It was an event to honor Taelon and Doors International joint venture contributions to the New Province mission, in the form of improved medication for the various schizophrenic illnesses that seemed to plague many of the mission's regulars. Of course, it was held in the ballroom at Doors Center, black tie and by invitation only.
She went as the representative for the mission, though she generally detested these events; people spending a lot of money to pat themselves on the back for providing a mere pittance of what was really needed; women wearing dresses that could have paid for a week's worth of meals for the mission's residents.
She dressed simply but elegantly, in black, setting off her red hair and smooth, creamy skin, the dress was fitted in all the right places, with a hint of lace on the cleavage and bodice; accented with black silk stockings and a pair of black patent leather high heels, she turned more than one head when she entered the room. It was one of the few occasions when she opted for a tasteful smattering of cosmetics and more than 2 minutes worth of attention to her hair; she was grateful to the fashion powers that be that certain styles of leather never really got old and were not too gauche.
She was reminded of a time when she had thoroughly enjoyed this sort of play-acting; before the Conflicts, before her husband; pretending to be something you're not for the purpose of finding something you couldn't – or wouldn't – quite describe or admit to yourself with someone you would not ordinarily look twice at, who would probably not ordinarily look twice at you.
But she had long since decided that, as one matured, the fleeting amusement from that sort of game eventually gave way to the enjoyment that can be had just being oneself, and, after marriage, she had discovered that life with someone afflicted with addictions had been enough of a drama that creating one in this sort of atmosphere no longer held any appeal.
She arrived before the requisite speeches and preening; walking confidently through the room, preferring the relative quiet of the corner of the bar, where she could observe the goings on. Melissa liked being able to observe in this manner; she learned much more and made much better deals with people from a vantage point like this than she would if she were ensconced in the middle somewhere. Drunken, lecherous executives usually made generous contributions and promises; she could be quite shrewd about collecting on them for the sake of the Fugitives from Organized Society, as she preferred to call the recipients of the mission's services.
Generally, it was their own appearance that they were concerned with, and she was only useful to them for whatever escalation of them she could manage. She ordered a glass of red wine and sipped it slowly, hoping they would be content simply to promote themselves and not ask her to speak or answer questions. She had her suspicions about the long term effects of these new drugs, and the true intent of them; was it really to help the wild eyed ones regain themselves, or was it to keep them from revealing some dark truth about the Taelons, the one that they were always ranting about in their worst moments?
She chatted with the bartender, a nice looking boy with dark hair and an easy grin, learning by accident that he was Resistance when she mentioned that she worked with volunteers. He had reacted violently, the blood draining from his pleasant young face, and she had smiled softly at him.
"Sorry, not that type of Volunteer," she said quietly; "I'm in charge of the New Province mission. Don't worry, your secret's safe with me," she had told him warmly, patting his hand. He had smiled with relief and replenished her glass for free.
She watched as the Taelons arrived, with their security detail in tow. As he entered with Da'An, she recognized the tall, brooding security man as Liam Kincaid; she had seen him numerous times down at the mission. She suspected he was Resistance, but she liked the gentle young man and didn't want to know; to know would be to put him in danger.
She sat up suddenly, though, when she saw him walking through the door; she had never expected to encounter G-man in public. She noticed again what an attractive man he really was; the tuxedo had obviously been tailor made for him, and the air of confidence, bordering on arrogance, that he projected was as alluring as any physical attribute she'd ever noticed, made perhaps more so by what she knew about the truth of this man.
A tall, brown haired man came in behind them; he immediately locked his eyes onto hers, with a Cheshire cat-like grin that sent an unwelcome shiver down her spine. She remembered well these consequences from the many times she had played the game, years ago.
She turned uninterestedly away from the fray at the front of the large room, listening to the speeches and the click and whir of the cameras and sound bites, weighing what she heard with a cynical ear. Da'An was truly a gracious creature, and a warm sense came over her at the fondness Da'An expressed for the mission and the continuing desire to help those in need; it felt like her own.
