San Diego
March 2006

"There's something weird going on," Sarah said to Roxy. A light drizzle was falling; Kat had insisted on dropping them all off under the canopy in front of school and was six rows out in the lot, parking. The boys were long gone. "I noticed it yesterday. The guys are all acting strange around Anna. Lynch included." Roxy noted, not for the first time, that their guardian was "Mister Lynch" to Sarah only when she addressed him directly. "She seems really odd, too."

"Odd? Really? You know, sometimes she seems a little different to me, too. Like when she's changing a flat tire without any tools."

"Roxy, are you going to tell me you haven't noticed anything? The way they all look at one another, the way Anna's got extra touchy-feely with the boys … did you at least notice that she fixed each of them his favorite breakfast this morning?"

"Sarah, she fixes us almost anything we ask for. All you gotta do is ask."

"That's just what I'm talking about: they didn't. She filled our orders when we came to breakfast; the boys had theirs waiting when they got there. And the way they keep stealing glances at her, and looking at each other … they might as well have 'I've got a secret' tattooed on their foreheads." She glanced out towards the lot, where Kat was just backing into a space.

"So, what then? You think they've got something on her?" And why don't you want to talk about this with Kat around?

"No … not the way she's behaving around them. Lately, she can't seem to pass by one of them without touching him. A hand on the shoulder when they're talking, taking just a little too long to let go of something she hands them … this morning, she mussed Bobby's hair, Roxy. He spends fifteen minutes every morning getting it just right; besides his music, it's his only vanity. And she roughs his hair up as she's taking his plate, and he doesn't bother to straighten it out."

"Sarah, do you suppose she's feeling …" she let her eyelids droop suggestively, "stirrings?"

"Laugh if you want. It's not my boyfriend she's trading meaningful glances with."

"Well, if Bobby's not yours, he isn't anybody's." She felt her temper rising. "He treats me like a kid sister."

"He's nice enough, for a guy," she said primly. "But after we've been getting along for a while, he starts acting like a boyfriend, and that ruins it all."

Well, maybe you should give him a frickin clue what you really want from him. How many times have we all seen some version of this scene: Bobby's sitting on the couch, watching TV, minding his own business. You come in, and with about eight places to sit down, you plop down right next to him, not even looking at him, and lean on him like he was your own personal pillow. He'll spend the next ten minutes sitting there with you, not talking, not moving, hardly breathing, pretending he's still watching the screen, while he's deciding to stick with what he's got or go for what's behind the curtain. If he puts an arm around you, about half the time, you'll snuggle up, maybe even put your head on his shoulder, and he's happy as a kid on Christmas. The other half, you shrug his arm off like it's raw liver, and he feels like a total jerk. And if he decides it's just not worth the risk today, gets up and leaves the room cuz he can't stand it? You watch him leave like he said something rude before he left. You're playing with him, big time; and if I wasn't a hundred percent sure that you're doing it because you're totally screwed up in the head over him, if I thought for one second you were doing it to mess him up … you and I would be having words, Pocahontas.

"The weirdest part," Sarah continued, "is the way she's acting around Lynch. Reserved, almost. She called him 'sir' twice this morning."

"So? She calls him 'sir' all the time."

"No, Roxanne. About a month ago, she quit calling him 'sir'… and started calling him 'Jack'."

"Um … Okay. What's your point?"

"He's not reacting properly. Instead of acting snubbed, he seems … amused, like he knows they're all putting on a performance."

Kat was walking towards them; she was four cars away, but her long strides were closing the distance fast. Sarah lowered her voice, "Don't tell Caitlin about this yet. She's a brainiac, and guys start walking into the walls when she comes into a room, but she's a child about some things. You just keep your eyes open; we'll talk about it later."

Kat crossed the final stretch of asphalt to join them on the sidewalk. A half-block walk in the rain, Roxanne noted sourly, made her look even hotter: a light drizzle couldn't do much to hurt that simple hairstyle, and the damp made her clothes just clingy enough. "Kat, you could at least act like the rain bothers you."

