The excised bit from 'There Goes the Neighborhood', which wound up being too big to fit into the chapter, and tangential, besides. The germ of the idea I must give credit for to Tikatu, who, in 'Turnabout' gave Penelope somewhat similar motives. Dark Helmet's wonderful "Winds of Advent" has Penny and Scott meeting on the job, too, then later, at the Island.
She'd first met John Matthew Tracy on a professional basis, before ever becoming involved with International Rescue.
There was a Belgian crime lord, a shadowy, underworld puppet-master who'd blackmailed high-ranking government and military sorts into revealing state secrets. Not all that difficult, really. As Penny well knew, just because one wore a uniform, or sported an old and fabled name, did not mean that one's desires and habits were all 'Disney World' clean; or that they were entirely private.
Pictures had been taken, activities recorded, and men brought to the brink of shame and ruin... unless they cooperated. The end result was an unlinked, data-packed mainframe in the closely guarded basement of an Antwerp rave club. No internet or modem access, only one way in or out of the shielded computer room, and one shot at secrets capable of bringing down nations.
Her employers (of whom there were several, mostly unaware of each other, and often working at cross-purposes) required that the data be copied to disk, then erased from the hard drive. So, young Penny had donned an electric-blue wig, dramatic makeup, fishnet stockings, a slashed tee and micromini, then put on a pair of stiletto-heeled dancing boots, armed herself, and gone clubbing.
Parker waited outside in an adjacent alley, looking every inch the down-at-heels, war-numbed alcoholic, while actually providing tech back-up through her wig's tiny earpiece.
"Good 'unting, Milady," he'd told her, as she headed for the club.
"Thank you, Parker," she responded breezily, passing into a warehouse-sized room thundering with strobe lights and techno-rage music. Spicy, heady smoke filled the quivering air. All around her, people twitched and writhed to the jerking beat, or their own foggy, drugged-up rhythms.
Penelope switched on her glow bracelets, and dove on in; dancing, partying and air-kissing her way to the back of the room, where the door thather contact described waited patiently for a clever girl with a lock pick.
She got it open, slipping into a narrow, dank little stairwell, ready for anything. But her immediate impressions... (darkness..., musty, wet concrete smell, and the muffled thunder of the dance club...) betrayed no obvious dangers. Shutting the door again, Penny paused a bit (coated in a light sheen of sweat, and panting slightly) to give Parker time to loop the security monitor feed, and to ready a few weapons.
20... 25... 30 seconds, and... Mark.
According to plan, he should have succeeded in infiltrating the security cameras. The basement monitors would show the same fifteen minute clip now, looped over and over. Time for stage two.
A trio of massive guards on the bottom landing presented a problem for about two seconds, after which they were no further trouble to anyone, for quite some time. Stepping past their collapsed forms, she retrieved her darts and examined the next obstacle, a fiendishly complicated electronic lock. Far too difficult and dangerous to pop the old-fashioned way. She'd have to try something subtler.
In her artfully slashed handbag, Penny carried a diagnostic mechanism; a mini-computer capable of analyzing the program and coding of anything with memory chips and keys. Clipped onto the lock and activated, it swiftly extracted and displayed the entry code. 'Ecstasy'.
Shaking her head a bit at the childishly obvious key, Penelope punched it in. The lock clicked over without protest, so she removed the diagnostic computer, pushed open the metal door, and slid on through.
The sound-proofed room was small, and poorly lit, but she could see well enough to make out the computer... and a tall, black-clad figure who turned her way at the faint noise of the door scraping shut. A young man. All of twenty years old, probably; slender, silent and quick. He was copying files onto a disk. Her files.
Sheer exasperation stopped her from shooting him outright. That, and curiosity. How had he managed to get there before her, without alerting the guards, getting caught on camera, or triggering the alarm? Also... In the dim glow of the room's light strip, he looked rather dashing, and singularly unconcerned by her presence. A fair, almost tow-headed blond, he had the sort of face one associated with the works of Michelangelo.
