friends call me Jimbo.”
Jimbo? Is this guy for real? Why am I suddenly hearing the dueling banjos song in my head? Jason smirked as his hand was nearly crushed by Jimmy’s monster handshake.
“Easy, Jimbo, I need my hand for work…” Jason chuckled.
Jimmy pulled his hand back and ran it through his blond locks self-consciously. “Sorry, Jason. I don’t know my own strength sometimes.”
“It’s ok, Jimbo.” Jason chuckled. Seemed like "Jimbo" was more like "Dumbo"…
Marcia smiled warmly at Jason. “I’ll leave you two to your deliveries, then. Jason, be sure to stop by my office before you leave. I want to hear about how your first day went.”
Jason nodded and waved goodbye as Ms. Tate pulled away in her convertible.
“Boy, the boss lady sure seems to like you, Jason. You’re a lucky guy. She doesn’t like many people, except maybe Olaf.” Jimmy commented.
“Why does she like Olaf so much?”
“I dunno. Guess it’s because she’s known him for a very long time. I think he knows her family or something. Anyway, let’s get to work. We’ve got some blastin’ to do and two trucks to load now.”
Two weeks had passed without incident. He continued to report back to the Chief daily and to give updates on any suspicious activity.
Jason dutifully fulfilled his mission, working at the mines from morning until night, getting to know the mine employees and locals in Lulo. He also spent time getting to know Marcia better, hanging around her office after he had clocked out, and flirting with her in order to establish a relationship.
One evening in particular, Marcia stopped him as he walked out of her office.
“Hmmm?” He paused and turned his head.
“How would you like to come to my home for dinner?”
“Dinner? Yeah, that sounds great, Marcia…”
His blue-gray eyes sparkled. Now I’m getting somewhere…
“Come with me, then. I just need to lock up the store.”
Jason followed the tall, thin blonde as she closed up the mine for the evening. She passed Olaf on his way out. The old man eyed Jason suspiciously.
“Good night, Olaf.” Marcia reached out to the strange looking old man and hugged him gently.
Olaf responded warmly to her, but kept his eye on her companion. He whispered something into her ear.
Jason could just make out her low response. “Don’t worry. He’s fine.”
The pair then left Olaf and walked to her car.
Jason sat down in the passenger seat.
“I’m not used to being the passenger.” He chuckled.
A sly grin spread across Marcia’s face. “Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
She peeled out of the driveway, and flew down the winding roads out to the suburbs.
"You drive just like I do." Jason flashed a huge grin.
Marcia smiled back. "I enjoy high speed. It's exhilarating."
"I knew there was something I liked about you." Jason drawled.
It was an unusually bright, moonlit evening. Beams of white light were magnified through the clear tiles that formed the roof of the underground city.
Marcia’s visage was much softer than normal. She appeared more relaxed, and her silhouette was truly beautiful, basked in the filtered moonlight.
Jason decided to start the conversation once more. “You know, I don’t think Olaf likes me very much.”
Marcia turned and flashed a brilliant smile. “Don’t worry about Olaf. He’s harmless. He’s just very protective of me. He doesn’t think anyone is good enough…”
“I see,” Jason replied. “So he thinks you…and me…?”
Marcia’s cheeks were suddenly flooded with color. “I’m sorry Jason, I’ve said too much. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable…”
“No, not at all. Marcia, I find you very attractive.”
Marcia smiled as her hand slid from the gear shift and found its way over to Jason’s hand. “I find you very attractive, too, Jason. I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but that is one of the reasons I hired you.”
"You have good taste." Jason chuckled softly.
They rode in silence the rest of the way to Marcia’s house. It was a modest, neat home. Very different than what he had expected. She walked in and turned on the light.
“Make yourself at home, Jason.” She motioned to the couch. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Yeah. I’ll take a beer, if you’ve got it.”
Marcia nodded. "I'll check."
She left and Jason listened while she fumbled around in the kitchen.
“I’ll just be outside." He called out to her. "Just want to get some fresh air. It’s such a beautiful night.”
“I’ll meet you outside in a few minutes.” Marcia called from the kitchen.
Jason stepped outside and noticed that her front porch had a swing. He sat down and looked up at the artificial sky.
I’ll bet these people really miss seeing the moon and stars… he thought.
He then took the opportunity to check in with the Chief.
“Come in Chief,” He spoke quietly into his wristband.
“Any news, Jason?”
“I am at Ms. Tate’s house now. Trying to get more information.”
