Taylor Alexandria Punga was an enigma. Courtney Hunter had worked for her for almost two years now and she had seen her only twice and knew nothing about her. That is, almost nothing. Courtney's job was to archive the material that flowed in from Punga's busy schedule. In a way, she knew all and understood nothing. And finding out what motivated and financed Punga's life had become an obsession with Courtney Hunter because Punga was an enigma that Courtney Hunter had to understand.
From the moment she had met Punga, she had been fascinated by the tall, striking woman. Courtney had to admit that part of the attraction was the woman's strength. Punga simply radiated confidence and energy. If energy was strength, Taylor Alexandria Punga was very strong.
She was beautiful too, not in a pretty way but with the sort of beauty generated by the danger. Punga was mesmerizing; dark, gracefully, lethal in her movements and very mysterious. That flame of deadly energy attracted Courtney until she fairly buzzed with need.
Who was Taylor Alexandria Punga? She seemed to have incredible power, yet she had no title and no office. She was immensely rich and yet had no visible source of income. She was present at every significant meeting in the world - it seemed - and yet never spoke or presented at them.
Taylor Alexandria Punga had become Courtney Hunter's project. And that was why she was at Punga's residence that day even though it was her day off. It would be a day that would change everything and so it is a good place to start. It was not the beginning of the story, which had been going on for some time and was near to reaching a climax. It was, however, when Courtney Hunter entered the story.
She parked her old car in the parking lot allotted to household staff that was discretely hidden behind a neat box hedge. She parked in the same spot she always did because her car's oil pan had a slow leak and she didn't want to ruin anymore of the parking area than she already had. She headed over to the security gate and punched in her personal code. A small screen glowed green and she stood straight in front of the camera lens and held up her I.D. tag with her picture. She did not feel the picture did her justice and was always mildly annoyed when the security system accepted the photo ID as her.
Electronic squeals and bleeps came softly from the speaker. "Hunter...Courtney...you are scheduled for time off,"came a mechanical voice. "Indicate reason for access."
Courtney tapped in number 24. The code for required overtime. More squeals and bleeps. Then,
Courtney placed her hand over the red hand that now glowed on the screen beside the gate. She heard the power switch trip and the metal cover over the key slot slide back as her hand print was read and accepted by the security system. Courtney inserted her card-key and removed it again when the screen turned green. The security door slipped open and Courtney entered standing in the box formed by white lines painted on the cement until the door had slid closed behind her. The mechanical voice came again. "Access has been granted to ...one...individual...Hunter...Courtney. It is now safe to step forward. Do not step back. Proceed forward." Courtney did so. She knew that she crossed a laser beam when she did. Anyone following would trigger the elaborate security system.
She walked up a fieldstone path that was bordered by a high cedar hedge that hid the security fencing on each side. It was a prison walk disguised in country attire. At the guard house, she once again showed her I..D. card. "Hi Ian,"she said to the serious looking man dressed in the black jump suit.
"Hi Court. The system is showing you as having today off but it has cleared you for entrance anyway," Ian Philips informed her. "I bet you were called in because she is coming," he stated almost managing a smile.
Courtney's heart skipped a beat but outwardly she gave no indication that she was unaware of this information. She took the green security tag from Ian that would allow her to move freely about the green zone sections of the house and estate. "Have a good day,"she smiled, with no further explanation and waited for Ian to punch in the code that would open Taylor Punga's world to her. It was also the moment when everything changed.
Punga was coming to the estate. That might change Courtney's plans but it might also give her the rare opportunity to see her boss. Access to the house was through a maze created by dry-stone walls that edged high beds of flowering trees and plants. Here and there, water danced down garden rocks or gold fish flashed in a still, silent pool. Courtney promised herself every time she walked through this beautiful area that if she ever had a house of her own it would have a mysterious and beautiful entrance like this.
She came on the house suddenly, reaching a stone wall and then having to turn to follow it in a curve to the brass front doors. Once again, she stood on the white box painted on the flagstone. The tag that Ian had given her and that was clipped to her pocket, automatically fed data into the security system and the brass doors clicked open.
Courtney pushed on the one on the right and entered a quiet lobby beautiful in its simplicity. A floor of black tile was divided by a rectangular pool of water. A rough cut slab of granite was the only means across the water. The walls on each side were polished teak and on the other side of the bridge a glass wall allowed a view of an interior courtyard of thick vegetation.
Courtney knew that turning left once she crossed the pool would take her into the green zone of the elaborate house. These were the public areas, the library, banquet hall, kitchen, conference room, and staff rooms. Going right would take her to the red zone areas. The private chambers of Taylor Alexandria Punga.
For a minute, she stood on the bridge steeling her nerve, then she crossed and walked to the right over the black tiled floor. Taylor's quarters were separated from the rest of the house by another set of brass doors. Courtney swallowed hard and wiped the sweat from her hands. She had no idea why she was doing this. If she got caught, she suspected that the consequences would be swift and serious. She had hesitated for over a year, her common sense and need for self-preservation over ruling her compulsive need to know who Taylor Punga really was.
She slipped from her pocket the red tag that she had picked up and kept after it fell from one of Punga's coat pockets last winter. She took off her green tag and clipped on the red. If this didn't work the security system would automatically sound an alarm and pin point her location on monitors. Then security personnel would literally come from everywhere and she would be carted off. She had witnessed practice drills many times. If the red tag didn't work, then the next intruder alarm would be for real and it would be her that was carted off, goodness knows where.
She stepped into the white box, the doors slid open and Courtney stepped into Taylor Alexandria Punga's very private world.
It was disappointing. There was a very conventional lounge area consisting of over-stuffed, distressed-leather chairs and sofa around a fireplace. The fireplace was made of natural stone, the walls silk, in soft, warm tan. The original art on the walls was an eclectic mix of well known twentieth century artists. Over the fireplace was a Jackson Pollack. There were several oils by the Ash Can School and a sketch that Courtney suspected was by Picasso.
Everything was neat and tidy and devoid of any personal items. Nothing was worn or scratched. The room looked as if it had just been set up by an interior designer for show. Everything was perfectly placed, even the stainless steel briefcase with the initials TAP on it was placed with deliberate casualness on the granite block that acted as a coffee table.
TAP! The implications of the briefcase being there exploded on Courtney's mind and left her feeling faint with worry. She turned to beat a hasty retreat and found, to her horror, Punga standing right behind her.
"I can explain,"stammered Courtney, looking up the lean, muscular body dressed totally in black, to the hard, classic features, and the startling, aqua eyes.
"I doubt if you can,"purred the deep, liquid voice.
We warned you.
She is the weak link.
This is a problem.
Courtney looked around startled. Had she heard voices? There was no one in the room only her and the towering Punga who looked down at her with angry, curious eyes. Someone touched her hair and she jumped and turned around. No one was there.
How can this be?
This development is puzzling.
Courtney looked around in annoyance then spun on the tall silent woman behind her. "What the hell is going on?"she demanded.
Punga raised an eyebrow and looked at her condescendingly. "I believe that should be MY question. You will come and sit in the chair over there," she ordered, pointing to one of the leather chairs near the fireplace.
"No I won't. I'm leaving," Courtney responded firmly, trying to brush an invisible hand from around her arm.
"That would be unwise and futile." Punga shrugged. "You really have no choice but to stay."
Courtney felt her hackles going up. "I apologies for being in a restricted area. I shouldn't have been." She took off her red tag and pulled the green one from her pocket. Lifting Punga's hand, she dropped the tags onto Punga's up turned palm. "There are your tags back. I found the red one when it fell out of your coat pocket last winter. I guess I am fired but you certainly don't have any right to hold me here. What the hell is that?!" she finished in frustration, pulling away from the unseen hand.
And she feels.
She can not see.
Taylor nodded. "Yes. This is unexpected and most interesting."
Courtney could feel herself starting to panic. Outwardly, she forced herself to remain calm. This was not the time to show fear. "What's interesting? And would you please let me go!" she demanded, pulling violently away from the invisible arm. Released suddenly and unexpectedly, she stumbled against the tall frame of Taylor Punga. Her body was unnaturally warm. Like touching the hot sides of a tea pot.
"Oh shit," Courtney whispered, as strong hands took her shoulders and strange aqua eyes burned into her own.
"I would prefer for us not to have a scene, Ms. Hunter. I repeat, please sit down."
Courtney nodded, backing away in shock. She swallowed, pulled herself together, and slowly turned to survey the room. No one. She went over and sat down on one of the leather chairs with as much defiance in her walk as she could muster.
Courtney sat still in the chair afraid of what might happen next . Punga had not sat down, her remaining standing was a reflection of her method of control. That is, Punga did not control directly but passively. She stood silently observing Courtney Hunter. At last, she spoke. "Why?" It was a long speech reduced to its bare essence.
Courtney swallowed and squirmed in her seat. She did not wish to tell the truth but was afraid to be caught in a lie. "I don't know." This too was a short speech with a long meaning mostly to do with guilt and avoidance. It was not a very satisfactory answer because it stemmed from a fear of expressing knowledge. And Punga was not satisfied.
Courtney would have liked to have stood up again so as not to remain at a disadvantage but Punga was too close, not so much looming but hovering near. Courtney was trapped in her seat by Punga's position. If she stood it would mean she would be face to face with the annoyed woman. That would be a worse position than the one she was already in for she found in Taylor Alexandria Punga a dangerous fascination.
Taylor Alexandria Punga was not satisfied with Hunter's explanation. She stood close, hovering and waiting and finally, in order not to be observed growing old, Courtney gave a longer speech that was more satisfying but shorter in its meaning.
"I have worked here for two years archiving material that you send me. The range and extent of your research is amazing and yet you don't do anything with it. You live surrounded by security and wealth and yet you have no occupation or income. You know everyone and no one knows you. I wanted to know."
Punga nodded, a smile not quite making it to her lips. "Am I not entitled to my privacy?"
It was a weighted question and it dropped heavily from a great height because Punga had the advantage of standing and Courtney Hunter did not. It was a great disadvantage. Courtney stammered. "Of course you are. I realize I was wrong to come in here..."
"Nonsense," Punga stated, correcting her employee. "You would not have done it if you had not thought it the thing you wanted to do and so your action was right for you. What was wrong for you was getting caught."