Interpol, she decided. Only they would have the technology, and the gall, to slip a computer technician into so hazardous a situation, and do it unnoticed. Or, nearly so.
"Elenie Maxwell," she lied, stepping cautiously forward, "British Intelligence." (The last bit was true enough, as far as it went.)
Nothing. That he didn't respond rather intrigued her. Either he was very well armed, or terribly new at this. Needing to know more, Penny tried again.
"And, you work for...?"
He seemed aloof to the point of churlishness, his blue-violet eyes holding an icy stillness that Penny filled with imagined shadows. The computer beeped softly, and he switched disks. She had to have that data... or a copy. There was more than one disk drive on the CPU, and perhaps her beautiful young mystery man would fall for an offered compromise.
Coming forward, Penelope drew a forefinger along his arm, and made the sort of offer that very few men were strong enough to refuse.
"I don't suppose you'd consider sharing that data, in the name of... amicable... international relations?"
Her tee shirt, slashed, ripped and held together by a few haphazardly placed safety pins, concealed almost nothing. She inhaled deeply, maximizing the effect. His glance lingered a moment, then returned to the monitor screen, and the next disk.
(She discovered later that what she'd taken for icy sophistication was in fact shyness and inexperience... she was only his second... but at the time he'd seemed like Mt. Everest, daring her to conquer the all but unscalable.)
Very well, then. Direct action was called for. For King and Country, and to prove that the flower of British womanhood was not to be lightly scorned, Penelope leaned forward to kiss him, her purple-glossed lips brushing the corner of his mouth.
She'd meant only to distract him, intending to knock the dear lad out, and then steal his data, but matters quickly took on a life of their own. That night, she discovered exactly how many kisses long his neck was, and what his back muscles felt like, sliding and clenching beneath her hands.
...and that he was a double-crossing snake, perfectly capable of sending a girl off with a deeply passionate kiss and a deliberately corrupted disk. The company hard drive had just about imploded, savaged beyond repair. Thanks to the Interpol agent, or whatever he was.
They met again at Princeton University in New Jersey, a few months later. It was a crisp, late fall day, and she was there on a modeling assignment for 'In Style' magazine. She'd only just begun the shoot, wearing a green, bikini-style top, a diamond waist chain, tall wading boots, and a sequined skirt of black watch plaid, redesigned as a Tarzan-style loin cloth. Oh, and a long, vivid pink wig. Dreadful ensemble, but Francois had sworn that the look would take Europe by storm.
Leaning against an ornate brick-and-wrought-iron gate, in a manner calculated to get a rise out of nearly anything with a pulse, she suddenly spied her young thief crossing campus with a leather satchel and a deeply distracted expression. And so, like a shot, she was off after him, leaving Francois wringing lily-white hands in her wake.
Parker, bless him, ran interference, preventing anyone but her quarry from getting too close.
The tall young fellow proved quite easy to follow, as he took no special precautions, and seemed not even to be aware of her. Past big old trees, across the leaf-strewn lawns, to a large stone building she tracked him, drawing stares (puzzled, but appreciative) from every man she passed.
Penelope caught up to him, at last, in a sun-filled classroom; an ivy-league time capsule glowing with mellow wood and greenish, bubble-flecked windows. Empty, but for the two of them.
She shut the door as he was placing his satchel down upon a desk. Glancing sharply in her direction, he took in the scanty outfit, wild makeup, and the shocking-pink wig. Then, cocking a slim eyebrow, he said,
"Hello again, Party Girl."
Penelope gave him her frostiest glare, which probably would have worked out better had she been wearing more clothing.
"Have you any idea," she hissed, "how very near you came to having me sacked? No data, two mainframes reduced to gibbering rubbish, and utter, red-faced failure for the Department!"
He leaned forward at the desk, hands flat upon its splintery surface.
"Sour grapes. You're upset because you meant to do the same thing, only I beat you to it."
No denials, no apologies and (worst of all) no elegance. She'd expected that he'd turn out to be foreign, a Dane or Swede, possibly. Instead, he was depressingly, thuddingly American, with a slightly nasal, western twang that placed him firmly from the land of 'manly men' and frightened sheep. Barbarous.