"You're kidding, right? I was raised in Seattle. Hey, are you guys doing anything tonight? Anna wanted me to ask." As Roxanne and Sarah shared a look, she went on, "Actually, I think she wanted to do something together last night, but I had to go to the library."

Roxanne glanced again at Sarah. "I'm open."

"Me, too; nothing I can't skip, anyway. This is a bit unusual, don't you think? I mean, when was Anna ever up for a girls' night out?"

"First time for everything, I guess." Kat looked at her watch. "We'd better go." She headed towards the door, never noticing the way the crowd parted in front of her like a bow wave, guys' heads turning towards her like sunflowers to daylight.

Once again, Sarah looked at Roxanne. "Clueless."

-0-

"Ow." The new guy, one locker over from Marty, rubbed the knot on his forehead where he'd whapped it with his own locker door. "I can't believe I just did that." But he kept on staring at Kat until she was out of sight. "Who was that? And who was she waving to?"

"Caitlin Fairchild, postgrad, computer science. Minor in physics. And she was waving to me."

"Uh huh." The guy was almost as tall as Kat, and used every inch of it to look down his nose at him. He knew what the guy saw, and what he was thinking: why would a babe like that give a shriveled geek like you the time of day?

"I'm her lab partner this semester." He opened his locker. "No doubt she wants me to follow her to commons and compare notes."

The guy stuck his massive paw out. "Chad Baker."

He took it. Please don't let him be one of those hand-crunching Neanderthals; I'm already half certain he's here on a sports scholarship. "Martin Fallon, sophomore, aeronautical engineering." They gripped hands briefly. "Kind of late in the school year for a transfer."

"Yeah, well, I had to be enrolled in time for spring training."

Oh, God. A football jock. What was the Board thinking when they hired an ex-PAC Ten coach to run our anemic football team? The guy won't quit until we've got media contracts, and we're overrun with gorillas on athletic scholarships.

Chad grinned. "So… now that we know each other, how bout taking me with you to commons?"

"Are you kidding? Trying to get a seat next to her in commons is harder than crossing the freeway on foot. If I want to get any work done with her, it'll have to be after class." He started switching books from his pack into the locker, and pulling others off the shelves into the bag. "The guys who've been here a while know better than to crowd her, but there are always enough new ones to form a gauntlet."

"Didn't seem like an ice queen."

"She's not; she's nice, really nice. But she doesn't date. Ever."

"Oh, come on."

"Truth. If she ever went out with somebody after classes, it'd be all over campus by morning; there'd probably be pictures on MySpace. Except for sports, nobody sees her outside of the library after school."

"Sports girl, huh? Basketball?"

"Water polo. She's the goalie, and nobody's scored on her since the first week. We haven't lost a game since she joined. Attendance has gone up two hundred percent."

Chad grinned. "Every guy in school must go to watch her splash around in a swimsuit."

He must be here on a scholarship. "That too. Last time she lunged to catch a ball, they broke the bleachers."

"Don't suppose she's got any sisters?"

"Two, actually, half sisters I think: Roxanne and Sarah. They go here, too. Maybe three, but the oldest is out of school. She picks them up and drops them off sometimes."

"Hot?"

"Let's just say that extraordinary and exotic beauty seems to run in the family." He closed his locker door, and she was standing there, sixty-three inches from head to heels and every one of them breathtaking. He thought the lilac streaks in the hair that framed her face would probably look goofy on any other girl; on her, the effect was striking. She pinned him with those hypnotic violet eyes; he swallowed and said, "Hi, Rox."

"Hi, Marty. Seen my sister?"

"Oh, yeah," Chad said, looking at her like she was Thanksgiving dinner.

He watched her eyes darken to purple as they turned on Chad. How does she do that? "Wasn't talking to you, pencil dick."

"I think she headed for commons, not two minutes ago." Charitably, he added, "Give him a break, Rox. He's brand new."