Courtney laughed and then jumped up with a gasp as something seemed to touch her mouth. The wall she hit was not a wall but Punga. This caused her, Courtney that is, to stumble and step aside. She acted skittish and went to put her back against the wall. Punga observed this. She also observed that the woman's golden hair was as silky and rich as the wall covering.
"What the hell is that?" Courtney demanded, using the back of her hand to wipe away the touch from her lips.
"What?" asked Punga, which is not a question at all but a type of period that ends any enquiry.
"The thing in the room that keeps touching me?"
This time Taylor Alexandria Punga did smile, but only briefly. It was cut short by a briefer explanation. "It is a type of security system."
"Doesn't it bother you?" Courtney asked in annoyance.
"No. I was meant to be here. You are not. You were about to tell me why you really came in here."
Courtney's deep green eyes lifted and so made contacted with the brilliant aqua ones that observed her. In the silence, Courtney could hear voices.
She is more aware than I would have suspected.
Perhaps we should recheck our findings.
She was Tap's responsibility and so Tap must say.
Courtney drew herself up to her full height, which was not so tall but she wore her body well because her body was fit and so she looked taller and more confident than she was. "I came to learn about you because you fascinate me and now too, I want to know about the voices."
Punga nodded. "Then you will. But it will not be easy and having started, you may not stop."
'And having started you may not stop' was what Taylor Alexandria Punga had said and yet Courtney Hunter had stopped only a short time later. She had been left in a room that Punga had taken her to and she had been there for a good time. The door was locked and there were no windows to frame an escape through.
It was, as conventional rooms go, very unconventional. The walls were rag rolled in a misty swirl of blues, greys and lavender. The floor was grey stone. Along the length of one wall a channel of water ran through, bouncing over smooth grey river stones. There was no furniture but in one corner there was a neat stack of pillows and sheets in grey silk.
There were two alcoves. One was small and had a rod to hold clothes. It was empty. The other was big and held a toilet and a shower but no basin or mirror. The toilet was not a toilet but a stainless steel basin recessed into the floor which one squatted over. It was designed in an eastern style and there was a stainless steel button on the wall to flush the basin clean. The shower too was strange. There was no curtain or door. Just a stainless steel basin to stand in and the water came through holes in a ceiling fixture. It too was stainless steel as were the hot and cold water controls on the wall. In this room, the tiled walls were steel-grey as were the towels that were stacked neatly on a recessed shelf. No doors, except the one that was locked, no windows, no furniture. It was a no room and Courtney felt the no.
For a while, she was grudgingly content with the no. After all, she had trespassed. But after awhile the no became intolerable and then simply rude. Eventually, it became frightful. She was not prepared to be held as a prisoner.
As Courtney Hunter saw it, and she saw the situation very clearly having had considerable time to see it, there were only two ways in and out. The first was the door which was locked and the second was where the water exited. Courtney decided to go with the flow.
The channel was three feet wide and about one foot deep once the layer of stones had been removed. The stones were removed by Courtney Hunter and beyond she could see that the water flowed through a metal screen and then dropped.
Courtney considered. It was unlikely that the house had different water channels. More than likely the one that she crossed in the lobby was the same system. She thought about how this might work while she used the screw driver on her Swiss Army Knife to remove the metal screen. She lay down in the channel and had a look. Dimly, she could make out a large holding tank. On the other side was another rectangle of light framed by green plants where the over flow was escaping. She smiled. Her room must back onto the inner courtyard of the house.
She went feet first, which as her mother would have said was her way, to step where angels feared to tread. It was a squeeze but Courtney Hunter was, as mentioned, both small and fit and so with a push she did fit and splashed into the cold water tank below. The water was icy and dark and smelt of plastic and mold.
Courtney felt that she would have molded too had she remained in the unconventional room a minute longer. So she had left and now found herself in a very cold and not very pleasant place. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, her mother would have said.
She wasted no time in swimming to the other side and grabbing hold of the grate. It was going to be harder this time, and it had not been easy last time, to remove the screws as they were on the outside. She used her knife to bend some of the wire enough that she could wiggle her fingers through. It was a tight fit and only accomplished because she was so cold and wet. Slowly, shaking with cold, she worked the screws loose, bending the grate back as she went.
Almost too cold to move, like a lizard seeking sun, she slid from her prison into the light. For a few minutes, she lay on a rock in the warmth of the rays that beamed thought the glass above into the inner courtyard. Then she slid off her rock and back into the cold water.
She knew her situation was desperate and so threw her sleep and exhaustion back like a blanket. The aluminum grate needed to be replaced so that they would think she had not got this far. She wanted them to be delayed searching the holding tank for her. She knew that she could not continue her escape until the sun had set.
This accomplished, she moved with relief back onto the warm land to rest again.
Taylor Alexandria Punga looked at the rocks that had been removed from the stream of water. She then looked at the grate that had been removed and set aside. Her eyes went back to the rocks. They had been very carefully arranged to spell, FUCK YOU.
She has bested us.
It is amazing.
Punga took off her shoes, dropped to her belly and wiggled through the hole. Head first was her way although at this particular moment she was not necessarily using her head. She hit the cold water with a gasp and felt immediately her body heat bleeding, haemorrhaging out. Several strong strokes took her to the over flow gate at the far side. Her fingers, now blue, wrapped around the metal and shook the frame. It was screwed in place. Courtney Hunter had not got through and she had not returned to the room so she must have drowned.
Punga dived, and dived, and dived. Then she once again held onto the gate, her strength and heat completely gone. She wasn't sure she could make it back across the tank and force her body back up and through the water to the room. She shook the grate with all her strength hoping to dislodge the metal.
The rattle woke Courtney Hunter from her exhausted stupor. She looked through the branches and saw Punga's hand wrapped around the bent grill. The hand was an ugly shade of grey blue. A memory stirred in Courtney's mind.
"Are you alright?" Courtney had asked last winter as Taylor Alexandria had staggered into the library.
"Cold," the woman had revealed on this their second meeting. "I got too cold." Courtney had helped her boss to a chair and had brought her a hot cup of tea. Taylor Alexandria Punga had recovered quickly, thanked her and had left. It was then that Courtney had found the red tag that had fallen from Punga's pocket. It was this tag that had planted the seed of an idea that had brought Courtney and now Punga to the water grate. Now once again, Punga was in trouble.
"Hold on," Courtney ordered, as she knelt in the water and started to remove the screen once more. It was easier this time. The screws were not in as tight and she was working from the outside. She could not see Punga from where she worked. She could see only her hand. It was now white and claw-like. The last screw fell into the water, and Courtney reached around the screen to grab Taylor Alexandria Punga's wrist. It was ice cold. Dead weight.
Courtney sat on her bum, placed her feet on either side of the grate and pulled. An arm and shoulder appeared. Gasping with the effort, Courtney let go with one hand and made a grab for Punga's collar. Gradually, inch by inch she pulled the body from the water. It was a body but not a person. It was still and cold and unreactive. The body did not feel like the warm body of Punga but the cold body of death. Struggling, she pulled the long form clear of the tank and up on the warm rock ledge.
She remembered the first time she had met Taylor Alexandria Punga it had been hot. They had met on a terrace, in San Francisco. They'd had coffee, Punga sniffing at hers but drinking very little. They had gone through Courtney Hunter's resume. Her life, reduced to two dimensional symbols on flat white. It was a good resume but a boring life. There was another side to Courtney but it wasn't on her resume, it was in her heart.
Punga was offering a fantastic salary for archival work. A few years in the job and Courtney would be out of debt or at least only in the debt that it is appropriate to be in.
"I do not want you. You are too qualified for the job." It was an arrow through Courtney's dreams. Its point was ludicrous and so she protested.
"But I want the job. I can handle it easily and the money is good." This was true. Looking back, however, after the incident in Geneva, which has not yet come into this story, she wondered if even then the attraction to the enigma that was Punga had not been there.
"You will leave for a better position and I need someone to stay."
"I WILL stay." And so they had come to an arrangement then and there. It was a good arrangement and it had lasted two years, one month and eighteen days. Then it had changed.
Later, Courtney remembered pulling Punga from the holding tank as a scene in sharp contrasts like a Escher drawing in black and white, perspectives distorted. The body was cold, the rock warm, the shadows dark, the sunlight brilliant. Her emotions were fired by worry, and the dread of the guns that were trained on her, and there was an ice ball in her gut. She had been taken away. She had protested, wanting to stay with Punga. Her protests went unheard.
Once again she was returned to the room. The grate and stones had been replaced and the stone floor was dry. Had she escaped? The no of this room was even louder now. This time Punga's annoying security system was on. Like a thousand invisible bodies pushing against her. If she tried to go near the water channel, the force pushed her back. Eventually, she accepted the no grudgingly. She showered and found to her surprise a red jump suit lying on the stack of pillows. She switched from towel to jumpsuit and slept amongst the pillows in the corner, emotionally and physically drained.
When the alarm had sounded after Courtney's escape, security personnel had charged about knowing only that there was a security breach. Then that Punga was somehow trapped in the water recycling system. Lastly, that the intruder had her in the courtyard. They had charged in, assault rifles ready, fanning out across the space like shot. To their surprise, the intruder was Courtney Hunter, whom many of them knew, and she held Punga gently in her arms.
They were separated. The bond between the two still and silent women cut with surgical precision. Punga was carried gently away. Courtney was taken roughly away. One silent and still, one turned loud and fighting her keepers. They were confused. How had this happened? Nothing like this had happened before. Courtney Hunter had out smarted them and this should not have happened. Stranger still, Courtney Hunter had not made good her escape but had pulled Taylor Alexandria Punga from the holding tank. This could not possibly have happened and yet it had.
What are we to do with her?
It seems most regrettable.
Termination is for the best.
Termination is the state of coming to an end not by choice or by nature but by decision. A decision had been made and that was to - regrettably - terminate Courtney Hunter. There was no anger or malice in this decision. The decision was simply an observation that termination was necessary and regrettable. Courtney slept through this decision making process as did Punga.
So when Courtney woke hours later, she was not yet aware of the possibility of her termination and would not be aware of that decision until the Geneva incident which has not yet entered this story. What Courtney was aware of was hunger and sore muscles. The sore muscles she was willing to put up with, the hunger she was not. "I need food," she said loudly, assuming that she was being monitored. "I'm hungry."