"Indeed not, you grasping little savage. I would have shared!" A lie, of course, but he wasn't to know that.
Penelope waited, but he merely shook his head and began removing papers from the leather satchel.
"Are you not even slightly curious as to why I'm here?" She demanded at last, fairly stamping with exasperation.
"Dressed like that?" He ventured, smiling a little. "I don't know... filming an X-rated tropical... fishing video?"
Had there been anything suitably injurious handy, she'd have thrown it. Instead, Penelope said cattily,
"Pray don't tell me that you've actually slimed your way into a teaching post at this nauseating little institution?"
He paused at his paper shuffling long enough to give her a cool, level stare.
"No," the young man replied at last, a bit testily. "I got more than enough of that as a grad student. They stare, but they don't listen."
"Ah. An impoverished scholar, then; scurrying from one empty classroom to another, subsisting on dropped coins, and dressing out of rubbish bins?"
Facing her, he folded his arms across his slender chest.
"You know, considering that there's not enough cloth in that outfit (which I wholeheartedly approve of, by the way) to make a decent bandage, I'd shut up about clothes."
Then, in a considerably less snappish tone,
"Actually, I'm here to meet with my thesis advisor, but I think she's given up on me. I'm sort of... working on a doctorate in astrophysics. On and off."
Slightly mollified by the perceived truce flag, Penny stepped a little closer, asking,
"And, what is your thesis about?"
He looked up again, warily probing her interest with a direct, questioning glance. Then,
"Eta Carinae, the biggest stellar object in the galaxy. It's exploded three times now, and it's..."
"Beautiful?" She hazarded, as he groped for the right word. The young physicist/ agent smiled at her, suddenly, with a warmth she suspected was very rare, indeed.
Then, he began explaining his thesis, or trying to. Penelope understood perhaps one word in ten, and, when he keyed up the holographic 'chalk board' and showed her the 4-D animated forms assumed by his equations in real spacetime, he lost her entirely. But his evident excitement, the passion with which he tried to explain himself, moved her, anyway.
Stepping through the holographic cube, decked briefly in pixels, imaginary numbers and animated hyperspheres, Penny went to him, again. They ended up in a dusty antechamber, and this time, she learned what it felt like to be pinned to a couch beneath his warm, moving weight. And that, just like her, he was nearly always armed.
Afterward, though, he once again ruined everything.
"Not that I mind, but, is this...," he gestured with one hand, from himself to her, and back again, "...likely to keep happening?"
"No," Penelope snapped, hurriedly re-gathering her clothing and dignity. "Never again, you squalid, graceless... American."
And then, as if it hardly mattered, he replied,
"Right. Never mind, then."
"Never mind what?"
He shook his blond head, dressing as matter-of-factly as though he'd just been round to the doctor's for a physical.
Now in a really towering pique, and fighting not to show it, she demanded,
"No. I wish to hear what you'd meant to say. Never mind what?"
"Nothing, really. I was just going to ask your name. Because it's less awkward thinking: 'look, there's... Samantha', instead of: 'hey, there's that girl with the Halloween outfits that jumps me every time we run into each other'."
Snatching a handy lab coat from the brass door hook, Penelope whipped it over her designer ensemble, snapping,
"And you can jolly well go to your grave wondering!"
Meant it, too; for all of a day or so.
They met again, because her next several assignments involved corporate espionage, and... once... the US space program.
She'd been given a new cover identity and sent to Cape Canaveral, in Florida. There, Penny was to have a go at locating the astronaut son of an American multi-billionaire. The father was Jeff Tracy, an aerospace giant whose intelligence connections and staggering wealth had rendered extremely interesting to WorldGov (another of her paying clients). Powerful as he was, they had absolutely nothing on him, no hold whatsoever, a situation that had to be remedied.