As the requisite pleasantries subsided, she looked back at the gathering again, a slow smile coming across her face as she watched G-man work. She reveled in the irony of this; she was watching him for a change. It was the type of observation that was made even more satisfying because of the little secrets that you knew about someone; like the fact that he preferred dark French roast coffee to Italian roast, or the way he would sigh, his whole body relaxing once the elusive, undefined demons that plagued him had finally lost their hold after a bad day.
She tried not to notice the tall, brown haired man who was with him, as he locked his eyes onto her again, as if she were his prey. She saw him lean down and say something to G-man, then make a beeline for the bar.
She turned to the bartender. "Okay, here we go," she said with a grimace. "Watch yourself with this one," she added with a warning tone.
The bartender smiled knowingly at her.
"Hey boss, excuse me for one second, will ya?" Tate muttered to Sandoval, his eyes never leaving the sight of the redhead at the bar.
Sandoval could tell by his voice that this involved a woman; he ignored it. "Don't go far, Tate; you may yet prove useful here," he said, with his usual contempt. Tate was like a big dumb dog without the dog's loyalty, Sandoval thought to himself, but he occasionally served his purposes.
The only truly redeeming thing about Tate was that every spare cent he had went to his sister who, Sandoval knew, was attending college somewhere on the other side of the world where higher learning was still revered. He could know more about this if he truly wanted to, but Tate protected everything about her as well as he himself protected his secret about Melissa; besides, he would gain nothing from pursuing the matter.
"Hi," the brown-haired man said casually, in a lounge lizard style, Melissa thought, as he leaned against the bar right next to her. The strong smell of his inexpensive aftershave wafted towards her now; she exchanged a glance with the bartender. "Come here often?" he asked.
"Not very," she answered.
Unfazed by her attempt at curtness, Tate signaled the bartender. "Barkeep, another drink for the lady, on me," he said, tapping the bar impatiently with his forefinger.
"Cash up front," the bartender replied coolly; Melissa grinned.
Frank Tate looked at him, tempted to argue his importance, but he thought better of it and pulled out his wallet, handing the young man a ten dollar bill. The bartender pocketed the bill and went to get the wine.
"So, what's a pretty lady like you doing in a place like this, anyway?" Tate persisted.
The bartender handed her the glass with a sympathetic smile.
Melissa turned to him now; this was her favorite part of the game. She leaned on the bar so the brown-haired man would have an unobstructed view of the plunging neckline of her dress, her shapely legs crossed at the knee as she smiled seductively at him.
"I run the New Province mission," she said in a sultry tone, looking directly at him.
The combination of her come-on body language and Mother Theresa-esque job description proved too great a conundrum for Frank; he physically took a step back from her, his mouth dropping open. The bartender stifled a giggle.
"Wow, that's pretty amazing," he said, not able to take his eyes off her chest now.
She casually crossed her arms in front of her then; it broke his concentration and caused him to look up at her. The bartender let loose with another giggle.
Across the room, Sandoval glanced around for Tate; Zo'Or had demanded to know more about one of the nosier journalists at the event; a task tailor made for Frank Tate, he thought to himself.
That was when he noticed her at the bar with him. He knew Tate had gone off in pursuit of a woman; little did he know it would be her.
He gazed at her for a moment; in all the time he had been watching her, spending time with her, he had never seen her dressed like this. She is truly stunning, he thought. Her graceful appearance did not indicate so much the sophistication of money, that wouldn't have been her style, but rather the powerful allure of self-confidence and disregard for convention.
He chided himself for not noticing her before Tate had, then he reminded himself that his first duty was to protect Zo'Or, a fact that Tate easily forgot in the presence of women.
He watched for a moment as Melissa played his hapless assistant, feeling inadvertently aroused as she leaned forward, grinning conspiratorially as she interrupted Tate's lewd staring with the crossing of her arms.
He strode purposefully over to the bar.
"Tate, I told you that you might prove yourself useful tonight; I need you to find out more about that journalist Joe, from the Sun," he said in his commanding voice.
Frank looked at him wretchedly. "Right now, Boss?" he asked plaintively.
Sandoval sighed contemptuously. "No, ten minutes ago; yes, right now!" he said sharply.