It was a reasonable request although she did not know she was about to be terminated. One is entitled to a last meal. Does it lie heavily on their stomachs, those that ate and were terminated? One wonders. Courtney did not wonder, not knowing her fate had been decided. She grew angry instead. She had come back and saved Taylor Alexandria Punga's life and she deserved better treatment. She took a pillow, walked into the bathroom area and stuffed it over the drainage hole of the shower. The security system did not react at first and when it did, it was too late, Courtney had managed to get the water running. She was finally pushed from the alcove just as the water broke the rim of the stainless steel basin and started to run across the floor.
Then as quick as lightening, she stopped struggling to remain and ran back into the main room, bouncing off the walls, back and forth like an Indian rubber ball out of control. The security system could not keep up and so on her third bounce she was able to break through to the channel of water. She picked up a stone and hurled it, then another and another, heaving them in all directions with considerable force. They bounced and rolled, and rattled about and still she threw more.
Courtney had been the pitcher of the local baseball team for years and she could pitch. Which she did, over and over again. She threw until she could throw no more and could no longer feel the security system around her. The water spread. The stones, now left alone, remained in a helter skelter pattern on the floor of the room.
Silence. Then the door opened. It was Ian. "Court, what are you doing?"
"Getting my point across." Ian crossed the room and disappeared into the alcove to turn off the water. Courtney ran to the door. It was locked. She needed a red tag to get through the doorways. Ian wore a red tag. Courtney faced Ian. "The door is locked."
"But you can open it."
"Yes." Ian stated. "What do you want, Court? Why are you doing this?"
"I want food, I want to see Punga, and I want my freedom."
Courtney picked up a fist size stone and hurled it at Ian with considerable force. It was a high, fast ball that caught Ian between the eyes. Much to Courtney's surprise, Ian buckled and dropped. She was there in a minute and had undone and pulled the jumpsuit from his body. The red tag was fixed to the collar. She slipped the black jumpsuit on over her red one and stood in the square. The door opened and Courtney once again escaped.
She did not escape into a corridor but into a domed courtyard. This one had a small circular pool in the centre of a room. The room was empty except for a magnificent bougainvillaea that grew up the one wall and partly across the glass dome. The dome was dark, night had come on while Courtney had been held in the room. The area was lit by a single light in the centre of the dome.
A number of doors led off each side of the interior square. Courtney started opening each one in turn and saw some very interesting things which will be talked about later but not now as Courtney had opened the door to the room where Taylor Alexandria Punga lay. The room was very hot and a number of people in black jump suits stood around looking worried. They looked more worried when Courtney Hunter walked in. Worried and bewildered. They did not react, not realizing at first that Courtney had not been released but had escaped yet again.
"Has anyone called a doctor?"Courtney asked, pushing through to where Punga lay on the floor covered in layers of sheets and blankets. No one spoke. Courtney rolled her eyes and knelt down beside Punga reaching out to touch her arm. The arm was cold but not so cold as it had been.
"You can't be in here, Courtney," Haichen Lai said, stepping forward, and placing a restraining hand on Courtney's shoulder.
"Look!"snapped Courtney standing up. "I have had it! I am hungry, tired and royally pissed. I've worked with most of you for over two years and it seems I am the only one not in on the big secret of who Taylor Alexandria Punga is! Well, that just changed. I want to know what the hell is going on here."
No one responded. Finally from behind them, a quiet voice asked. "Courtney Hunter? What is going on?"
"Tap, It appears that Courtney has now escaped a second time and ..."
"Not now," Punga cut in calmly. "You are all to leave, please. Courtney, you stay."
"I want food," Courtney demanded.
"Bring food and drink. You know her. Bring whatever she likes." The group looked uneasy but after a moment's hesitation backed from the room.
"Why?" Punga asked. It was a small speech which demanded a complex answer, as noted before.
"I will not be held prisoner. I have not done anything to warrant imprisonment. And I came back because you were in trouble. I would not let you die."
"You will wait outside the door for me. When the food arrives, please come in and eat with me. I need your word that you won't escape if I allow this."
"You allow nothing. But you have my word that I will not escape until I have eaten and talked with you."
"Agreed," stated Punga which was a very big speech, a policy statement really, that would lead to a rather interesting picnic and a series of events that would be quite startling in nature.
Courtney, having made her point, left. And being a person whose word was good, she did indeed wait in the domed room by the pool. She was not stupid, however, and used the time to consider possible ways of escape. One was reasonably sound and two others would take daring and some remarkable luck. These ones, she favoured.
Tap blinked. Then she blinked again which indicated the degree of her surprise. She had never met someone quite as spunky and resourceful as Courtney Hunter. She had never anticipated that her quiet archivist would be a potential revolutionary.
We have recommended termination of Courtney Hunter.
It is regrettable.
"No," Tap sighed, lying down again and snuggling below the blankets. "At least not yet."
But Tap she has broken into your chambers.
Escaped through the water channel.
Hurt Ian and escaped again.
"How was Ian hurt and how badly?" Tap enquired calmly as she lay still, eyes closed.
We sent him in to talk to her.
She was going mad.
She hit him with a river rock.
It knocked him unconscious.
She took his uniform and tag.
And so she escaped again.
"Had she wanted to escape she would not have come in here. There will be no termination at this time."
Perhaps there would have been more argument but at that point the food arrived, followed closely by Courtney, who was very hungry and could smell a toasted cheese sandwich and a carton of chocolate milk from under its plate cover.
"You may go. I will be alone to have my meal with Courtney Hunter." This too was an unusual request on the part of Taylor Alexandria Punga but Courtney did not realize the significance or care. If Punga wanted to dismiss the waiter that was alright with her. What she cared about was calories and the more the better.
"You will call me Tap in the future. What is that I smell?"
Courtney looked down at the pale figure lying on her back as if asleep. "Aren't you afraid I might bludgeon you to death with my milk carton?" Courtney asked, one eyebrow raised in a sarcastic expression. It was, as noted, Courtney's way to pull the tail of tigers. And Punga was undoubtedly a tiger.
Pale blue eyes opened and looked directly into Courtney's. "Should I be?"
"No. Sit up and join me. There is lots. I'd just like to go on record, in case we ever meet again after today, and you invite me for lunch, as saying that I think a fancy joint like this could provide better for their guests, Tap. I mostly like a toasted processed cheese sandwich and chocolate milk at lunch because it fits so nicely into my tummy and into my budget."
Tap blinked rapidly. Courtney had sat cross legged on the floor and was eating her sandwich between slugs of milk. She wore a brown moustache for a second and then wiped it off with her napkin. Tap was surprised on a number of levels. She could not recall having been given an order before and she could not recall ever having her name spoken quite in that tone. It lacked title and appeared to have considerable amount of warmth in it.
Tap sat up and gingerly took a half sandwich from the plate Courtney offered her. She sniffed it.
Courtney laughed. "Do you always sniff your food? You sniffed your coffee the day you hired me too."
Tap's face hardened and she bit down on the sandwich, chewed deliberately, and swallowed defiantly. The mixture was acceptable - just. It was her first toasted processed cheese sandwich.
For a little while they ate quietly. Tap ate little. Courtney ate a lot. It was only when Courtney had eaten a lot and was just savouring the last few mouthfuls to fill up the more remote corners, that she opened up the conversation. It was, in fact, not so much a conversation but very much more a negotiation "Tap, I do want to learn what is going on around here and I do want to spend more time learning about you. But I will not be held a prisoner. What you did to me is illegal and that worries me. I won't be a party to any activity that is illegal. If that is the case I am out of here."
"Are you afraid of nothing?" Tap asked, once again lying down and covering herself with blankets. Now that the half a grilled cheese sandwich had been processed she wasn't at all sure that it had been a good idea.
Courtney looked at the pale woman wrapped like a cocoon. "I was afraid you would die," she admitted.
"It was close in the tank. I too had considered the possibility that you might have drowned and I searched for your body." Tap considered this statement to be highly personal and a great compliment to Courtney Hunter.
Courtney thought the comment a slap in the face. "Gee, I really feel bad that I was an annoying possibility. But I'm relieved to know that you were not worried. Why do you go to all those environment and world health conferences if you care so little about human life?"
Pale aqua eyes focused on her. "I strive to be objective. It is not good research if it is tainted by emotion and personal bias."
Courtney snorted. "You are one flawed human."
Tap was on her feet in a second and looming over Courtney bristling with anger barely in check.
"I am NOT ... flawed!"
Courtney sat back in surprise and looked way up, because Tap was very tall, into a face taut with anger. She frowned and stood although she still had to look up. "Okay, you are not flawed. You know, Tap, humans have weaknesses. It's unrealistic to think otherwise." Tap visibly jerked when Courtney reached out and touched her arm. Then she composed herself with effort. Courtney's eyebrow rose in disbelief. "If a person didn't know you were not flawed, a person might assume that you had a fear of being touched."
"I have no fears." Which, of course was a lie but one that Tap did not realize she was giving, believing that she did not have fears but only uncertainties. An uncertainity is a fear. This, however, is different from being afraid. To be afraid is to not face your fears. At this time Tap did not know the difference between fear and being afraid. This she would learn in Geneva.
Courtney smirked. "Yeah? I have a lot."
"You do not seem to fear anything."
Courtney put her hands on her hips and looked up at Tap in exasperation. "I didn't say I was afraid. I said I had fears. I am not the least bit afraid of you, You are just a big bully."
Tap walked away, stood quietly for a minute and then turned to look at Courtney. "Let us start again." Which meant she had realized that she had not handled the situation well. "If you are to train here then you must stay here. Once classified information is given you, it would be a security leak to let you go."
Courtney laughed. "Who do you think you are? The president of the United States?
Tap stood looking at Courtney with an expression of considerable frustration. It was the sort of frustration that one felt when trying to find the missing end on a spool of thread. One should start at the beginning but there was no beginning to be found. She tried.
"Do you remember when the American surveillance plane was intercepted by a Chinese fighter?"
"Yes, of course. The fighter came too close and clipped the wing of an American aircraft. The jet fighter crashed into the sea and the American plane had to make an emergency landing in Chinese territory."
"Yes, then what happened?" asked Tap, crossing her arms and looking at Courtney with interest.