This fabulously rich king-maker had several sons, about whom very little was known, except that one had served in some branch of the American military, and another (her mark) flew a bit for NASA. Other than that... data, pictures, even names seemed to keep getting wiped, and the people who'd have known the privileged little 'Daddy's Boy' had been paid off, and well guarded. 750 billion dollars bought a lot of privacy.
Penelope's surprise was considerable, then, when she slipped into the Cape and entered a simulator building, only to see him. He was rather pathetically disguised in a royal blue astronaut jumpsuit and faked ID tag. As if that limp charade wouldn't collapse the instant someone challenged him. More seriously, though, judging by the name on his tag and jumpsuit, he'd apparently gotten there first and made off with her mark, the mysterious, 'J. Tracy'.
So, outfitted this time in an irresistible combination of white lab coat, high heels, tortoise-shell glasses and long, red wig, Penelope went forth to battle. She had to follow for quite some time,observing several alarming flight simulations, before catching her nemesis alone in some sort of bland littlewashroom. A bit out of breath, (she'd been challenged by security, and had to employ charm and accent to their fullest) Penelope 'd had to race to keep him in sight. He seemed genuinely startled to see her.
"Don't tell me you've given up the jet-set club scene, just for me," the enemy agent remarked sarcastically.
"You're flattering yourself, Dear," she snapped back, making a minor adjustment to one of her rings. "I couldn't be less interested if you were a desiccated animal corpse by the side of the road."
"Uh-huh. So, why'd you follow me into the men's room, then?"
Truly inspired, Penelope converted anger into feigned shock, her blue eyes growing wide with startled fear as she stared past his right shoulder. Half pivoting, he turned his head to look behind, catching on to her ruse just too late.
The exposed length of neck (8 kisses from the base of his throat to the corner of his mouth) was struck at with snake-like speed, pierced by the tiny needle in her signet ring. He collapsed immediately, felled by a subtle neurotoxin whose efficacy made it the weapon of choice among kidnappers the world over. No doubt he'd used it himself to subdue and transport her mark.
"Parker," Penelope whispered into her earpiece, as the false Tracy sagged in her straining grip, "come at once. I need you."
He awoke when she allowed him to, in the back seat of her aging limousine, parked somewhere along route A1A. Patting him down had yielded no secrets, as he carried a weapon, but no ID beyond the faked tag. More annoyingly still, his chip was encrypted, unreadable. No help for it then, she'd had to bring him around.
As he sat up, awareness and caution in every taut line, she handed him a bottle of water.
"Drink it all," she ordered crisply. "The 'hangover' vanishes, onceyou've rehydrated."
He obeyed, less to be cooperative than to drive away a jackhammer headache, then set down the bottle, saying,
"Now what?" There was no hint of teasing in his voice or expression. He looked, instead, like a man who expected the worst, and was prepared to meet it, head on.
Penny had seated herself across from him, on the battered leather bench seat that fronted the wet bar. She bore no obvious weapons, issued no direct threats, but she meant business, nevertheless.
"Now," she replied, "You tell me what you've done with him."
"Him?" A faintly puzzled look brushed the agent's face (really, these affected poses of his were utterly transparent).
"Him. J. Tracy, the billionaire junior astronaut. Kudos, I must admit, for getting to him first, but no marks at all for attempting to snare me with this foolish disguise. Where has he been taken?"
All at once, his entire aspect changed. A cloud had vanished, and he returned once more to his usual maddening calm.
"Beats the hell out of me," he replied, a corner of his mouth quirking upward slightly. "I just work here."
"Why," she groused feelingly, "Must you be so damnably difficult? All that I require is a location. I am not even attempting to interrogate you, you wretched, insufferable ingrate, and still you refuse to cooperate."
For just an instant, she feared that he was going to laugh. Then he leaned back against the tan leather seat, saying,
"God's honest truth, Party Girl, I'm not really sure where he is. The matter is... um... out of my hands."
"Lovely. So, you pinched the wealthy little cretin, handed him off, then waited about, thinking to trap any late-come rivals, only to be caught, yourself. The CIA will be ever so proud." (She was guessing, about the agency, but he seemed too thoroughly American to be Interpol.)
