Don’t Be Cruel
“…by the time we hauled her out, she looked like a drowned rat. That was the last time she tried that particular stunt. Actually, I think we’ve got a picture around here somewhere.”
“Not the pictures!” “Let’s see them.” The opposing calls sounded out in the same instant. The former, Kim’s protest, was decidedly louder, amid laughter.
Margaret laughed with them. Two weeks had slowly etched a smile into ruts that too often held a frown. Between the friends that came and went and Kim’s relations proving as cheerful as they were numerous, it was difficult to keep a dark mood. What knocked down the last of the barriers was one laughing voice in particular: Elora, sounding like the child she remembered and should have remained. It was a blessing she didn’t know where or how to begin thanking for.
“I can’t seem to find them.” Ginessa’s voice brought her back to the moment, her inattention unnoticed between the calls of encouragement. “But I will… soon.”
“Sounds like a threat, Kim. What are you willing to pay to stop it?”
“What are you, my grandmother’s negotiator now?” The toe of her riding boot missed under the table, sending an empty chair running instead, skittering a foot across the tiles. She stood and straightened her dusty riding gear with exaggerated dignity. “I’m going to have a shower. I’ll leave you gossips to your games.”
“Right behind you,” Meg said, but she grinned back to the table, taunting Kim. “But keep those pictures around.” Still laughing, she headed to her own room and shower.
“Like you don’t have any embarrassing moments.”
“None I was foolish enough to let get caught on film.”
“Ha ha ha.”
For Margaret, a shower had grown into a daily ritual she took her time with, enjoying it; it had been a long while since she’d had the luxury. The noise and worries would slip away for a few refreshing minutes, leaving her the space to canter herself.
The house was quiet when she finally got out and toweled off. They were outside, she imagined, enjoying what remained of the day. She had thought it might be easier to retreat to privacy for a while, but as alien as it was one station born and bred, the outdoors tempted her. She went back into the bedroom to change.
There were fresh clothes left for her on the stripped-down bed, more of Ginessa’s easy generosity she guessed, but the clothes were not what she expected. It was a sun dress, a warm wheat-yellow print that was entirely too… pretty. Margaret grumbled to herself, though not truly upset. Not everyone was like her, nor would she wish it that way. She went for where she’d left her old clothes.
They were gone, right down to the comm badge and shoes.
Margaret scowled in sudden understanding. This wasn’t Ginessa’s doing, or any sort of problematical kindness. She looked at the towel in hand; not big enough, of course. She looked at the bed, but it’d already been stripped down for a wash. She stared at the dress.
“I’ll kill her.”
Kim turned off the water and looked up, grinning. Margaret was on her way. There was no missing the wave of emotions that was crashing down the hall. It was if the old Running of the Bulls had taken a detour through the countryside. She quickly toweled off and dressed in a bathrobe. “Five, four, three, two….”
Thud thud THUD. The door rattled in its pins.
Concealing her small cam in the towel she was drying her hair with, Kim opened the door and looked out. She didn’t have to pretend shock. The contrast between the light, cheerful dress and Meg’s dark scowling face over it was just too much. She quickly lifted the towel up to muffle her sputtering.
Morgan’s scowl deepened, her voice carrying a dangerous edge. “The hell is this?”
“Other than a dress? I have no idea.”
“Don’t play twp — I know better.”
“Me? I was in the shower. Maybe it was Darquin.”
“He knows better. Come on, where are they?”
“How should I know?” Kim released a martyr’s sigh, drawing out the moment like a wad of chewing gum. “Let’s see if we can find you something better until we know where your stuff got to.”
The long hallway back past a half dozen doors stretched seemingly forever. Halfway down it, the stairs down to the main part of the house yawned threateningly. Margaret shook her head, feet planted. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“The storage closet is just down the hall.” Kim slipped the cam into her palm, still concealed, and put aside the towel. “You really want me to pick something out for you?”
Margaret shot her another glare. “I think not. I’ll get something myself.” Steeling herself, she stomped off in the indicated direction.
Kim let her go, then when she was a nice distance away, in good light….
“What?” Margaret turned then looked. “Oh, no. You wouldn’t– ”
“You look fabulous,” Kim said, and took several shots with her cam before beating a quick retreat. Margaret roared something unintelligible, and to no effect. Kim slammed the door shut and twisted the lock, laughing helplessly.
Revenge was sweet, even if she might not live long to enjoy it.
Margaret considered breaking down the door for a minute, then realized it would just bring other witnesses. She stalked to the storage closet and opened it with a yank. First thing she saw on the floor was her jacket and shoes. Then her original clothes, and what was probably intended for her to begin with, neatly folded. Lastly, the various odds and ends that usually bulged her jacket pockets. On the very top was her PPG, minus its caps and with the addition of a bright yellow square of note paper. In a cheerful flourish of penmanship it said: “This would be cheating.”
Darquin cautiously climbed stairs, not at all certain it was safe. Upstairs, door slams and foot-stomping were serving in place of war drums, among other things. He glanced around the corner into the hall.
And stopped, blinking. “Morgan?”
Margaret whirled and growled when she recognized him. Involuntarily he stepped back, contemplating a jump over the rails of the staircase to escape. The menacing sound elevated her appearance in a sun dress from improbable to the bizarre.