"The President took a very strong stand that the plane and personnel must be returned immediately and they were."
"The President had the Secretary of State feel out the Chinese Embassy in Washington. Who communicated the strong line that was going to be taken by the Chinese government. They needed help. I was contacted and I made the arrangements. The President was allowed to take a strong and threatening stand. This was needed to appease the American people and was acceptable to the Chinese government who had no problem with the United States portraying themselves as world bullies and spies.
"The Chinese were given a formal apology for the death of their airman. This was necessary in order for the Chinese to save face. They would have preferred that it was the President that made that apology but they could not push too hard because they need foreign currency and the support of the World Bank to pay for the Three Dam Project. American investment is an essential part of their development plan. The Americans then were able to save their own face by having the Secretary of State make the apology."
"I am not finished. There had to be a price paid for the release of the flight personnel. The Chinese would have liked to imprison the spies for life. The price was the surveillance system that the United States had planned to establish in Taiwan. The crew was returned. The President got to brag about taking a strong stand against the communist threat and a month later the U.S. quietly dropped their surveillance system."
"The President has no power. He played the role he was told to play in order to get out of a very embarrassing political situation. The power is mine."
Courtney laughed. "You are arrogance personified!"
"I speak only the truth."
"So you are telling me that you run an international consulting service for world leaders. Do you do anything illegal?"
Tap considered, then responded in carefully chosen words. "I run nothing but sometimes help if requested, then I provide it for a price. Humanity has common moral and ethical values. Laws vary greatly, however, from country to country. I try never to violate a law of the country with which I am dealing."
Courtney nodded, then frowned. "Tap, you need to lie down again and get covered up. You don't look very well."
"You have caused me much trouble." Tap did not mean this as a criticism but as a statement of fact. She had much to do and had wasted time on Courtney and on being ill.
Courtney took the remark as a cold and nasty dig. "Hey! Get real! You locked me up! I should have escaped, called the police, and laid a complaint. Instead, I came to you and gave you a chance to explain."
Anger rose like lava through Tap's frame. She had saved this impossible woman's life by putting a hold on the order of terminate and she was totally flummoxed, at the moment, as to why she had bothered. She fought for control and managed to respond neutrally. "You are not in a position to threaten me. It is my good will that protects you. I remind you that you have broken into and entered my home."
Courtney blushed. She was now feeling very uncomfortable with her poorly made decision to use the red tag to gain access to Tap's chambers and although she would never show it, she was very worried about the mess she was now in. The best defense is an attack. "I didn't break anything and you didn't give me any time to enter. I was barely across the threshold when you and your weird security system showed up."
"I need your word that you will stay, learn, and be part of my organization. There will be no more escape attempts." Tap would have liked to lie down. She needed to lie down and cover up. But to do so would be to show weakness. That was not an option.
"Can I go and come as I please?" Courtney bargained.
"Once you have completed your training. Until then you may wear a red tag and have access to most areas," Tap stated. This was going to cause a problem, she knew, but it was necessary. She felt Courtney Hunter had much to offer. If Courtney did not agree then she would be terminated. That would be regrettable.
"How long is the training?" Courtney asked, her chin up with determination.
"A month." This was not so much a truth as it was a lie. It would take at least a month for Courtney to do some basic reading. It was only then that she might be given an opportunity to be a participant in their undertaking. She could never, of course, be told the truth but she could be a willing subject. That had never been attempted before.
"I'll need things from my apartment," Courtney held out stubbornly. She felt that she was doing very well here and that things were turning in her favour. This was not true either. She was, had she known it, only a hair's breadth away from death.
"Tomorrow. I have no time to deal with this issue today." For Tap it was the last concession. If Courtney argued, Tap would give the order for termination. Tap needed to lie down. It was regrettable if Courtney Hunter must be terminated.
Courtney opened her mouth to argue, then decided against it. She had made her point and achieved her aim to learn about Tap and what was really going on. "Tomorrow, okay."
The door opened and Haichen Lai entered silently. "Haichen, you will see that Courtney is given a proper outfit, red tag distinction. You will escort her through the rooms and explain anything that she wishes to know about."
"Yes, Tap," Lai responded, keeping her face and voice passive despite her surprise.
A smile almost made it to Tap's face. "Go now, Courtney Hunter. And please find a room that you are prepared not to escape from."
Courtney did smile and reached out to touch Tap's arm, which shocked both Lai and Tap. "You rest. Your lips are turning blue again." Courtney was concerned. Her anger spent, she now felt bad that Tap was suffering from her time in the cold water. She wondered what was wrong with Tap that she felt the cold so intensely. Haichen hurried Courtney from the room.
This is not right.
Is this wise?
These are uncharted waters.
"Enough, I will rest."
Haichen was confused by the change in Courtney Hunter's position. She never doubted, however, that Tap had a logical reason for this change. It would be best to make sure that Court saw her in a positive light. Tap's relationship with Court was very informal. "It is good to find you are now part of the organization, Court. I have always found you very obliging and efficient in your job."
"Yeah, well, I was a little surprised today to discover I wasn't seen as part of the organization. How is Ian?"
"He will recover but has a large area of swelling and bruising on his frontal eminence."
Courtney stifled a laugh at the double meaning of this statement knowing that Haichen would not understand. Instead, Courtney shook her head in disgust. "I usually have better control. My pitch was high. I was under pressure."
Haichen smiled although she had not meant to. Courtney Hunter showed great nerve. That was to be admired.
"This room is where our uniforms are kept. Tap prefers that we change twice a day. You come here and pick out your size and transfer your tag."
The room was empty except for hundreds of black jump suits that hung from the rods that lined the walls. "Where do we change?"
Haichen looked surprised. "Here. Oh, of course, you would not understand. We are very open here. We live and work together so there is no embarrassment in changing in front of others. The pools, saunas, and whirlpools are open to all and many prefer to be naked."
Courtney went for flippant. "One big happy family, huh?" Inside Courtney felt both uncomfortable by this revelation and excited. She wondered if she would get the chance to see Tap naked. The thought pooled and spread low in her being.
Haichen felt the need to correct her charge. Haichen saw things in black and white and could not bear misinformation. "Oh no, none of us are related. Accept, of course, by the genetic similarities that we all share." She chuckled, enjoying her joke.
Courtney smiled although she wasn't exactly sure what was so funny. Haichen went on. "The A suits will have to do for you. You are very small. A is the closest we would have. You will please change now and give me back Ian's tag. I will get you your own."
Courtney could be rash in her decisions but she prided herself in never making the same mistake twice. " Tell you what, I'll change while you get my new tag. Then we'll switch."
"You do not trust me?"
"After the day I've had so far, I wouldn't trust my own sweet grandmother if she was decked in one of those jumpsuits." Courtney was not one to beat around the bush, ever, in all senses of the word.
"I understand your caution. You will change and then we will go together to get you your own tag." Haichen was concerned. It appeared that Courtney Hunter had much favour with Tap and so she did not want to displease her. Yet she knew that Courtney had tried to escape twice. Tap would be very displeased if Courtney was to succeed.
"Agreed." Courtney felt she was doing very well in asserting her rights. It is easy to feel pleased with yourself when you had no idea yet of your possible termination. This she would not learn until Geneva. The events then would, of course, change everything again.
They went to a room to the right. Here a number of men and women whom Courtney had never seen before worked in near darkness. The only light came from the reds, blues and greens of each computer screen which made the room glow like some alien world.
"Courtney Hunter has been granted red status," Haichen said to one woman who nodded and without looking up went through a series of security checks on Courtney. The last item to appear on the screen was a brief statement. Courtney Hunter is to have red status. It was signed simply Tap in large, bold letters.
The woman typed again and a few seconds later Courtney's red tag was spat out of a machine. Now that Courtney was properly clothed and tagged, Haichen took her on a tour of the red zone area. Off the domed court there was the computer and uniform room, the room Courtney had been held in, the room that she had found Tap in and a communal dining hall, kitchen and a state of the art library.
This room Courtney had a good look around. All books and data were stored on a server. The people doing research sat in comfy chairs with small, swivel tables on which they placed their palmpilots. The data was presented on wall-mounted monitors. Haichen explained that novels and data could also be download should she wish to read in the privacy of her quarters.
The last door off the domed room led down a corridor off which was a huge gym and at the end a sauna, showers and large swimming pool. They turned right and the corridor opened up into the interior court yard that was much larger than Courtney had realized. Haichen explained that the rooms that formed the north wall of the garden were the private quarters of the house staff.
"I do not know where you wish to establish your quarters. Our only guest room is the one were you were..."
Plans have changed.
You are to bring Courtney Hunter at once.
Tap wishes to speak with her.
Courtney forced herself not to react or look around her. She wasn't about to let Haichen know that she thought the voices the least bit strange. "It looks like our tour has been cut short." Knowledge was power. Lack of knowledge was weakness. Courtney planned to play her cards close to her chest until she knew what was going on around here.
Haichen showed shock at the realization that Courtney had heard the voices then recovered quickly. "I will take you back to Tap's quarters."
"No need. I know the way. I am sure you have things to be doing and I don't want to keep you from your work." Courtney talked with authority, testing to see how much power she now had.
"Very well, if you wish. It has been a pleasure to show you around," Haichen agreed immediately, much to the archivist's surprise. She had anticipated a power struggle. Haichen must suspect that Courtney was closer to Tap than she actually was. Courtney smiled her thanks and walked as casually as she could back to the room where she had last seen Tap. She was well aware that Haichen had followed some distance behind and watched with curious and interested eyes until Courtney cross the domed room and disappeared into Tap's quarters.
The room where Tap had been was now empty. Even the sheets, blankets and pillows had disappeared. Courtney crossed the room and opened the door at the back. She entered a room that was beautiful in its simplicity. Here the walls were rice paper in frames of polished camphor wood. A gentle, warm breeze from wall vents stirred the spicy fragrance of the wood into the air.
The floor was white sand and along one wall a channel of water ran bubbling over black river stones.
The door behind Courtney opened and she turned and almost swallowed her tongue in shock.
Tap was totally naked and she was gorgeous. Her body was lean and strong and yet still feminine in her lines. She walked with casual confidence over to Courtney, who was to admit later that she had been trying hard not to stare at certain significant parts of Tap's anatomy.