Not that WorldGov secret ops was likely to be pleased, either. And, no mark meant no money. Growing dejected, Penny continued,
"What am I to do, then? Your CIA, FBI or whatever it is, now has power over one of the wealthiest, most influential men on the planet! And I have nothing to bring back, but defeat."
Spying the vehicle's refrigerator, he shot her a questioning glance.
"As you will." There was nothing left in there, anyway, but half a bottle of white retsina. Not the best quality, but all she could afford at the moment. Time, and profligate heirs, had not been kind to the Creighton-Ward fortune.
He fetched two crystal tumblers from the bar, and poured them each a strong, warming drink of pine-flavored wine.
"So, what did you want with... 'him', anyway?"
Penny sipped dejectedly, sifting through a handful of rapidly shrinking options.
"Me? Nothing whatever. The little rotter was nothing more than a mark, which, once again, you've beaten me to. Congratulations. I'd have turned him in, collected my fee, and paid a number of bills."
He sighed, bolted his drink, then poured himself another; sat gazing around at the car's once-grand interior.
"Strictly business, huh? Assassinations, beddings... all just a job?"
Now, that was going too far, and she wouldn't stand for it. Damned 'holier-than-thou' Yank!
"Don't pretend to me that you do otherwise," Penelope snapped, as he rose to switch seats. She felt alone and tired enough, just then, to let him put an arm around her.
"The moment one allows sentiment to cloud the issue," she continued, nestling close,"one begins to slow. Lose enough steps, and someone faster, harder and less merciful will mow you at the root, like hay."
"I'll try to keep that in mind," he said, beginning to kiss her. Then, "I lied."
"About Tracy. I blew the assignment, scared him off. That's why I was hanging around the Space Center. Just trying to find out where he might have gone to ground; if there's a family compound nearby, or something. Sorry. Me ineptum."
He gave her a quizzical, sideways glance.
"You speak Latin?"
"Ita vero, Comes. Doesn't everyone?" Then, "endless declensions at the local parochial school."
"Well," he admitted, returning to the point, and her mouth, "you didn't miss anything... with Tracy, I mean... He's kind of a weasel. Strikes from behind, or above... and doesn't like getting his hands dirty. Doubt his father would've paid much for him, anyway."
Had she been clearer-headed, Penelope would have made the connection, but it was growing very hard to think. What he'd learned from their previous encounters was being put to immediate, masterful use. That day, she discovered that all he need do was touch her, cup chin or breast, and pull her close, and she was lost.
The next time, though, nearly finished them; and it was her fault, entirely.
WorldGov wanted another go at the mighty Jeff Tracy, and so did British Intelligence. She received an assignment from each of them. Tricky, but potentially very profitable. She was to infiltrate Tracy Aerospace, getting close enough to the old man to establish a relationship and gain a measure of trust. Then, once firmly ensconced, Penelope could begin feeding information to her employers, detailing Tracy's business dealings and power brokering. Needless to say, no one was aware of how desperately she was playing both ends against the middle, or why.
So, to work, then. With borrowed finery and altered gowns, with outright thefts on Parker's end, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward decked herself out like an heiress, and set out to trap her man. She spent a terribly expensive summer on the French Riviera, where a conference was being held among CEOs of the world's largest multi-national corporations.
With this ruse and that, attending soirees and galas and yacht parties, Penny arranged to meet her latest mark. He was quite a handsome man, tall and oddly familiar, though she couldn't decide why. He had a rich, warm, deep voice that made her insides tremble, and her toes curl within their Manolo Blahnik slippers.
His hair was grey, his eyes brown, and his shoulders broad. He dressed impeccably, and lived well. All in all, seducing Jeff Tracy should have been easy, and pleasant... except that it wasn't.
He squired her about Monaco and the south of France for over a week. Took her flying, boating, and to gourmet restaurants whose prices would have drained the treasury of, say, Belize.
He was witty, charming and sophisticated... But always, always, she 'accidentally' stopped things before they went too far.