Darquin started to smile. A mistake. “Uh, hey, you look, um–”
“You tell her,” she snarled, stabbing her finger down the hall, “to watch her back.” She turned, snatched up her clothes and retreated to her room, slamming the door.
Cloaking his thoughts in Elvis’s and Cheap Trick’s versions of the same song, he began to wonder whether the sight of a Phoenix crewmember in a dress was a portent of doom. So far he was two for two.
A moment later Kim’s door stealthily opened, and her wickedly grinning face appeared.
Darquin mimed a knife sliding across his throat, rolling his eyes in the direction of the daintily dressed Grim Reaper that passed him by.
“I know… hum a dirge for me.” Kim’s laughing voice shimmered out the hastily re-closed door.
Kim slipped out of her room into the semi-gloom of the hallway, listening intently. Inspired to a little light reading safely behind a locked door, it finally seemed safe enough to come out. She could sense them all out back on the patio, or scattered through the riding grounds. Straightening, she strode down the hall and trotted down the stairs to join them. Meg wouldn’t do anything in the open.
She wasn’t as relaxed as she imagined, though, when she whirled to face the entrance hall, the front door suddenly shuddering with the rise and fall of the iron knocker. So focused on everyone out back, she didn’t sense the arrival. A quick check found two people out on the step. By the curiosity in their thoughts, drifting about the landscape, she guessed them for tourists — and possibly, finally, patrons. She hurried to open the door.
“Hello, can I help–” She blinked, recognizing their faces, if not the thorough change in their temperament. It was Peter Riordan, his face almost healed of the bruising and dressed in a suit, his arm neatly tucked in a sling. The transformation was almost as pronounced in his daughter, changed from the rough garb of a fugitive into a light blouse and long skirt. Only the eyes remained the same. She nodded a polite greeting, while Peter grinned.
“Well I’ll be damned. Now how you found me is going to be a good story, I’m sure,” Kim laughed, stepping back. “Come in?”
Peter did step in, and more, catching her in a tight hug with his good arm. Kim was startled, but didn’t protest. “What was that for?” she asked automatically.
“I owe you my life,” Peter said quietly. “And my sanity.”
“You’d have survived,” but she smiled all the same, stepping back to look at Abby. The young woman had been so quiet, Kim didn’t notice her enter and close the door behind her.
“I had to thank you, though,” Peter said.
Kim divided a look between them. “How did you find me, anyway?”
“I am a reporter,” he reminded her, amused.
Kim sniffed. “Well you’d better ask for a raise. You’re better than most, because I don’t think I left so many trails.”
“You didn’t, actually. I just had some time, with this….” he gestured with his bandaged hand. Even wrapped, it was more responsive and flexible than when she’d first seen the injury.
Kim nodded. “And the doctor’s verdict?”
“It’s fixed, though I might have arthritis set up in it early. I can handle that, you know.”
“That is good news.” With a sheepish smile she collected herself. “My manners, would you two like something to drink?”
“If it’s no trouble. I’ve done what I came to,” he said with a smile.
“Not at all. I was just going that way myself. Everyone’s out back.” She walked into the heart of the house in the lead. “Did you manage to get in touch with Billy?”
“Yes, though I’m afraid I frightened him,” Peter admitted contritely.
Kim glanced back, pausing before opening the fridge. “How?”
“I, ah, got impatient. Called before I’d had my surgeries.”
“Ah. Yes, that would do it quick. We’d all been worrying about just what was going on back on Earth, and I imagine it confirmed the worst.”
“I’m afraid so. I’ll try again when we get back.”
“Well, I can set him right at any case, next time we talk.” She didn’t even think how revealing her words were, for someone professed just a friend. She missed the glance Peter and Abby shared as she reached into the fridge for the juice. “I hope orange juice is fine. It was fresh squeezed this morning.”
“Yes, that sounds wonderful.”
She quickly poured out three glasses, passing theirs over to murmured thanks. After a few moments Peter said, “Don’t let us keep you from your family. I just had to catch you before you left.”
Kim stepped back over to the island, from taking a quick peek out back. “It’s all right. You have somewhere to stay in the area or are you flying right back?”
“We were just going to sightsee. We both need to rest.” His smile was a little sad.
“Well, if you need a place…” She smiled. “This is a bed and breakfast before we all but took the place over.”
Peter chuckled. “That many of you, eh? If you’ve the room…”
“Of course. Besides, business hasn’t been what it was. There’s rooms empty and probably will be for a while yet,” Kim said matter-of-factly. Just as much as lives, business would take some work to recover from the war.
“Then we’ll make sure to be patrons from now on,” Abby said quietly, the first she’d had to say since arriving.
“Then there’ll be rooms for you,” Kim replied sincerely. “Well, shall we go out back then and get you introduced to the real people running this show? Oh, and there’s someone you’ll probably like to meet. She knew Billy long before I did….”
Kim smiled. If a reporter’s enthusiasm for conversation and questions wouldn’t keep Meg busy, she didn’t know what would.
(C) 1999 Alida Saxon, Joe R. Medina and Leslie McBride. All rights reserved.