"There has been a change of plans. I will be leaving in seventy-two hours. You will come with me."
Courtney forced herself to look into Tap's pale eyes and not let her vision head south. It wasn't easy. "Where and why?"
Tap showed her frustration with Courtney's stubborn nature by lying down in the sand with a sigh. "We are going to Italy. Rome. There we will hear a series of lectures on the world economy. There is much you will need to learn before then."
As if on clue, the door opened and Samuel Attenburg entered carrying two palmpilots. He showed no reaction at all to finding his boss laying in the sand completely naked and with her eyes closed.
"I think she was hit by a bus but she didn't get its license." Courtney shrugged, looking up from the prone figure. "How are you, Sam?"
"Fine thank you, Court. Welcome." Sam smiled. He left the materials close to Tap's side and left without another word.
"I was not hit by a bus, Courtney Hunter. I got too cold in the water tank. You will be more comfortable if you take your clothes off. You may change in the other room so that you don't get sand on your clothes"
"It was a joke. I like to be called Court and no thanks, I would not feel comfortable walking around in my birthday suit."
"Sit and read then, Court."
Courtney sat, surprised to find that the sand was warmed from beneath. She opened up one of the files on a palmpilot and started to read a report by the US Navy on ice thicknesses in Antarctica. She squirmed a good deal over the next three hours, and finally ended up stripped to her underwear with her feet in the water. She had read through two lengthy reports and knew that Tap had read considerably more. She forced herself to focus on a report on island elevations.
"You are in good shape and genetically well structured." Tap's quiet, melodic voice seemed to boom out in the still room.
"Is that a compliment?" Courtney asked with a good deal of sarcasm.
"It was an observation."
"It is not polite to stare."
"I was not staring. I was observing. As you observed me. Do you find my body acceptable?"
Courtney got to her feet in a rush and started to fumble with her sandy clothes. "Listen, Tap, I think you have gotten the wrong impression here. If you think that you have given me red status so that you can ...well it is NOT going to happen."
Tap was on her feet in one continuous movement and bristling with anger. "Are you suggesting that I was wanting sex with you? How dare you! My comments were a simple observation, nothing more. I would not sleep with the likes of you."
"Oh you wouldn't, would you! Well, go fuck yourself. I am out of here."
The hand that closed around her arm was like an iron bracelet. "Let me try this again. I admire your physical condition and I find your bone structure pleasing. You are not here to be my sex partner. Your new role has not yet been defined. It will depend on your performance over the next few weeks. I meant no offense."
"Very well. I am sorry I misunderstood your remarks. Your position as my boss makes such comments inappropriate." Courtney was hurt but did her best not to show it. Humans, of course, have the ability to feel and accept opposite viewpoints at the same time. She did not want to think that Tap would use her for sex, on the other hand, she was deeply hurt that Tap did not want to have sex with her. After all, had she not fantasized about what it would be like?
They parted then. Haichen met Courtney and took her for a cup of tea in the green zone lunch room. She explained that those who had worked today in the green zone would use the lunch room on that side of the house, while those working in red zone used the dining hall off the domed room. This meant that the few people that Courtney saw there working late were people she had met before. After tea, she was left to her duties as the house archivist. Her tea with Haichen had helped her gain two more pieces to the puzzle; ten of the people she worked with were "outsiders", people, who like herself were hired to do a specific job in the green section and went home each night. Twenty others were " Tap's people" and lived on site. Now she was the twenty-first.
Sitting at her desk in the quiet house, she was tempted to walk out and see what would happen, then thought better of it. She was committed for the next month and she meant to keep her part of the bargain. Besides, she had always wanted to travel and now she was going to Rome.
Suddenly her heart dropped and she sat up straight. She didn't have a passport. Damnation! Already she was going to upset Tap's plans. She had called Haichen right away and explained that she needed to see Tap. She was informed, however, that Tap would not be available again that evening. Courtney fumed and reluctantly explained her problem.
"You have a passport. Do not worry,"came the response.
One would think that such a reassurance would have satisfied Courtney. It did not. How had she got a passport without producing any documentation? Who had arranged it? Why? And was it legal? Once again she thought about leaving before she got in any deeper. Again she rejected the idea. When she had entered Tap's private world this morning, she had committed herself to a course of action that she meant to see through to her own satisfaction. There was no backing out. It was just not the way that Courtney operated.
Courtney sat back in her office chair and considered. She needed to establish her new position, whatever that was, and test to see just how much power she really had. If Tap was telling the truth and was not looking for sex, then what was her interest in Courtney? She had gone from an employee who was definitely out of the ring, to a prisoner, and now to Tap's trainee all in one day. But what was she being trained for? With a sigh, she called up another file on her palm and started reading about the growth of world deserts.
She slept that night on the rug in the library. She had no intention of going back to the room where she had been held prisoner and it seemed the only one available. To use it would be a sign of acceptance of Tap's authority over her life. That was not going to happen. Already an idea was forming in her head as to where she could live. It would suit her fine and it would certainly upset Tap's people and the merry little voice system that followed them around. That thought formed a smile on her face and she drifted off to sleep.
Despite the stressful day and late night Courtney had the night before, she was up early and already putting her plans in motion. First, she made a phone call. "Haichen, please ask Tap if it is convenient for us to visit my apartment around eleven. Tell her it would be best if we took my car and I will see to lunch in exchange for her help."
There was shocked silence on the other end of the line. Then Haichen's voice came hesitantly, "I will get back to you."
Courtney filled in her time working at her job in the library. There was not much to do now that Tap was here and no material was flowing in from various conferences and resource bases. The call she had been waiting for came back within the hour. "Tap will meet you at eleven-thirty in the central room that is domed."
"The central room, fine. Thank you, Haichen. Good bye." Courtney put the receiver down and smiled with satisfaction. She felt the familiar tingle of excitement run down her back that she always got when she had a lion by the tail. She got up, and headed off to the red zone kitchens. She needed to know what Tap enjoyed eating because it certainly wasn't coffee or grilled cheese sandwiches.
A visit to the kitchen revealed that Tap lived mostly on rare vegetables which she ate with a hot, spicy mix of boiled grains. Occasionally, she ate fruit as well but rarely ate meat or dairy products. It was a healthy if very boring diet. Having got the information she needed and got things organized to her satisfaction, she returned to the library.
Tap was punctual partly because Tap always was punctual and partly because she was very curious as to what Courtney Hunter was up to. This study was proving to be most interesting. Courtney Hunter was very difficult to predict. She didn't appear to be a spy. It didn't seem as if she had planned to steal anything. No, Courtney Hunter had entered the red zone simply out of curiosity. Tap was used to people and governments being very interested in her. She was used to individuals wanting to know her for more personal reasons too. But Courtney Hunter didn't seem to fit into any of the pigeon-holes. Nor had she reacted as Tap had expected. Tap had planned to scare the small woman by holding Courtney in the guest room until the end of the day and then to release Courtney after she had fired her. She had been greatly surprised at Courtney Hunter's ability to escape, not once but twice. And she had been more impressed still that Courtney had given up her escape attempt to come back and help her. Tap needed to learn more.
She found Court waiting by the well with a large knapsack beside her. "There was not a picnic basket to be had so I had to improvise."
"We are going on a picnic, Court? I thought I was escorting you while you picked up any belongings that you will need for your stay."
"That too. Are you ready?"
Tap hesitated. "I have a number of vehicles and excellent drivers. Would it not be best to use one of these?"
Courtney snorted. "Not in my neighbourhood. It would be in the chop shop before you even found a parking spot. Trust me on this."
Tap looked at her with pale, serious eyes. "Why should I trust you?" It was a good question for in the last twenty-four hours Courtney Hunter had been very troublesome. She had entered an area that was off limits to her and then escaped twice and in doing so hurt one of Tap's employees.
Courtney blushed. "Good point. I am right about this though."
Can you trust her?
You are taking a great risk.
Should you do this?
The voices made Courtney annoyed. "Will you please turn off that stupid system and just think for yourself! Make up your mind, are you coming with me or not?"
Tap looked completely shocked. "You do not understand. Yes, I am coming with you. I would not trust you out of my sight for a minute."
Courtney rolled her eyes and headed out. This is to say that she did not have a comeback to Tap's statement and yet was not willing to accept the truth of her employer's words.
Courtney Hunter exited through the formal living-room and out into the lobby. They left by the front door and made their way through the garden maze.
Ian was in the security booth again. He sported a large goose egg of various nasty stages of bruising on his forehead. "Hi Ian. Look, I'm really sorry. It was a wild pitch. I never meant to hit you in the head. Are you alright?"
Ian straightened at the sight of Tap standing quietly behind the smaller woman. "Yes, I am fine, thank you, Court. Tap is there anything I can do for you?"
"Courtney Hunter and I are going out. We will follow the usual security procedures."
"See you later," Courtney smiled. They head off down the cedar walk , through the security gates and on to the car park. A large pool of oil was eating its way through the asphalt under Courtney's beat up car.
"Court, is this vehicle of yours road worthy?"
"It will be. Get in. Oh just move the garbage off your seat. I had breakfast at MacDonalds on my way to work yesterday morning."
Tap opened the passenger door and sniffed. The inside smelt of dust, stale grease and oil. At least one of these offensive odors she could eliminate. With a look of complete disgust, she gingerly picked up the bag of fast food remains and placed it on the sidewalk. "The grounds keepers will see to this."
Courtney Hunter was not listening. She was observed through the security cameras removing several liters of oil from a box in the back seat and lifting the hood to check the dip stick before pouring the oil in with a sigh.
Security watched her movements closely, keeping her every action centered in the cross hairs of their scope. It would be regrettable if they needed to take action.
Courtney Hunter had been raised in a series of foster homes after her parents had been killed in a car accident. Her parents had been free spirits - artists who traveled a lot and lived comfortably, but from day to day. Orphaned at twelve, there were no relatives or savings to support Courtney. Once she had worked through the pain and anger of the loss of her parents, she had made up her mind that she was going to find all the security she could in a steady career and remain unattached and independent. Never again was she going to be left alone and unprotected. This was how she explained her life later after the Geneva incident. Now she simply explained to Tap that she was trying to pay her student loan off as quickly as she could and had very little money.