Too much champagne, a lost heirloom bracelet, a sudden bout of sea sickness, an emergency phone call; something always prevented them from 'closing the deal'. Accustomed to easy victories, Jeff was puzzled, but intrigued enough that he invited her to his private island, once the conference concluded.
Penny accepted, of course; what else could she do? And that's when the trouble began.
Jeff had her flown in by corporate jet, she and Parker and Elspeth Morgan, her long-unpaid maid. He met them at the airstrip himself, tanned and handsome in casual resort wear pricier than most people's entire vacations.
"Lady Penelope!" He greeted her warmly, stooping to kiss her cheek. "I'm so very glad you could make it."
She was dressed attractively in clothing and jewels that Parker had burglarized Harrods to get for her. A crisp, peek-a-boo linen suit in soft pink (Chanel couture) accented with white Costanca Basto sling-backs, silk hose and Suzanne Felsen diamonds made her look like a young princess. The hair-do, a graceful up sweep, finished her look; wealthy, carefree and beautiful.
"Thank you, Jeff, and ever so lovely to see you, again. How simply divine it must be, having such an adorable little hideaway!"
He laughed easily, putting a big hand to her shoulder. Parker stiffened slightly, but she gave him a swift look from behind her Prada sunglasses that said, 'stand down' as clearly as though she'd shouted it. He relaxed. A little.
Jeff gave the servants a genial nod, then drew Penelope to the car, a monstrous green affair that probably consumed a tank of petrol just crossing the street. They chatted lightly all the way up to the house, which wasn't as big or elegant as Creighton-Ward Manor, but in far better condition.
'Money,' she decided miserably, 'makes every difference in the world.'
Inside, she roiled with pre-battle tension. There was a secret here, other than the ones she'd been sent to ferret out. Something lay hidden behind Jeff's smile and expansive banter, lurked under frowning volcano and light-dappled greenery, was submerged beneath sparkling blue water. She felt it, as only a trained intelligence agent would. Perhaps, Penny reflected, there was more to the assignment than she'd first realized. Much more.
On the outside, there wasn't a breezier, less troubled soul on the island. Directing her servants with such noble assurance that she seemed an empress, at least, Penelope had her Louis Vuitton luggage conveyed upstairs.
Then, it was time for a short tour and a light lunch with, as Jeff put it,
"The boys. All of them."
Something in the way he said this made her think that the family didn't always heel to his whistle.
The lunch took place in a large, sunny room graced with many open windows, a terra cottafloor and cozy furnishings. Every detail breathed comfort and money the way the fine cognac she sipped breathed its heady perfume. Summoned by Jeff's oriental manservant, 'the boys' began to arrive.
"Ah," the elder Tracy remarked, smiling broadly, "Here they come. Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, permit me to introduce my oldest son, Scott; the fighter pilot..."
Scott was dark haired and handsome, with blue-violet eyes that startled her like some chain-dragging apparition. Smiling, the young man took her extended hand and clasped it, briefly.
"A pleasure to meet you, Lady Penelope," he said, honestly seeming to mean it.
"The pleasure is mine, Scott. Your father must be terribly proud to have a decorated hero in the family."
Puzzled, Scott Tracy smiled over at Jeff.
"You told her about that?" he enquired, looking rather embarrassed.
Jeff seemed equally surprised, as well he might. The information hadn't come from him, but from one of Scott's former squad mates, a garrulous fellow with a penchant for rough, foreign pubs.
"I suppose I must have," Jeff mused. "Too much champagne and caviar, probably."
A polite, relieved laugh softened the matter, but Penelope gave herself a furious mental kick. Socialites did not study dossiers! Another son was brought forward, then, quelling the self-recriminations.
"This is Virgil, my third born, and state-side property manager. He flies, paints, and plays the piano. A true renaissance man."
Virgil's hair was brown, as were his thoughtful eyes. In face and body, he most strongly resembled his father, only bigger. Absolute bear of a young man, who looked well able to bench press a Clydesdale.
"Good to meet you, Lady Penelope."
