I hoped to start posting this the day after Christmas. However, it proved longer and more complicated than anticipated.
BTW, I already have a few notes on Masks XX. :-)
A Disturbance of the Peace
As usual, I was the first one active in the morning. For someone who was physically superhuman, Sally was a real slug-a-bed. Even after actually waking up she liked to lay in bed, dozing and occasionally rolling over. Making dramatic moans in protest of the coming of day. I had breakfast ready by the time she staggered into my apartment's kitchen. I suspect the aromas were what finally roused her. She entered, stopped, and stared at me blankly for a long moment, then winced.
"Right. You wanted to cuddle."
"Actually, you wanted to cuddle," I smirked.
The plates were already on the table; I was putting the cooking gear in the sink when she entered. We were both dressed in panties and long-sleeved blouses. Though I filled mine out better.
"I have never done that," she said, as she sat at the kitchen table. I took a moment to note that after only a few days habits were already setting in; she had her favorite seat picked out. "Not in college. Not even as a kid at slumber parties. I think you just have a perverted idea of what goes on between two women who happen to be in bed together."
"Maybe," I admitted, with a grin. I shrugged, well aware of the effect the material sliding across my generous bosom was producing. "There are simply times I like being a woman."
"You've probably spent more of your life as a woman than I have," she said, suspiciously, as I sat across from her.
"My dear," I said, smirking, "I've probably fucked more guys than you have."
"That's... weird," Sally said, digging in. Refreshingly, she didn't seem particularly bothered by that revelation.
"You knew my history was as weird as I am going into this relationship."
"Fair enough," she said. I'd learned by now that her saying this meant she'd had enough of a topic.
We ate in silence for a while.
"Aren't you going to ask me?" I said, finally, as we finished.
"Ask you what?"
"What the difference is?"
"I worked with a shapeshifter before. They bragged that it's the variety that's important. While insisting they always be referred to in the plural."
"That's true," I said, nodding. "About the variety, I mean."
"I do have a question, though."
"How can you change your hair like that? Hair is dead tissue."
"Same way I change my fingernails," I said, wiggling my digits. "Same way my teeth change, even though enamel is also dead tissue. Same way I change my mass."
"In other words, you don't know."
I laughed and went back to my meal.
"I'm just glad the Montgomery cleanup is still going on," she muttered, a few moments later.
"Don't you wish it was all over with?" I said, curious. "That's the attitude of most people. So they don't have to pay attention to their purported leaders again. Get back to their own interests without that unpleasant distraction."
"Yeah, if it were actually over with. I thought they'd find a way to shuffle it over to one side and just go on like always. Instead, they're moving slowly, but it's going ahead, and they're being thorough about it. Lots of people being investigated for undue influence on political parties, new security measures are in place... Hopefully we can have a least mostly fair politics for a while."
"I hate to disillusion you," I said, gathering some omelet on my fork, "but 'fair politics' is an oxymoron. While this farce is nearly over, there's plenty more going on. It just part of human nature."
She finished - eating much more than I had in a bit less time - got up and headed to the sink. Fortunately, by now I had a good idea of her appetite... and appetites. After a moment I joined her with my own dishes. I thought about playfully bumping hips with her but decided she might take it wrong. Besides, just then, the phone rang. I dumped my dishes and headed for the kitchen extension. I just caught Sally's amused smile and rolling of the eyes as I grabbed on the handset. Yes, it's an old-fashioned landline, wall-mounted phone, with corded receiver, an actual rotary dial and analog-to-digital converter. Most of my phones are modern cordless units, but I happen to like this one and keep it in the kitchen wherever I live. It was made in an age when phones were intended to be pretty much eternal and indestructible. It had even survived the brothel fire, and still smelled faintly of smoke. It also had the best sound quality of any of my phones.
I was surprised when I saw the caller ID on the converter display. I even thought about not answering. Then, with a sigh, I lifted the handset.
"This is Brade, head of the Bureau of Special Resources," said the deep-voiced woman. "I wish to speak with Lawrence Hawthorne."
There was the slightest pause. Followed by a tired sigh.