She lived in a small apartment over a Middle East restaurant. Four cardboard boxes packed neatly but tightly took care of her belongings. Tap approved of her minimized life style. She was not surprised by the living conditions of her employee. Social stratification was something that Tap had read a good deal about and understood instinctively. If she felt anything at the struggle that Courtney had experienced to get where she was, it was respect that the young archivist had met her goals.
They left. Others arrived shortly after and carried through Tap's orders. The landlord was paid off. The apartment was emptied of all traces of Courtney's occupation and her meager and basic furniture taken and incinerated. Then the room was scrubbed from top to bottom with bleach and sprayed with a human blood agent. It would be virtually impossible now to isolate and identify Courtney Hunter's DNA or finger prints.
At the same time her bank accounts were transferred several times and then disappeared completely. Her name was deleted from government files, school, and university records and even her driver's licence, social security number and tax returns ceased to exist. No detail of Courtney Hunter's life was overlooked, right down to her membership with Amnesty International, her doctor and drug store records and her library card. By the time Courtney Hunter was spreading out their lunch at the park, she had creased to exist outside of her physical form.
This she did not know just as she did not know that she had been identified for termination or that she was now a subject which Tap studied. None of this she would know until much later. This would prove to be a problem.
Courtney smiled. "I asked in the kitchen what you prefer to eat so there will be no sniffing and turning up your nose."
Tap lay in the sun soaking up its warmth with enjoyment. Nearby Mallard ducks and swans swam on a lake. It was a pretty spot. The human race lived in small box warrens and yet built parks where they could be free. Their contradictory need for confinement and wish for freedom at the same time was a complex phenomenon.
Tap forced herself not to sniff her food even though she would have liked to. She would enjoy her food much better if she could smell it first. She was not sure why this bothered Courtney. It was one of the things she wished to understand. At least today the food was closer to her liking. She spooned some of the spicy grain porridge on to her plate and then dipped one of the raw vegetables in the mix and bit off a bite. To her surprise Courtney followed suit.
"You do not have to eat as I do."
"I didn't think I would like it but I do. A bit crunchy and rather hot but flavourful and certainly good for you. Do you always eat like this?"
"At my home, yes. Tell me what you learned from your reading."
Courtney frowned. "There seem to be disturbing patterns and trends. There is evidence that the polar caps are shifting if not thinning. The impact of this could be catastrophic in the years to come. The oceans rising only a few inches could flood many low elevation islands, coastal lowlands, and countries such as Bangladesh. Even island cities like New York and Montreal would be in great danger of flooding."
Tap said nothing. She was content to lie in the sun and listen to how much Courtney had absorbed and what bias she would put on the information.
"There is some geological evidence to support the hypothesis that the earth never really came out of the last glaciation. In fact, while the coastal regions of the polar caps seem to be melting the ice covering Antarctica has actually thickened. This period might simply be an inter glacial period of some two hundred thousand years that we are enjoying. If that is the case, what we should observe is a rise in ocean levels as the polar caps melt. This would result in greater evaporation rates and cloud cover. The clouds would hold the solar heat in, raising temperatures and causing the caps to melt quicker. It would start to snow more at the poles thickening the ice that would form new glaciers over time. These would inch forward over the land, lowering sea levels and temperature once again."
Tap shrugged. "This is nothing new and it is a slow process that planet Earth has gone through at least three times before."
Courtney stood and carried some apple slices down to feed to the ducks. "Air pollution and the damage to the ozone layer are speeding up the process. Some scientist believe that by the year 2025 we will be beyond the point of no return. Even if we stop all emissions today the material already in the air will continue to rise and eat away at the ozone layer for well over another hundred years. Some scientist believe that planet Earth is dying."
A smile almost made it to Tap's lips. She was pleased that Courtney has absorbed the basic information quickly and repeated it in a fair and objective manner.
Then Courtney surprised her. "It is pretty depressing reading. What do you mean to do?"
"Yes. You are gathering all this data. What do you mean to do with it? How can you help?"
Tap closed her eyes again and let the heat of the sun radiate through her. "I can not help. I simply observe and record."
"For whom? Your work seems pointless if you don't plan to use your data to help in long term planning."
"Do you understand chaos theory? In dealing with an infinite amount of possibilities, it is impossible to predict a pattern. Even the smallest element in combination with others can change the course of events."
Courtney frowned. She did understand chaos theory. It had grown out of early attempts to use satellites to track and predict weather. In the early sixties, scientists would brag that they would soon be able to accurately forecast the weather for weeks to come. What they learned was that they could only make educated guesses. Mother Nature was complex and therefore unpredictable. "If you have the information, you need to be making people aware of it so that they can work to change things for the better."
Tap sat up and looked at Courtney with serious eyes. "Societies, too, are huge systems that generate their own events chaotically. All the information I have on file is available to anyone with the education and knowledge to access it. Global warming is a concept known by most people but they are powerless to change all the things that would be necessary to change in order to make any impact. And then what impact would they make? Events that form the universe's fate are so complex as to appear random."
"That is a very pessimistic view. I am sure that there are people who are working with dedication to deal with these issues. The human race is resourceful."
Tap watched as Courtney threw bits of vegetables to the flock of ducks that now crowded near the shore.
"Oh yes, there is much going on. A new world order is just around the corner. I wish to record these events. There is much merit in keeping good records."
Tap stood and hesitantly she took some vegetables and fed them to the ducks that gathered around Courtney. A large swan with two young cygnets following her waddled up on shore, its graceful beauty now reduced by earthbound gravity. It was a huge bird. Tap threw it some scraps. It dropped its long neck and scooped up the offerings and waddled closer.
"Why did you enter the red zone without authority?"
Courtney turned to look at Tap. "I told you. You fascinate me. I want to know who I am working for and what you are up to."
"I fascinate you but this fascination is not of a sexual nature?" Tap enquired, as she absently dropped scraps to the birds around her. This was surprising. Tap was rarely unaware of what was going on around her. Things were changing just as unpredictably as chaos theory would indicate.
Courtney blushed. "What does that have to do with anything?" A question can be a tool for avoidance. Courtney was avoiding a topic she did not feel comfortable in pursuing.
It was at this point that Tap got between the swan and its cygnets. With a loud honk the massive bird spread its wings and came at the startled woman. "Tap, watch out!" Courtney warned, and pushed the taller woman out of harm's way. Courtney slipped and was aware as she fell of white wings and a pecking beak.
The next instant there was only the warm sensation of floating in a tranquil sea of energy. She was not floating. She had no form. She was not suspended in but part of the current around her.
It was a strange world of sensations and yet one that seemed distantly familiar. She was aware that she was not alone and yet she could not sense any form near her. What she could sense was a joining. A being a part of something that was separate and yet part of her.
The next instant, she felt herself suddenly confined and weighed down. She gasped for breath and found herself lying in Tap's arms on the grass. Her confinement was her own body and the weight the air that she breathed. "You are alright, Courtney Hunter?"
Courtney was anything but alright. She felt disorientated, queasy, and short of breath. The latter sensation had a lot to do with being cradled in the strong arms of Taylor Alexandria Punga. "I think so. What happened?"
"The swan attacked me and you leapt in front. Perhaps you were knocked out." There are so many ways to avoid truth. A suggestion can lead others away from enlightenment or towards it. Truth is rarely a tangible element but a slowly changing perspective.
Courtney shifted in Tap's arms, forcing her reluctant body to move away from the safe warm arms that held her so gently. She looked around. The ducks and swan were swimming a good distance off as they had been when they had first arrived. How long had she been unconscious?
"I'm okay now. I'm sorry I worried you."
"I was not worried," Tap responded. "Once again, you have come to my aid. I was not aware that swans could be so violent. Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm fine. I don't suppose the swan would have done much damage but swans and geese are very territorial and are strong enough to break bones if they are angry." Gingerly, Courtney got to her feet and looked around. The left over vegetables sat in a plastic container on the grass. Had they not thrown all the scraps to the birds? Her eyes wandered back to the ducks and swan swimming some distance away. Something just didn't feel right.
She turned to look at Tap who now stood watching her closely with interested eyes. "What really happened?"
Tap shook her head. "We must be getting back. I have much to do. I thank you for this picnic. It was most interesting."
For a minute, Courtney stood her ground looking with hard, cold eyes at Tap. Then she turned without a word and started to pack up the picnic remains. Tap did not help but stood quietly by, watching. She noted later that she had been deeply shaken by the events but had tried her best not to show any reaction. What had happened was totally out of her realm of knowledge and experience. What was important was keeping these events secret.
They walked together to the car in silence. It was only when Courtney had slung the knapsack into the back seat and got into the car that Tap spoke again. "I would appreciate it if you did not make any mention of the swan incident or your being unconscious. I do not want security to over react as they have a tendency to do."
"All right,"Courtney agreed, as the old car started with difficulty. Then she turned and looked Tap square in eye. "But I will expect to hear the truth about what happened here today as soon as possible."
They drove back to Tap's estate without any further talk, and Tap quickly excused herself and disappeared into her quarters.
What has happened?
We sense your distress.
Are you well?
"I am fine. Courtney Hunter is very unpredictable. This will prove to be a very interesting opportunity but one that will be stressful. Leave me." Alone Tap finally allowed the events of the day to impact on her completely. They shook her to the core of her being. She would have to be careful. She knew there was an informer in her organization.
Something has happened.
We must proceed with great caution.
There is an enemy in our midst.
Haichen Lai blinked in amazement at what she was seeing. A short time earlier, security had contacted her with a bizarre tale that she couldn't quite envision. Because the story involved Courtney Hunter, she had stopped what she was working on immediately and had come to see for herself. Their quiet and hard working archivist had proved to be a resourceful, stubborn and totally unpredictable element. She was also a personal project of Tap's and therefore had to be handled with extreme caution and care.
Just how she was to deal with this, however, she had no idea! There in the centre of the courtyard gardens, on a island formed by a splitting of the water channels, was a small orange tent. Courtney Hunter had reached the island consisting of three trees and some hibiscus bushes by removing rocks from a nearby garden wall to make stepping stones across the channel of water.
Carefully, Haichen stepped across to the island. "Court? Are you here?"
The orange flap flipped back and Courtney Hunter crawled out and stood to look at Haichen with a smile of pure devilment.
"Hi Haichen. I thought they would probably send you or Ian. What do you think of my new quarters?"