Virgil Tracy gave her hand a brief squeeze, his voice quiet, his gaze slightly troubled. Understandable, Penny supposed; if the boys recalled their late mother with any fondness at all, her presence here could hardly be comforting.
"And the shadow, over there, is my other son, John. He completed astronaut training a few months ago, and claims to be working on his PhD. More of an eternal student, if you ask my bank account..."
She didn't hear the rest, made it through the remaining introductions with hellish difficulty.
J. Tracy. John. Him.
The look in his violet eyes, as he folded his arms and gave her a brief, silent nod was... what? Betrayed? Angry? Scornful? She honestly couldn't tell.
Penelope's heart clenched. He certainly knew more than enough to sink her, and the assignment... If he chose to speak.
Penny chattered and laughed, sipped and swallowed, exactly as though the floor hadn't been yanked from beneath her feet, leaving her to crash upon the jagged emotions below.
Jeff three times apologized for his son's surliness, until John excused himself from the table, and left the room. Only much later that night, 'a trifle fatigued by the long flight', was she able to slip off and seek him out.
Tense and quiet, Penny searched the house, warning Parker to be ready with a diversion, in case she seemed about to be caught. This wasn't the way things were supposed to have happened...!
She discovered him, at last, in a small book-lined room. He was seated in a leather chair, reading. Judging from the open decanter on the table at his left, he'd been drinking, as well.
With a very deep breath, Penny entered the room, shutting the door behind her. Here was her chance, but everything she wanted to say sounded utterly moronic, and dry as dust.
"John...," she whispered finally, trying the name asthough it was something strange and exotic. "I had always thought that you... rather seemed more of an 'Anthony'."
There was no expression on that beautiful face, and at first, no response. Penny tried again.
"Do say something, please. I have no idea what you're thinking, just now."
When he replied, it was quiet and savage as a dagger wound. Rising, he said,
"So... Now you're doing 'business' with my father. Is this another job, or are you after his money?"
Her hand encountered something heavy, which she took up and threw. The missile crossed the distance between them as words could not, striking him a glancing blow to the face. (Glancing, only because he ducked aside; her aim had been true.)
He ought to have raged at her, fought back with words or weapons, threatened to reveal her to his father... But John Tracy did none of these things. Instead, as the glass ashtray shattered on the floor behind him, he turned aside and walked off. His face was cut, high up on the right cheek bone, and blood was spotting his white shirt. Silently, he went to the library's small bathroom, fetched a washcloth, and ran the tap.
Cold hands tied a knot in her stomach as Penelope followed.
"I beg your pardon. Truly. I lost control for a bit. It's simply that... don't you see... You weren't supposed to turn up here. Not as his son."
He looked up, meeting her reflected gaze in the bathroom mirror. And he had no business, with his gashed face and slightly drunken glare, to seem so desirable.
"Would it have mattered?" He demanded suddenly, "If you'd known it was me? Or would you have taken the job, and come after his money, anyhow?"
She bit her lip, but stood fast. There had to be a way to make him see...!
"You have no right, living here, having all this, to despise me for what I've had to do." Her slim shoulders began to shake, but she forced herself not to cry.
"The family fortune is gone. They spent and gambled it away, generation after generation, one stupid risk after another, until all that's left is the manor, the name... and a few loyal servants."
He went back to washing the cut, apparently unmoved. Spotting a medicine cabinet, Penny fetched out a bottle of alcohol and some gauze. Then, taking John by the shoulders, she pulled him around and began setting things right.
"It would have mattered. It does matter... but there's no need to be tiresome about what can be dealt with in... in a civilized manner."
The cut wasn't deep, and quickly stopped bleeding, but she stuck a plaster on it, anyway, her touch lingering and soft.
"After all," she soldiered on, essaying a weak smile, "such arrangements are made in all of the noblest European families. It began as a job, and I'm obligated to report a bit of information, but once that's done with, we..."
"Who hired you, this time?" He cut in, fierce and abrupt.
"British Intelligence... and WorldGov."