"Larry, we have a situation and I need you to look into it."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You may have heard about a super attack on a board meeting..."
"Sorry. Been busy and not keeping up with the news."
"Could you please change back to your base form?" she said, icily. "This is disconcerting."
I sighed and shifted. Thanks to my magic ring my clothes still fit properly, though they were now definitely too feminine for the normal me.
"Okay. The news accounts say it was a rogue super who killed several influential businessmen in Seattle then herself. What they haven't released yet is that the supposed attacker is Doro, and she's still alive. Barely."
"Wait. That sweet kid who lost her husband in that big attack on the Shilmek?"
"Yeah. I know she didn't do it. Thing is, while the Bureau has hired an attorney for her, we don't have an office in Seattle. Also, if this is a setup whoever is behind it is likely watching us, so any investigation the Bureau or probably any other government agency conducts will be known and probably interfered with. We are, of course, investigating, but we want someone independent to check as well."
"I'm not a licensed detective."
"No, but you know more about detective work than 90% of licensed detectives. If you want I'll put you on payroll as a consultant, but I'd rather arrange that later. Right now I don't want any connection between the Bureau and you."
"Money isn't a problem," I noted, beginning to feel outraged. I didn't know her well, but Doro had a good rep and had been through Hell the past few years. She might be a mask but by all accounts she was one of the better ones, and certainly didn't deserve this. "I also have some non-bureau help I can call on. Send the particulars to my private e-mail account and I'll get right on it."
She confirmed the e-mail address and rung off.
"What?" said Sally.
"How'd you like a job?" I said. "Safeguarding me while I investigate an anti-governmental conspiracy?"
"Well, I don't know if it's directly against the government. It's definitely against a federal agent."
I gave her the brief as we walked to my study. Once I had the computer booted I opened my e-mail client. Among several other messages, there was Brade's. It wasn't even the latest. I saved the attachment she sent, then started printing it.
"Wow," said Sally, as she saw the details. "Someone really did a number on those poor guys. As well as Doro."
"Five will get you fifteen it was all done with weapons, rather than super fists and feet," I said. "The autopsy will show that, if so. Something most people don't realize."
We made some general plans. Then I looked down at myself.
"Guess I better put on something more appropriate."
"Can we have a little more fun, first?" said Sally, tracing the line of my jaw with a fingertip.
"I suppose we can work that in," I replied, grinning.
* * *
"I can't believe you're a woman, again."
She spoke in a low voice as we walked through the Reno–Tahoe International Airport.
"It's a disguise," I replied, also quietly. "Lawrence Hawthorne is a known associate of several people from the Bureau. Lorraine isn't."
"Why a woman, though?" she persisted.
"Are you mad 'cause I'm built better than you?" I asked, teasing.
"I think you just like making me uncomfortable."
"Or maybe I'm just making sure you keep your mind on my safety, instead of my cock."
"You're the one who keeps thinking about - or with - your cock," she muttered, irritated. "Even when you don't have one."
"As a woman, you should know - and you have definitely demonstrated - that a cock is not necessary to have a libido."
I had contacted some folks I knew in the SeaTac area on the QT, not even mentioning I would be coming there. Then I made the plane and hotel reservations in my Lorraine Hawthorne ID. While connecting my base self or the Bureau with this trip by a pair of women was possible, it would not be easy. I'd also most likely be notified if someone came sniffing around these preparations.
For this trip Sally Driscoll was Sandy Hawthorne, Lorraine's niece. I had no trouble keeping to the role of aunt, and Sally certain didn't reveal any relationship more intimate than that in her behavior. I was actually appreciating "Sandy's" solid sexual identity for this trip, since that greatly helped with this pretense.
We checked in at the gate and confirmed the arrival time.
"We've got over an hour," I said, airily, as Lorraine would. "Want to try my frequent flyer club?"
That she did. We both sat in cool, quiet comfort, snacking and drinking and chatting. Given her superhuman metabolism and my regeneration, neither of us was feeling more than a bit relaxed from a fairly substantial amount of alcohol when we finally boarded. The flight was uneventful and even pleasant.