"It is a pup tent, Courtney Hunter. Camping is for the wilderness . Why have you set up a tent in Tap's courtyard?"
"I needed a place to stay while I am in training. I will not stay in a room where I have been held prisoner and there is no other suitable place. Besides, I like it out here. How big is this courtyard?"
"It is 1.5 acres. You have no washroom or power source," Haichen argued.
"I will use it only to sleep and store my stuff. I can use the library, dining hall and gym facilities so this is really all I need. It suits me fine."
"Tap did say I should find a place from which I would not want to escape." Courtney smiled when she said this, so Haichen reported. It was not so much a smile as it was a dare. Haichen did not dare argue. Courtney Hunter was Tap's project.
"If this is suitable to you then it is a good choice. Do you need anything?"
"Nothing I can't find myself. Thanks for stopping by, Haichen." The worried woman nodded, realizing she had been dismissed, and took her leave. She would report the developments to Tap when she could and let Tap handle the troublesome archivist.
Tap was deep in her research and recording and it was late in the afternoon before she clicked on the report that Haichen had sent her. The report was brief and to the point.
Time: 14:23 01.10.01
Subject: Courtney Hunter
Location at time of report: green zone library.
Note: Courtney Hunter has set up an orange nylon pup tent on the small island in the courtyard. She plans to use this as her quarters. I have talked to her. She seems firm in this decision noting that you requested that she find quarters from which she would not wish to escape. HL
Tap blinked and read the memo through again. Then she shook her head in disbelief. Perhaps it would be safer to terminate Courtney Hunter. She never did what you expected. If she was terminated then possible future problems of a very serious nature could be avoided. Tap had never given the order to terminate anyone. She did not doubt that she could but she felt that it would have to be for a very good reason. This is how she justified her decision at the time not to terminate Courtney Hunter. Later, she would be able to admit that her decision was not made objectively.
"Send Courtney Hunter to the red zone library immediately."
Tap clicked the message she had typed off and then wondered at her decision. It might be best considering the strange and disturbing events that morning to avoid Court until she had found out what was going on. She had, however, made Courtney Hunter her subject and that commitment could not be ignored. Already she had gained from this decision by this morning's experience.
She waited for confirmation and then walked down to the library. Court was, of course, already there. It would not do for Tap to be seen waiting. "I have ordered some more reading for you on educational movements. You will please read these and be prepared to report to me later this evening."
Tap nodded and turned to leave then stopped and looked back. "Was the tent necessary?"
Tap turned and left, pleased that she had not sensed or felt anything unusual even though she had stood close to Court. What happened this morning at the park was an unexplained anomaly.
"What do you know about the Club of Rome?" They were sitting in the dining hall over coffee. Later that night, Tap had come to look at the little orange tent in amazement as had many others during the course of the day. She had then sought out Courtney Hunter in the library and invited her for a coffee. Tap was not fond of coffee. She drank it because she knew it was a ritual in the day to day social bonding process that people needed.
"Not much. I know it is a great honour to be asked to give a lecture for them. I believe one of their mandates is to gather data. So I guess you have something in common." This statement was made with a bit of sarcasm that Tap chose to ignore. Sarcasm is a tool of criticism used to convey a meaning far deeper than what is being said.
Tap nodded. "In a way, yes. The Club of Rome functions outside of any political boundaries and is a non profit organization. They are essentially a think tank providing a forum for discussion and debate on various topics. They invite significant scientists, economists, business people, civil servants and heads of state to speak. This information is then made public for people to consider and use."
"Use. I like the sound of that word. Is this where we are going? I take it there are to be a series of lectures on the environment. Since that is what I have spent the majority of my time studying."
"Yes, it is where we will be going but the lectures will be by leading economists talking about the economic restructuring."
Courtney grimaced. "That sounds deathly dull."
"It is not. It will be your job to understand the essence of what is said and be able to relate its significance to your studies this week."
"It is part of your retraining."
Courtney frowned but said nothing. She wasn't sure she wanted to be retrained. It sounded a lot like conditioning. She would have to be careful and not start questioning what she felt to be true.
"You will now tell me what you learned this afternoon."
"Some rather disturbing things. About five years ago a report circulated based on a study of technological knowledge. It was noted that the cutting edge of technology came out of the military and filtered down to researchers who tooled the ideas for industry that then passed it on to consumer. Lastly, these technological breakthroughs end up being taught in schools. This filtering down of information takes about fifteen years."
"Good, go on."
" The U.S. at the time was concerned about the inroads that the Pacific Rim Nations had made in industrial markets and so adopted a policy to reduce this knowledge gap through a number of means."
Tap smiled. Courtney had a good mind and was able to extract the essential information quickly and see the underlying patterns. "Go on."
"Their first step was to tender contracts to new companies to write innovative curricula. The biggest contract was given to a company that was a partnership between Disney, the Pentagon and Microsoft."
"Strange bedfellows," Tap observed with a smile. She was well aware of such companies but wished to put Courtney at ease. The woman seemed tense around her. Small talk which seems at first to be meaningless fulfils a role in establishing alliances and identifying common world views.
"Yes, very strange." Courtney was tempted to go on and express her concerns about manipulation of thought but checked herself. What Tap did was record objectively. She stuck to the facts. "The next step was to increase educational standards. This was done by discrediting public education. The public then was willing to support chartered schools and reduce funding to remedial programs that did not appear to be getting results. Governments could then fund money into those that they felt were "worth"educating while disenfranchising weaker students. The trend is to improve all standards but to direct moneys to the bright and wealthy. Progress is evaluated through standardized testing."
"You are now taking about governments. Explain."
"The U.S. is certainly not alone in its policies. Canada and many European countries have followed suit. Education is geared to producing science and math graduates to be the bullets in the economic wars that policy setters see as the future trend."
"A bias is showing," stated Tap raising an eyebrow. It is often difficult for people to divorce emotion from reason.
Yes a bias.
Yet she has learned a lot.
But much more yet to learn.
Courtney folded her arms and looked at Tap with a good deal of scepticism. "It is a strange sort of security system that offers opinions."
"Yes, it is."
Courtney waited. Tap offered no more. "Are we finished?"
"Almost. Explain to me, Courtney, why we are going to hear these lectures at the Club of Rome."
"Because that is the missing piece of the puzzle."
Tap nodded and stood. "They are one of the missing pieces. There is yet more to the pattern. Good night, Court."
"Good night, Tap."
Courtney returned to her new quarters feeling disgruntled and out of sorts. She was pleased that Tap seemed satisfied with her training. To be truthful she was working her tail off to impress her boss. Yet what she was learning was upsetting. That of course is the nature of the age of knowledge. Information overload has resulted in a public that would rather watch sitcoms and knowledge is held in trust by a few that may not necessarily be trustworthy. She went to bed early and read more reports until she fell asleep with her palm pilot still in her hand.
The dream was more sensation than images. The feeling of strong sensitive fingers exploring her lines and hollows. The radiant heat from another. Kisses that built a fire low in her being. Then the shiver of passion as her lover entered her, a tidal force that surged, retreated, and surged again over and over, responding to her body's demands. They were so close that Courtney could almost feel her lover's thoughts; sense the powerful emotions that ran through her. The pace quickened and her short gasps of need became a silent scream of release.
There she was again, part of an endless warm sea. One of many - many in one. Courtney felt whole and at peace. She had only to reach out and she would know ...her eyes opened to darkness. The smell of nylon and mold. She could hear the water bubbling along its channels. She lay on her back where her dream had left her and stared into the darkness wandering about what it all meant.
Tap woke with a start, her heart pounding and sweat coating her body. With effort she managed to regulate her breathing, then she slid from under her sheets and padded to the shower. The hot water helped revive her but it did not fade the memory of what she had been doing and with whom. That thought sickened her. Please don't let my brother find .
Courtney had no time to think in the next few days. She had hours of reports to read and sessions with Tap to be questioned on what she had learned. She was fitted for several suits, a beige raw-cotton suit jacket with several straight cut skirts and another with two sets of slacks. Her shirts were linen or silk and cut with a conservative collar and short sleeves. On the day they were to leave, she found her suitcase packed and ready for her along with a passport and tickets. A helicopter would take them to New York where they would pick up the Concorde to fly to Paris and then a commuter flight on to Rome.
Courtney wore the underwear and suit that had been delivered to her tent that morning and carried the black briefcase she had been given for any notes that she wished to take with her. The briefcase was labeled in gold: C. Hunter - TAP
A Lincoln pulled up to the main gate and Courtney recognized two of the security officers sitting in the front seat. It wasn't until this time that Tap arrived. She wore a soft, tan suede pant suit with a black silk shirt. Courtney had a hard time keeping her eyes off her.
"You are ready, Court?"
"Yes. My passport says I have diplomatic immunity. By whose authority?"
"Mine. Shall we go?"
For most of the trip Tap read. Courtney did her best to follow her boss's example but she was too excited. She had never been in such a luxurious car before, never been in a helicopter, and had never flown. Now here she was sitting in the leather seats aboard the Concorde. She watched everything with the excitement of a child.
"Do you ever keep still?" Tap's voice showed her irritability. Irritability is often a sign of deep stress and the cause of the irritability is rarely what it seems.
Courtney froze. Tap had been grumpy for the last few days but now she looked really angry. "I'm sorry. I'm excited. I've never traveled before and today I have been in both a helicopter and the Concorde. Pretty good start, huh?"
Tap looked at her with a mixture of surprise and wonder in her eyes. "I forget sometimes that there are more people on this planet that have never used a telephone than have seen a computer."
"I can use a computer." Courtney did not like to be seen by Tap as inexperienced. She would be surprised to learn that it was some of Courtney's experience that Tap found most upsetting and was the main source of her boss's irritation.
Tap simply nodded, however, and went back to her reading. Tap was upset for a number of reasons. First, the incident at the park and the dream she'd had were of great concern. It was a very delicate matter and she would have to be very careful. Hopefully, the incidents were isolated and simply some strange reaction to the strain that she was under. It was very important that her brother not find out until she had resolved this issue.