Chad gave her a cocky grin, looking her over shamelessly as she walked past; she looked up at him coolly. "Why should I? He won't be any different a month from now. I know the type." She glided off down the hall, with the two of them watching her the whole way.

"Sweet," Chad said. "Very nice."

"Yeah. You could fall into those eyes and drown."

"I meant from this side. You could crack walnuts on that ass."

A full athletic scholarship, so he doesn't have to waste valuable practice time passing tests to stay in school. "Roxanne Spaulding; don't ask me about the last names, they must have different fathers. Junior, astrophysics. No minor, no sports, but she's taking every dance elective the school offers."

"Astrophysics?"

"Apparently brains run in the family, too."

"Dance, huh? She on the squad?"

"The cheerleading squad? We don't have one." Yet. Sorry, Chad. No stable of hotties already primed to date you.

"Too bad. See the way she was coming on to me? A chick gives a guy that much attitude, it means she's interested."

"Wouldn't bet your life. She's got a boyfriend who'll bend you till something snaps."

Chuck slapped a thigh-sized bicep. "That so?"

"Yeah. Eddie Chang, junior, materials science. Also rising star of the wrestling team; he'd be captain already, if he came to practice more often. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger, but a foot shorter. Also the alternate instructor for the karate class. About a month ago, a guy your size tried to pick a fight with him in front of Rox, showing off. I don't think the bandages are all off yet." Chad looked like the stubborn type; to give him an out, he added, "Besides, she's jailbait."

"Shittin me."

"Just turned seventeen. Told you she was smart."

"Okay," he said slowly, "what about the other sister?"

"Sarah? You'll probably bang your head again when you see her. But she's pretty much off limits too."

"What, she doesn't date either?"

"Not a lot, but some."

"Well? She doesn't date jocks, I suppose." He grinned. "Or says she doesn't."

"She only dates girls, Chad."

"Oh. What a waste."

"Girls around here don't think so, not even the straight ones. They're glad she's not in competition. Junior, meteorological science, with a social science minor; weird combination. She does all the marches and rallies, from NOW to PETA."

"Why do you keep doing that?"

"Doing what?"

"Saying what people are studying, as if it was part of their names or something."

"It's a common practice at MacArthur. It's what we're here for, after all." Most of us, anyway; academic and engineering studies are what gave this school its reputation, and the quality of its education is how they justify the tuition. If they start dumping money into fancy locker rooms and a stadium and uniforms with special shoes for Astroturf… It's the beginning of the end for this place. "What's your major?"

"Haven't decided yet." He slammed his locker and turned away without a goodbye.

Most of us had our fields picked out when we were freshmen in high school. Sounds like your major is NFL fantasies, Chad. I wonder if you had to take the same entrance exam the rest of us did, and, if so, how you passed it. He shook his head. Cheerleading tryouts are next week; all Rox has to do to get on the squad is show up. Please, God. Don't let her see the notice. Let her play hooky that day. Don't give this guy a shot at her. Let me keep my fantasies, that girls like Rox and Kat wouldn't date a shmuck like this if he was the last guy on earth.

-0-

"Jack, aren't you going out to work today?"

He untied her apron and set it on the counter. "One meet today, probably a long one; but it's local, and it won't start until at least three. Until then, we have the whole house to ourselves."

"Oho. Are you're sure you're ready, old man?" She reached up and put her hands on his shoulders. "After that encore performance last night?"

He pulled her shirt out of her slacks and slowly freed the lowest three buttons. "My doctor was most impressed with me yesterday; he seems to think I've discovered the fountain of youth." He slid his hand into her open shirt, pressing his hand against the smooth, warm skin at the small of her back. He bent and kissed the side of her neck. "Care to try something a little different?"

-0-

Four for four, he thought, totally spent. If there's some secret here that I could package and sell, I'd be a billionaire. Oh, wait, I already am. Working for IO is like working for the Medellins, only the pay is better and you've got a badge to flash.