“Good work. We have located the team. They were sidetracked by a mecha, but they are on their way home now. I may send them your way soon, so be looking for them, but don’t acknowledge that you know them. I don’t want to risk your cover.”
Jason looked alarmed. “That’s not necessary, Chief. I can handle it on my own.”
“Negative, Jason. I am sending you some backup in case things get heavy. That is final.”
Jason heard familiar footsteps heading his way.
“Thanks a lot, Chief.” He drawled sarcastically. He was disappointed that the Chief didn’t have more trust in him, but he didn’t have time to argue. "Ms. Tate is coming. I gotta go.”
He quickly cut his communicator off, and listened to Marcia opening the squeaky screen door.
“Did I hear you talking to someone out here?” She asked.
Jason nodded his head, and draped and arm lazily across the back of the swing. “Yes, I was talking to you. I was just wondering if you ever missed seeing the moon and stars.”
Marcia sat down on the swing next to him.
Such a simple earthling…she thought.
“No, Jason, I am not used to seeing the moon and stars to begin with. My home planet is so polluted…” She handed him a glass of wine. “Will this do?”
Jason nodded once again.
“Home planet? You mean you’re not from earth?”
Marcia sipped from her glass and shook her head. “That is why I moved here. I wanted to start a new life.”
“And you chose Lulo?”
“It was my brother’s idea. Turns out it was a good choice.”
“Yeah, the mine does a great business.” Jason admitted. “Your father lives here?”
Marcia nodded. “Olaf…Count Olaf, actually.”
“Olaf? So that means you are a Countess?”
“I was.” Marcia stated matter-of-factly. “Now I am Marcia Tate, entrepreneur…”
They both chuckled. Jason wanted to know more, but he didn't want to push. He had already made his way to her house, and didn't want to risk her turning on him.
He spoke up. “I have to say, I respect your courage, coming to a new planet, and becoming a successful business owner. I find that attractive in a woman…”
His arm had been draped loosely around Marcia’s shoulders as they sat talking and sipping from their drinks on the swing.
He was surprised to realize that he was actually enjoying Marcia’s company. She was not the scary monster boss that she portrayed at work. She seemed softer to him as she spoke about her life…more vulnerable. Perhaps there was much more to Marcia Tate.
Now that he had found a little liquid courage, the moment was right, and he leaned in and kissed her tenderly.
Once the barrier between them had been crossed, they both embraced each other and kissed with reckless abandon. As their ardor deepened, they found themselves fumbling their way back into the house, and collapsing on the living room floor.
He was surprised and intrigued to see what an aggressive lover she was…so unlike anyone he had been with before. It was evident by her actions that Marcia was in charge, and Jason allowed her to be. There was a spark of danger about her, as though she could turn on him and kill him at any moment. But he wasn’t afraid. It was exciting, almost intoxicating to be with a woman who took charge of the situation the way Marcia did.
When the lovemaking had ended, Marcia and Jason lay still in each other’s arms, still locked in a tender embrace.
“That was fantastic.” Jason sighed happily.
“I agree, Jason. You are the best lover I have ever had.” Marcia smiled.
Then, her smile faded. “Oh no…the casserole is burning!”
She leapt to her feet and tore off for the kitchen. Jason admired her naked form as she left the room. He couldn’t believe he had just made love to this mysterious woman.
Marcia returned with a sheepish look on her face. “I am so sorry, Jason. How about some sandwiches?”
Jason pulled on his pants and grinned back at her. “No need to worry. Sandwiches are fine. It was worth it.”
After getting dressed, the two sat down at a small table to eat, when suddenly, the phone rang.
Marcia answered in an annoyed tone.
“I am a little busy right now…” She answered.
“Yes, I understand, right away…”
She gazed at Jason apologetically. “I am sorry, Jason. I have to leave. My father needs me to help him with something. You are welcome to stay here tonight. I’ll be back later.”
“Your father needs you this late?”
“Yes. He is rather ill, and needs my assistance from time to time. I’ll return to you soon, love.” Marcia brushed the damp hair from his forehead and kissed him gently.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, Jason. You know how Olaf feels about you. I’ll be back soon. Get some rest, I may want more from you when I return.” She smiled.
“More, huh? Yes, ma’am.” Jason grinned at her, performing a mock salute.
He watched her walk out the door and start her car.
“I’ll be damned if I am letting her go alone. Something’s not right about this.” He grumbled to himself.
The Condor then dashed out and clung to her back bumper, hanging on for dear life as she sped down the road.