Second, there was the report on Courtney Hunter that was in her briefcase. She had read it over and over and the emotions she felt when she did confused and upset her. Court had lived an unconventional life with her birth parents and a lonely and restricted life in foster care. She had shown remarkable strength and determination in getting her education and bringing her life in order. There had been lovers. A long and steady relationship with a boy at university that ended when Courtney turned down his proposal. Then two short, casual relationships with women. It was the detailed data on Court's private life that upset Tap. She was not sure why she could not remain objective about this information but she realized she couldn't. It ate at her. She would have liked to question Courtney Hunter about it but knew this would not be appropriate.
They worked in stony silence, each reading reports with studied intensity that neither really felt. Tap's mood deteriorated even more when her vegetarian meal was served. She sniffed at it suspiciously and sighed. Courtney looked down at her own filet mignons with delight. Then she shyly reached into her bag and brought out a container of grain porridge and cut vegetables that she'd had prepared in the kitchen before they left and slipped it onto Tap's tray. "Thought you might like this."
Tap looked at her in surprise and then smiled. It was a real smile of delight, not the stiff, strictly controlled smile that she had seen in the past. Tap's smile made the effort worthwhile. Tap had a lovely smile, Courtney thought.
"You are welcome."
The rest of the trip was uneventful. Boss and trainee worked side by side in happier frames of mind, reading and preparing for the lectures. It was hard going for Courtney who was too excited about her day to stay focused for long on the reports. She also found economics boring and usually totally out of step with social needs. When she expressed this view, Tap patiently reminded her that business dealt with fulfilling societies' wants at a profit and not with meeting social needs at cost.
It was late in the afternoon, Rome time, when they were finally through customs and had registered in their hotel. To her surprise, Courtney found she was sharing a suite with Tap and next to them was a room shared by her security personnel. They were staying in the small but luxurious five star Bernini Bristol. It had been built in 1870 and renovated in recent years.
Courtney looked in wonder at the elaborate and rich design features, the 18th century tapestries, and the antique furnishings. This was another world and one that Courtney Hunter knew nothing about. Once their room had been checked by Ali and Jason, the two security officers with them, and their bags had been brought in and the porter tipped, Tap disappeared into her bedroom. A few minutes later Courtney could hear the shower running.
Courtney unpacked and hung up her clothes. She felt trapped and frustrated. Here she was in Rome and it looked like her first experience traveling was going to be reading in a hotel room and lectures at the Club of Rome, the understanding of which were way over her head.
She showered, dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt that she had managed to smuggle along in her carry on and tried to read yet another report. Her restlessness led her from one seat to another until she finally ended up on the salon couch, gazing wistfully from the window. It was a business trip she knew but she couldn't be asked to work twenty-four hours of the day. Her jaw set in a familiar strong line and she slipped off her seat to walk over to Tap's bedroom and knock on the door.
"Tap, if you have nothing planned for me, I think I'll go out for a bit and see what I can of Rome."
"That is not possible. You may not leave until your month's training is up." This was a mutter from behind a report that Tap read as she lay on her bed wrapped up in one of the hotel's thick terry-cloth bathrobes. The silence that followed made Tap look up with concern.
When their eyes met, Courtney tried once more. "But, I might never see Rome again!"
Tap put down her papers and looked at Courtney with interested eyes. "The Bernini Bristol is located at the beginning of the Via Veneto. We are within walking distance of the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. These places I could take you to now. Would this suffice?"
"That would be wonderful, Tap, if you don't mind. I don't want to take you away from your work." Tap would have liked to answer honestly that Courtney Hunter had already done so but she had leaned that such statements required not truth but a show of willingness to be put out. Tap was not willing but felt she might learn from the experience and so had agreed. Still, she did not respond but got up to dress for the outing.
Courtney beat a hasty retreat as Tap stood and slipped from her robe. There was just so much excitement that a girl could handle in one day, she was to explain. Tap for her part was amused by Courtney Hunter's uncomfortable retreat, pleased that the woman was impressed by her body.
They walked side by side down the Via Veneto. It was a lovely evening of the sort when the gold of the setting sun mellows old stone and brick into enchantment. Flowers and colourful banners hung from street lamps and balconies. The area was scented by spicy sauce and garlic as evening meals were prepared. They talked little and simply enjoyed the sights and sounds that are Rome.
Tap stood and watched Courtney with pleasure as the smaller woman stood in delight in front of the elaborate backdrop of the Fontana di Trevi. "It was built in 1735 by the architect Salvi under Clement XII.. The statues and bas-relief around are designed in the Bernini School. That is, the underlying pattern is very geometric and the arrangement mathematically balanced for shape and form. It was designed really as part of the facade of the Palazzo Pol.i
Coutrney was only half listening. She fished into her pocket and came out with a coin to throw into the clear, cold water. Legend had it whoever drank from the fountain or threw a coin into its waters was sure to return to Rome again.
"Are you superstitions, Court?"
"No. Just a romantic. Here, Tap, you throw a coin too." Courtney gave Tap a coin and this is how Tap came to participate in this pagan act.
"But I have been to Rome many times and will come again."
Tap nodded her consent and after looking around to make sure that no one was likely to notice, she threw the coin over her shoulder into the fountain as she had seen Courtney do.
They walked in a big circle as they strolled down the picturesque streets until they reached the .
Piazza di Spagna. Tap explained in her serious way that the famous Spanish Steps, all 1772 of them, had been designed to harmoniously follow the slope of the hill and that the pool and fountain at its base, known as the Little Boat, had been designed by Bernini.
Courtney listened politely to her tour guide-boss and then with sheer devilment in her eyes, she grabbed Tap by the hand and ran her down the stairs to the water's edge. With a playful laugh, Court grabbed Tap to stop her forward motion on the very last step. They stood for a minute close together, laughing, eyes sparkling at each other, the warmth of their bodies intermingling. The Tap stepped back.
"It is a beautiful place," Tap observed. This was not so much an observation but a quick change in mood. Tap had found herself very close to wanting Courtney Hunter. That realization was now less shocking and more tantalizing, she realized, than when she had first felt it. What would be the harm? It would be just another element of her study. Naturally, she rejected this train of thought almost as quickly as it had come. Her position and her name would be ruined by such an act.
They stood for a while admiring the beauty that is Rome but the moment had been lost and they walked quietly back to their hotel in the gathering dark.
They ate in the luxurious dining room, Courtney enjoying immensely the wonderful food and wine. Tap ate her vegetarian plate with disinterest and drank a good deal more wine than the archivist. Upstairs again, they retired to their separate rooms to work until sleep came.
Tap found herself on the Spanish steps again. Music played softly in the back ground. It was a haunting, spiritual melody, more the whisper of wind through ancient hills than structured notes.
The fountain was a cool touch on her hot skin and Courtney Hunter was in her arms. She felt their lips touch and then return to deepen into a joining of passion. She could taste the wine they had drunk as their tongues sought each other. Tap's hands stroked up under Courtney's shirt sensing the woman's passion as her back arched into Tap's touches. One hand slipped around to cup the weight of Courtney's breast and Tap felt herself close to the brink as she touched and played with hard bud of the smaller woman's nipple.
They were falling then, softly to the ground. Tap's hips already nestled between Courtney's legs as she dropped kisses of passion on exposed, soft flesh. Tap woke from her dream with a gasp feeling the hungry need in her like a gnawing animal needing satisfaction. There was no denying what was happening anymore. Tap lay staring in the darkness for a long time, trying to come to terms with the enormity of the situation.
Courtney was awake too. She'd been having an honest talk with herself about just what she was up to. The truth of the matter was that she was in way over her head and if she had any sense at all she would be paddling for shore with all her might. The second truth that she had to face was that this whole thing had nothing to do with Courtney's curiosity about and interest in Tap and everything to do with the attraction she had felt for the woman from the first time they had met.
The bottom line was, Courtney wanted Taylor Alexandria Punga with every pore of her being.
Did Tap want her though? At times she had thought so but this evening when Courtney had dared to be playful, Tap had firmly moved away. Courtney sighed in frustration. Every ounce of her common sense was telling her that she was going to get hurt playing this game. Every ounce of her body, however, was begging her to get on with it.
Who was Tap and what was she up to? There was something not quite right about all this and nothing that Courtney could really put a finger on. It was very late in the night before Courtney drifted off to sleep.
A heavy banging at her door brought Courtney awake the next morning in a drowsy stupor. "Court, we must leave in 93 minutes," Tap stated through the door.
Courtney rolled from the bed more in fear of her boss's disapproval than by any great desire to face the day. She showered and dressed quickly and was ready with her briefcase when Tap walked from her own room. Ali and Jason waited downstairs with a limo and once the women were safely inside they headed over to the meeting. Other than saying hello to Court, Tap ignored her, reading through material on her palm top instead. Annoyed, Court soaked up the sound and sights of Rome through the tinted window.
At the lectures, Court was impressed by how many people knew Tap and treated her with the greatest of respect, even at the Club of Rome where people were used to mixing with the famous and powerful. Who was she and what hold did she have on so many? Court felt more than intimidated. She followed one step behind Tap in the lobby and once in the lecture hall she sat quietly, listening intently to the lectures. It was a very stressful day. This was not a world that Courtney was used to and she was more than nervous about how little understanding she had of the complex economic structures and trends that were being presented in a series of lectures during the day.
When they left in the evening, Court had a splitting headache and felt dazed by the facts and figures that had been bombarding her all day. "You are uncharacteristically quiet, Court," Tap observed as their limo pulled silently away from the kerb.
"I think my mind has blown a gasket," Court groaned, rubbing her temples wearily.
"You are ill?" Tap asked with some concern.
Court looked up into eyes both worried and curious. "No, just a headache. I meant that I feel tired from the stress of trying to understand what I heard today. I'm sorry, Tap, most of it went over my head.
"I anticipated that it would." Tap shrugged, relieved that there was not anything seriously wrong with her trainee and turning back to the papers on her lap.
"What does that mean?" Court demanded, turning to look at her boss.
Tap looked up and frowned in puzzlement. Courtney Hunter mood swings were unpredictable.
"It meant that I was aware that you do not have either the knowledge or intellect to understand some of the concepts discussed today," Tap clarified.
"Thanks a lot!" snapped Courtney, her green eyes blazing like emeralds caught in light.
Tap's frowned deepened. "You are welcome," she said neutrally after a second or two of consideration, then went back to her reading not knowing how else to deal with Court's unusual reaction.
Continued In Chapter 9