"You know, this is the first time I've been under the sheets of my own bed." She snuggled closer, resting a hand on his chest, just over his heart. "The second week I was here, I lay down on it and closed my eyes for an hour, trying to figure out what sleep must feel like. Now, I lay clothes out on it sometimes, and change the sheets once a week." Her fingers described slow circles, combing through the damp hair on his chest. "I'm going to have to change them today, though, before the girls get home."

"Why? They don't come in here, do they?"

"No, but I've got to get all these pheromones out of the air and down the drain, or the girls will jump every time Bobby or Eddie walks into the same room."

"You can smell pheromones?"

"Well, I can detect them in the air, and I recognize them; just don't ask me to describe what they smell like. It would be like trying to describe a color in infrared, or the sound of microwaves."

"Or making love, to someone who's never done it."

"God, I was ridiculous about that. Just two nights ago …" Her hand stilled. "Jack, you know that first night, out on the couch? When I had your hand in my lap, and you asked me why I was smiling?"

"You said you might tell me later."

"Well, it's later. Right then, your pheromone count shot up. That was the first encouragement I had; it gave me enough confidence – barely – to explain my predicament, and ask you -" she slid her hand over his ribs and hugged him "- for this."

"The gods were smiling on us that night. Come to think of it, they're probably applauding right now." He tipped her head up and kissed her. Her tongue slipped past his, and she threw a leg across him. He pulled his head back slightly. "Um, need a little more recovery time than that, doll. How 'bout a shower? Care to scrub my back?" He looked at her with mock concern. "If we do anything else …You won't short out or anything, will you?"

She slapped his chest. "I take showers all the time. I don't perspire, but I get dirty just like everyone else." She sat up and whipped the sheet off the bed. "And just now, I've got sweat all over me."

"I was just wondering about water … working its way inside."

"Jack," she said, taking his hand to pull him out of bed, "I'm wet inside now."

-0-

The drive to his meeting with Colby gave Lynch a little time to clear his head. He noted that he wasn't getting much work done at home lately. Then again, he admitted to himself, he hadn't been getting much done before his housekeeper had 'redefined' their relationship; the grinding pressure had been seriously depressing him, reducing his effectiveness.

Endangering them all …

Feel ready to fight dragons now, though, don't you? Just like the doctor said …

-0-

"Well, Mister Lane – Jack - I've run every test that seems prudent, and examined you as thoroughly as I know how, given the… unusual circumstances; unless the tests come back with unexpected results, I'd have to say you're in phenomenal shape."

Lynch, sitting shirtless on the exam table, snorted. "For a man my age."

"For a man your age," Doctor Simmons agreed. He was young, probably just starting out, and eager to build his practice in a posh burg like La Jolla; one reason Anna had picked him, Lynch was sure. He was also thorough, which was another reason.

"For a man half your age, you're in merely great shape. Although, for a guy a third your age, you spike up to excellent. You wouldn't believe some of the doughy specimens who come in here for sports physicals." He touched the heavy crisscross pattern of scar tissue on Lynch's left side, across and below the ribs. "You look like a runner. Does this ever draw you up short?"

"Used to, when it was fresh. You learn to work around it."

"I'm sure. My dad's got one looks a lot like it; got it in a place called An Loc. They get all the shrapnel out?"

Lynch smiled. "I get a little extra attention at the airport sometimes."

"If you don't mind my asking, where'd you get them? Gulf?"

"First Gulf War," Lynch agreed, not quite lying.

"History's a mother, isn't it? The books all make out like you just rolled over them. Guess they didn't all surrender as soon as they saw you."

"Not quite." Certainly not the ones guarding those nuclear – tipped Hussein 3's. But somebody had to make sure those birds wouldn't fly, before the first Tomahawk left the launcher. IO lost a lot of good men on that one. He felt a pang. Almost half my team gone in an eyeblink: good men, good friends. Twenty percent casualties in the other seven X-teams, mostly in the even-numbered ones. That mystery team they sent in to disable the reactor got the job done, but they never made pickup; they must have died to a man...