"I think I like your life," said "Sandy" almost purring as she stretched out her legs and settled into the well-padded seat.
"Always fly first class," I said, also enjoying myself as I settled in for the short flight. We were both tall for women, and enjoying this minor luxury. "The extra room alone is worth it."
* * *
I had a reserved a double business suite at a nice hotel. There were two bedrooms, each with a sizable bathroom, plus a central area with two desks, a large-screen TV, and a wet bar with refrigerator and small stove. We also had smaller TVs in each bedroom. After putting my clothes away I briefly tried out the bed and found that it definitely met my approval.
I had kept to my "Aunt Lorraine" role the whole flight, then at the SeaTac airport, on the cab ride to the hotel, during check-in and even as we unpacked, cleaned up and got ready to go out. Much to Sandy's disappointment. She'd wanted a little post-flight coitus.
"Sorry. Business before pleasure."
"Speaking of business, where's that big gun of yours?"
"Back home, in the gun safe," I told her, flatly. "Washington State does not recognize Nevada's concealed carry."
"You mean you're defenseless?" said Sally, startled.
"Not at all. I have my wits and my powers and you."
"Oh." She sighed, possibly due to previous experience with weapons regulations. Her next words seemed to confirm that suspicion. "I packed my sword, but know to leave it here unless I really need it. So, are going to the scene of the crime?"
"No. Our first move - the first several, in fact - will be to check with others to see what they already know. That will let us avoid at least some duplication of effort and possibly point us in the right direction. Also, if our investigation finds something different from what they tell us that could be a clue."
"Although the clue might just be that someone was incompetent."
"Right," she said, nodding.
She had a professional attitude when on the job or receiving instructions. I suspected she wanted to move out of the celebrity bodyguard profession and into something more proactive. She'd certainly shown interest in both Mack Risk and my own, less extensive, investigations during her short time with me. Sally was particularly receptive to advice on practical security measures. Speaking of which...
"Make sure you turn off your computer, your tablet, anything with information on it which you're leaving here," I told her. "Don't count on the screen saver."
* * *
We took a taxi to a department store, walked through the store - though with stops, some planned, some "Oooohhh, doesn't that look nice..." on both our parts - then out the other side and down the block to a bus stop. This much I had plotted out ahead of time, downloading maps and schedules for the Seattle bus system and printing them while still at home.
A short bus ride later and we were in a rather less upscale part of town. Though one where we were still not out of place.
"Keep an eye out," I said as we turned down a surprisingly clean and tidy alley.
Under my supervision she quickly made some changes in her clothing and hair which altered her appearance enough to confuse most observers. Then I changed to my base form, my clothing changing with me, but into something very different from my usual style.
"You look a bit like a pimp," said Sally, smirking.
"The clothes change isn't a miracle," I said, paraphrasing John Love, who had given me the ring. I hadn't explained how my clothing changed with my form and while she had remarked on that ability Sally hadn't pursued the matter. She apparently considered that part and parcel of the ability which let me change my hair and nails. "Actually, for our disguise that impression is appropriate."
"Don't worry; no experienced john would actually mistake me for a pimp," I said, tone reassuring. "Nor you for a hooker."
She muttered something which might have been "They better not."
"Well, we fit in like this. That's the important part."
The other end of the alley let out into an area a bit shadier than the one we had left, though one which was still not low class. Definitely not. I consulted the map I had printed before leaving my home near Reno and we quickly found the address. This was a small office building, with businesses on both the ground floor and the second. The latter was what we wanted, and I led us to the access for the stairway.
I pushed the button on the intercom set into the wall beside the locked door.
"Larry Hawthorne to see Silvio."
There was a slight pause.
"Come on up."
There was a click and a buzz from the door. I opened it for Sally and we entered. On the other side was a steep, narrow set of stairs. No handrail; poor lighting; walls close on either side.
"Just who is this guy?" said Sally, quietly, as we climbed.
"Information broker. Mostly legit."
At the top of the stairs was a short hallway, clean and well lit. Three unlabelled doors were on the left side; on the right were restrooms. Straight ahead was a fancy, glass door with the names of the business' owners, in alphabetical order, last name and first initial only. The business itself was unnamed. I pushed through, then again held the door open for Sally.