"To do what?" She'd received friendlier looks over the muzzle of a pistol. "Get in, gather intelligence, then sell him out? With maybe a wedding and blackmail on the side? That it?"
Penny had finished with the first aid.
"I didn't know him, then," she whispered. "He was just another mark, targeted for espionage and infiltration. And... yes. If a wedding could have been contrived... to save the manor and the family name... I should have done so. No blackmail, however. I am not a whore, whatever you may think. I'd have remained wed, produced an heir, paid my creditors... and got on with life, as people do. Life with you, perhaps. Discreetly, of course."
A good plan, and a salvageable one, if only he'd keep his knowledge to himself, and cooperate.
"In Europe, John, marriages are often matters of economic convenience, and when the rice has settled, and the fortunes are secured, husband and wife can then..." she faltered, unable to continue.
"So... you want to go on reporting to British Intelligence and WorldGov... spy on Tracy Aerospace, marry my father... and do me on the side?"
All at once stiff and proper and utterly furious, she retorted,
"Nasty, crass, common little way of putting things, haven't you? Very well, as you seem determined to be obstinate, I shall pack my belongings, make my excuses, and..."
"How much do you need?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"How... much... money?"
Penelope's gaze dropped to the marble-tiled floor, and her little ringed hand (the neurotoxic one) tightened on the black counter top. She couldn't quite bring herself to answer. Losses, incurred by her family since roughly the fourth crusade, had left the estate destitute almost beyond salvage. It wasn't her fault, yet she was terribly embarrassed, and lived in dread of the matter becoming common knowledge. With no way to afford the glittering court appearances that brought royal favor, and parents who'd long since left this world, she'd had to fend for herself. Penny had kept up appearances and worked like an army... but it had been so terribly difficult, and isolating.
"Stop emoting, and talk to me. You were willing to sell yourself to my father, you can talk hard cash with me." His voice roughened just a bit, as he added, "Strictly business, Party Girl."
"John... I thank you..., but your trust fund and astronaut's salary are hardly likely to cover it. Only a fortune such as your father's..."
"I could buy him out tomorrow." His tone was flat, and certain. "He's kept the company this long, because I haven't made my move, yet."
Then, he stalked from the bathroom, returning to the half-emptied decanter. Curious, Penelope followed.
"Why?" She asked, accepting a sip of brandy from his glass.
He shrugged, then bolted the remains of the drink.
"Not sure... I've spent years piling that money up, got to the top of the mountain," he mimed holding a rifle, peering through the imaginary scope. "Got him in the cross-hairs..., but I'm not pulling the trigger, and I don't know why."
She hugged herself, looking up at a torn and conflicted, beautiful young man.
"Perhaps," she suggested, "It is enough to know that you could, if you wished to?"
"Whatever." He'd dropped the phantom weapon. "Back to finance. How much do you need?"
Swallowing hard, the proud, lonely young woman replied in a shaky voice,
"To pay the back taxes and creditors, restore the manor, the car and the grounds... and pay my servants... perhaps 270 million. But..."
"What's the account number?"
He'd pulled a slim data pad from his pocket, was punching up one of his many banks. Once she'd told him, John transferred funds. He hardly felt it, would make twice that amount back on interest before the night was out. She tried to thank him, but all he said was,
"This is how it's going to be: First, nothing gets told to your other employers about Tracy Aerospace. Second, you go to my father and ask him for an operative position in 'the family business'. He'll be surprised, at first, but just play along, and answer the questions. You're a smart girl; you'll figure it out. And don't mention my name; you'll get a better seat."
Then, frowning at the floor for a bit, turning the glass this way and that in the golden lamplight,
"Marry him, or not. Whatever. As long as it's not about money. I'll keep my mouth shut."
She waited. A high, cold fluttering filled her chest, like a small caged bird dashing itself against the bars. But he said nothing further.
"Is there no other option? No 'door number three'?" She asked softly, still confused by her sudden freedom. Tentatively, Penny put a hand forth, and touched his expressionless face.
And she learned that night, that a broken thing might be mended, but that it would never again be the same.