"So why not do something about them, Jack? I'm guessing you could afford it. The eye's a dead loss, but you could make the facial scars almost unnoticeable."

He shifted on the table. "Well, sometimes having people not be able to look you in the eye is an advantage in negotiations. Besides, my girlfriend claims to like them." The feel of her fingers tracing those furrows had been shocking at first; but her genuine fascination had given him a feeling of almost unbearable intimacy, as if he'd been naked to her in an entirely new way.

Simmons had been about to set Lynch's file down on the counter; instead, he reopened it and glanced at something, then he did set it down.

"New girlfriend?"

"Well, we've been friends for a couple years. Things have got a lot more serious just lately."

"Younger?"

"Yeah, quite a bit, actually." This was starting to get more uncomfortable than the prostate exam. "She looks to be mid-twenties; I've never asked."

"Jack, are you two sexually active?"

"'Active' doesn't begin to describe it. Look, Doctor, I don't want to sound prudish, but are we still doing the doctor-patient thing, or are we just male bonding here?"

"I'm not trying to embarrass you. A lot of my male patients your age take up with younger women, believe me. Honesty's important between a doctor and his patient."

And how much 'honesty' are you prepared for, Doctor? Which totally true statement would send you to the phone faster: 'actually, she's not quite ten, but she's VERY mature for her age'; or 'actually, Doc, I'm screwing my robot housekeeper'?

"I think you just explained a mystery." He tapped Jack's file. "This file describes a man fighting a losing battle against the pressures of his job. Stress, fatigue, incipient alcoholism – it's all in there. I see a lot of it, practicing in a community like this: guys in entrepreneurial or upper management positions, who can't take a day off, don't sleep, and get hammered on expensive scotch before bedtime. They forget how to take care of themselves, avoid their families, and live for the job; it eats them up."

"Doc, are you sure that file's current? I haven't had a thorough physical in a while."

"Almost three years, according to what you sent me. But you have had regular consults and an array of blood and urine tests performed by a…" he looked at the chart again. "Dr. Rosie, is it?"

"Yeah." Girl, you've got a wicked sense of humor. I'd spank you, but I'd only hurt my hand.

"So I was expecting a wreck on his way to cirrhosis or a heart attack. Instead, you come in looking like a drill instructor, clear-eyed, erect, and energetic. Liver enzymes are still a bit off, but I'll bet you haven't tied one on in quite a while. Am I right?"

"Does four to six weeks count as 'quite a while'?"

"It does. So, tell me: how long ago did this 'friendship' start to turn serious?"

Do we count back from the time she started giving me massage, keeping the glass out of my hand at night, getting me comfortable with the feel of her hands? I guess we do. How long has she been planning this?

"About the same. Is that the connection you're looking for?"

"Yes. Happy, stable marriages – or love affairs - are a huge ameliorating factor for men with stressful lifestyles; statistically speaking, a well-loved man is healthier, longer-lived, more stable and more effective. There are volumes of medical research on the subject."

"There are libraries on the subject. There are decades of research by professionals all over the world, mountains of data." You weren't just trying to learn how, Anna. You were looking for a way to keep me from coming apart at the seams.

"So hang on to that girl, Jack. What she's doing for you is going a long way towards keeping you alive."

-0-

So why didn't you confront her? Lynch asked himself, as his car wound along surface streets towards his destination. When you got home last night, that would have been a perfect time, wouldn't it? At least, until you carried her to your bedroom.

Because, when you're with her, you can't believe she's not being one hundred percent real with you; it's only when you can't see her or touch her that you start thinking that maybe … maybe bedwarming is just one more feature offered by Anna the Full Service Automated Domestic Companion.

"We're going to have to talk," he said, to no one in particular. "And then, I may have to spank her. Or something."