"Larry!" came the clear, tenor greeting, in a midwestern twang with a trace of Hispanic accent. "Good to see you again!"
"Hello, Gordo," I said, using his nickname as I smiled and accepted his hearty handshake. "Yeah, since you moved up here we don't see much of each other."
He was about my height and very stocky, and much darker than my rather English complexion, looking to be vaguely forty to fifty in age. While he was a bit pudgy there was also muscle under there and anyone who underestimated either his physical or mental prowess would likely come to regret it.
"And who is this? Your client?"
"Would you believe she's my bodyguard?"
He laughed, but I knew he had quickly sized both of us up and likely spotted that she was very fit. Since he knew me, he most likely also suspected she was a physical super.
"Come on into my office and take a load off."
His office was nearly as big as my entire apartment back home. I figured he was the senior partner, since the room seemed to take up a good third of the upper floor of the building.
We chatted for a while, mainly gossip about what old friends and acquaintances and even enemies were up to, as well as the general state of Nevada, the US and the world. Soon enough, though, it was time to get down to business.
"I know you left Nevada due to the crackdown," I said, by way of redirecting conversation.
"I was already making preparations after your place burned," he replied, good mood gone. "There were other signs, but that..."
"I think someone in this area is trying to spark another crackdown." That brusqueness was partly to get to the topic I wanted and partly to get away from some very unpleasant memories.
"You mean the attack on Corporate Salvage," he said, nodding. "Yeah. Completely out of character for someone like Doro."
Her name had still not been officially released in connection to the crime, but I wasn't surprised he knew it.
"You got anything on that?"
He gave me a long, evaluating look. Then spared Sally another. He nodded.
"Yeah. Okay, one confirmed fact is that someone - as yet unidentified - tried to bribe the chief coroner for Seattle to falsify the report on the bodies. Someone - maybe the same someone - also tried to bribe the doctor in charge of Doro's case at the trauma center where spent the first couple of days after the event to say she'd done it to herself. Both men raised stinks, got called on the carpet by their bosses, then the bosses had to pull back when the situations were made public by some good newspaper reporting. Most of it by a guy named Ernest Chiodini. All of this is still just in the local news only, so far, with little reaching the attention of the larger media circles."
"What does that company do, anyway?"
"They buy up businesses in trouble," said Gordo, with a sour expression, "and salvage them. Fire the employees, then cash in all assets, sell off all properties. They use the money from that to pay the company's debts and pocket the rest. Which can be a substantial amount, but is rarely what the company is actually worth. Oh, and they usually find a way to cheat the former employees out of any company based retirement benefits."
"All of which generates profit for those involved in the looting of the company," I said, nodding, "but is bad for business as a whole in the area. Not to mention the working population."
I'd seen this before, unfortunately.
"That's the consensus. There are a lot of people who aren't sad to see that company take a hit."
He may have used that phrase deliberately.
"What has Doro said about her involvement?"
"That is being kept very secret," said Gordo. "Even her attorney has barely been able to talk to her. Of course, part of that silence is due to her injuries."
"Is she safe in the prison hospital?"
"Probably safer than in a public hospital," said Gordo, confidently. "They're used to protecting those in their care from attempts by other prisoners or people on the outside while the patients are helpless."
I nodded, sitting back a bit.
"Is her attorney legit?"
"I know people who have tried to... influence him and have not only failed but had him make trouble for them," said Gordo, with an amused smile.
I had the distinct feeling he knew better than to try and bribe or intimidate the man and got a warm, fuzzy feeling when someone less informed didn't.
We spoke for nearly an hour, but he'd given us the most firm information right at the beginning. The rest was inferences and guesswork. Except that he also gave us the contact info of the local reporter he had mentioned earlier.
"Thanks, Gordo," I said, rising. I extended my hand. "I owe you big time for this."
"You catch whoever did this and we're square," he said, gripping my hand almost uncomfortably firmly. "I don't need the sort of trouble this could bring."
"You got it."
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