Frank looked at him helplessly, recognizing yet another time when the Boss was looking to encroach on his territory. But the Boss was the Boss, and Frank decided that winning this match wasn't as useful as staying on Sandoval's good side; besides, she was more of a challenge than kissing ass. He wasn't even sure he really liked women; he just felt compelled to play the game, laboring under the societal delusion that his manhood was defined by it, and he didn't like losing. He turned back to Melissa.
"I'll be back."
She waited until Tate was out of earshot before muttering under her breath "don't hurry." The bartender chuckled.
Looking up now, she was pleasantly surprised to see that G-man had stepped into the brown haired man's place at the bar, and with an authoritative grin at the bartender he said, "If it suits the lady, I'd like to buy her another glass of wine," as he put a ten dollar bill on the bar.
The bartender dutifully poured another glass for her, grinning knowingly at Melissa; she is really working this gig, he thought, grateful for the large tips it meant for him.
She winked at the bartender before turning to Sandoval, raising her glass. "Thanks, G-man," she said affably.
"My pleasure," he intoned; with a sensual note in his voice and a look in his eyes that sent an electric current racing up her spine.
"And thanks for the rescue," she said sincerely. Melissa smiled at him now, almost seductively, he thought.
"Oh, well now, you really can't blame the poor man for trying, can you?" he said in a jovial tone.
He smiled at her, a sexy, sultry smile, as if he had an intimate secret about her that she herself didn't know; at the sight, she was pretty sure her heart skipped at least one beat. He leaned slowly, jauntily across the bar then, casually coming down towards her as if he were reaching for something underneath her.
"You look incredible," he said softly, sending a shiver through her as she felt his warm breath on her ear.
He nonchalantly moved back, turning away from her to the rest of the room, letting his hand drape casually across her crossed leg as he did so, resting his fingers ever so slightly on top of her knee; another electric jolt went through her. Though they had engaged in the occasional, passionate kiss and frequent, warm embraces, their private interactions had progressed slowly, cautiously, developing from a sincere fondness for each other and a mutual respect born out of their unusual friendship. These feelings that they held covetously secret from the rest of the world around them somehow made this more pointed, public flirtation even more titillating.
Sandoval turned briefly back to the bar.
"May I see you tonight?" he asked under his breath, in a sensual tone.
It seems 'the time' is finally 'right', she thought, mentally making note of the fact that a little makeup and a black dress still went a long way with a man. She smiled without looking at him.
"If you're able to, G-man," she said quietly, in her usual matter of fact tone.
She looked directly at him now, he knew exactly what she meant and he was suddenly, incredibly grateful for it, shattering all of his previous attempts to downplay the depth of his feelings for her.
From across the room, in his sentry position, eyeing the room for threats, Liam Kincaid watched the whole thing unfolding, amused. The clandestine way in which Sandoval whispered in her ear and touched her knee did not go unnoticed by Liam's keen senses, but it was their body language that made him sit back and think: they were both enjoying this, he realized; she as much as he. Unlike other incidents of this nature he had witnessed with Sandoval, she seemed as confidently engaged in the conspiracy as he was.
Although it still surprised him that this seemingly gentle woman could take a liking to a man like Sandoval, he knew she had her demons, too. He remembered her from a time long ago, as he had wandered the alleys of New Province with Jonathan Doors discussing Resistance activities. He had seen her working with some of the more downtrodden residents; he had been intrigued by how nice she was to them – sincerely nice.
"Well, she knows that, there, but for the grace of Doors International…." Jonathan Doors had muttered in a cynical tone of voice.
Liam had looked at him quizzically. "What do you mean?" He was always a bit wary with Jonathan Doors; the truth of his allegiances had not always been clear.
Jonathan had explained to him how Doors International had initially embraced the Kryss experiments; he was an enterprising businessman and this seemed a sure fire hit; a way to beat addictions of any kind, like alcoholism and cigarettes, not to mention drugs. It was touted as "the methadone for everything else" in the promotional literature. During the final days of the Old Great Nation, the citizens had become used to having everything conveniently fixed via little pills; they had little pills for everything. Many theories had arisen as to this trend being one of the keys to their downfall.
His company, Doors International, had pioneered this crusade to create the easiest way to forget your troubles. Until Jonathan had had his "come to Jesus" incident, as he called it, he, too, would have thought that the Taelon's arrival was simply another convenient factor contributing to this "easy life" attitude; certainly he had profited from it.
But then, the Kryss experiments had gone horribly wrong; many young people had died in the production of the drug and from its effects. Ultimately, it turned out to be no better than whatever the person had originally been addicted to, not to mention the slave-like conditions under which the drug's producers had been kept, as Liam knew only too well.
It had been a big black eye for Doors International and the Taelons alike; they had offered the victims quite a large amount of money as compensation for their pain – another fashion that had contributed to the destruction of the Old Great Nation; easy money to compensate people for whatever their ills may be, perceived or otherwise. Frivolous lawsuits had ultimately crumbled the government and the economy and led to the Great Collapse; only the multinational corporations had survived, naturally stepping into their groomed role as the new governing body for the remnants of the shattered society, letting the Conflicts run their course to clean it all up and rid the land of the undesirables.
"We offered them a lump sum, to be distributed among the survivors of those who took part in the experiments. Most of them felt so guilty about their own encouragement of the project that they wouldn't take it, as if they were somehow responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. She, in fact, had told her husband that she would leave him if he did not take the Kryss," Jonathan had explained. "I suppose the hell of living with an addict could drive a person to do a lot more than issue ultimatums, and divorces back then were never kind to women," he stated in a matter of fact tone of voice. Then he gave a disgusted sigh.
"In the end, she was the only one who would accept the settlement; and she demanded the entire lump sum. The rest of them just walked away," Doors had said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. A puzzled look had crossed his countenance then as he continued the story.
"But the kicker was, before the settlement meeting, I walked up to her and offered her my condolences for the untimely loss of her husband. She gave me a long stare and said 'Sometimes, Mr. Doors, an unfortunate accident can be a desperate woman's last hope.'"
Liam remembered being mildly amused at this part of the story. It seemed she was as enterprising as Jonathan was; she had played him like a lucky hand in a game of cards.
Doors had paused at this point, as if he was still wondering what exactly she had meant by this. "She insisted that we put the settlement in the currency of the New Province." He added this detail with a sense of respect; he had understood her angle then: she was going to get out while she still could, before the inevitable Conflicts had begun.
"But still," Liam had persisted, "it looks as if she's put the money to good use."
"Probably looking for some sort of redemption," Doors had said with a shrug, as he had watched her ladle soup with a smile to a man with a particularly foul appearance. Redemption was another concept Jonathan Doors understood all too well.
Liam watched the two people at the bar for another minute; momentarily pondering what brought human beings together. Maybe they were both seeking some measure of redemption; maybe they would find it together.
He saw Sandoval turn away from the bar, with a briefly contented look on his face that Liam knew he would never let anyone else see. He smiled at this thought, and tucked it away with the other secrets he had about this man whose DNA he shared.
"What are you smiling at?" Renee asked, with her usual mix of slight sarcasm and suspicion at seeing a smile on his face.
"Humanity continues to surprise me, in the most wonderful ways," he said distractedly. She followed his line of sight; he shifted his gaze away quickly, wanting to keep this secret from her for some reason he could not quite identify. She doesn't understand, he thought to himself; she can't.
Mixed into this thought pattern was some of the same old twinge of guilt that he could not rid himself of regarding Sandoval; he still woke up sometimes, wondering what had happened to Erica Vosser, wondering if he'd really done the right thing convincing Sandoval she had betrayed him.
"Sandy up to his old tricks again?" Renee asked, with the usual scorn in her voice, narrowing her eyes as she watched the International Security Director speaking surreptitiously to Zo'Or. She had long ago stopped trying to hide her disdain for the man.
"Even an old dog can learn new tricks, right?"
Renee recognized the tone of voice and his vagueness as the devices Liam employed when he was deliberately trying to lead her away from some thought he didn't want her to know about. She eyed him critically, wondering if it was worth pursuing, deciding against it. His feelings about the human race, she appreciated; his continuing desire to include Sandoval in that were beyond her, she reminded herself.