Pink stripes jumped off the walls of the club onto the dancers, twining around them as the people gyrated to the sound of a band that would be the next big thing. Every band that played in this joint turned out to be the next big thing.
“Maxie,” Simone said as she sidled up next to me — and when this dame sidled, there wasn’t a part of your anatomy that didn’t know it.
“Pink pyros are illegal immigrants,” I said, nodding at the stripes that were slowly sucking the life out of the dancers in her club. By slowly, I mean geologically. The dancers were only losing about a minute for every ten minutes of contact, but still that’s life that can’t be begged, bargained, or stolen back.
“Maxie, they give so much in return. Besides, everyone signs a disclaimer when they come in.”
Funny, I hadn’t signed any damned disclaimer. But then I didn’t like pink pyros near me. I liked my mind-altering substances served in a glass with an olive. “Disclaimer?”
“Everyone but you. Rolfo knows not to stop you at the door.”
Rolfo and I had shared words one evening when he thought the fact he was about six inches taller than me and a whole lot bigger meant he could take me.
Someday that limp would go away. And he looked dashing with that scar across his face.
I wasn’t the nicest guy when I got riled. Easy solution: don’t rile me.
“Are we going to have a problem over the pink pyros?” Simone was doing more of her world-class sidling, and I decided to leave the immigration problems to the boys who had that word in their portfolio. Let them earn their damn pay.
“I’m looking for someone. Name of Viyelle.”
“That’s her.” She pointed to a booth in the corner where a woman who gave luscious a whole new meaning sat.
I eased Simone away, out of range of anyone who might be listening. “What can you tell me?”
She shrugged. “She started coming in about a month ago. Pretty hard core. Likes her drinks strong and her men nasty.”
She rolled her eyes at the name. “Oh, and first drink’s on the house, Maxie. For services rendered with Dahleen.”
I grinned. Dahleen had been one hell of a jerk. It had given me great pleasure to take him out for her. “I think you owe me more than one drink for him.”
She gave me the look of Simone-disgust. “I could have shot him in an alley. I was hoping for some finesse from you.”
Which was why the cops hadn’t thought I could possibly be involved. Gunning down jerks in alleys wasn’t my style; they’d expected more finesse out of me, too.
“Fine, but I’m going for premium booze this time. No stinkin’ house brand.” I leaned in and kissed her cheek.
She fidgeted. Simone was big on being the physical instigator, not so happy with others touching her first.
I decided to go for another freebie — it wasn’t that often she was in a mood to tolerate my bullshit. “You and me, kid. Someday.”
“Right.” She pushed me away. “I’ve got work to do.” She sashayed toward the bar, and I noticed that my eyes weren’t the only ones riveted to her backside — the woman’s curves had curves.
But, as fun as it was, I wasn’t here to ogle Simone. I was here for the woman in the booth. Viyelle De Lande. Trouble with a capital ooh la la.
She and my current client had unfinished business.
I strolled over and sat down across from her.
“Did I say you could sit there?”
“Did you hear me asking?”
She perked right up. Simone could call ’em: this girl liked it rough.
“There a reason you’re here? Other than to harass me?”
“Do you know a Katherine Landis?”
She made the face of general non-recognition. Her smoky blue eyes met mine with frank interest, but there was something in them that gave me the creeps.
Maybe it’s that I was looking at Katherine Landis, only Viyelle didn’t know it. I hadn’t been sure I believed the sweet kid’s story of waking up in strange beds with men who were eager to resume nasty things she’d never, ever do. She’d told me that something else, something other, was taking her over.
But looking at Viyelle, I could see it. Hell, I could practically taste it.
“You like what you see?”
“That’s pretty much guaranteed, isn’t it?” I studied her dress; it was white, obviously expensive, and looked hard to clean — in my line of work, ease of cleaning was important. Her blonde hair was pulled up in a posh way; her makeup was heavy, but well done. Ruby red lips left an imprint on her glass — single-malt scotch unless I missed my guess.
“So, why are you here?” She sipped her drink. “I take it this Katherine person has something to do with it.”
“You know about alter egos?”
She raised an eyebrow.
She smiled, a sardonic half lift of her lips, one side going just high enough to show disdain.
“Ah, now you’re getting somewhere, Mister…?”
“Norman. Maxwell Norman. But my friends call me Maxie.”
“I’m not your friend.”
“Well, my enemies tend to call me Maxie, too.”
“In other words, don’t call you Maxwell?”
“You got it.”
She looked around, suddenly batted away a pink pyro that was trolling for life energy. “I thought they were supposed to stay on the dance floor.”
“They are.” The pyro careened off her blow and headed toward me. I whispered, “I have standard bullets, and I have a class-five laser pistol. One of ’em ought to do the trick, you parasitic little worm.”
The pink pyro squeaked loudly and fled back to the dance floor.
“Guess you’re not a man to be messed with.”
“Guess not.” I nodded toward Rolfo at the door. “He can attest to that.”
Her eyes gleamed. “You were the one who messed him up?”
“Interesting.” She managed to draw out the word, curling her lips in fascinating ways as she caressed each syllable.
“Enough about me. Tell me your story.”
“Not much to tell. I’m with the Fleet.”
I tried to wrap my head around the idea of her in a uniform rather than the skintight number she was sporting. My head refused to go there.
“Seriously. I clean up well.”
“I’m sure you do.” I’d seen how well. Katherine had come into my office the way most of my clients did — tentatively, with a hushed, “Are you Mister Norman?” She’d been wearing a modest light blue dress with a little white sweater over it. Her hair had been down, her face scrubbed clean. She’d looked five shades of innocent.
A galaxy away from the woman I sat with.
“Something happened.” She leaned forward, which gave me an excellent — and I suspected deliberate — view of her cleavage. “On the last mission.”
“When was that?”
“Five weeks ago.”
“How coincidental. That’s when Katherine started having blackouts.”
Viyelle smiled. “Why are men so taken in by that sweet innocent routine?” She leaned back, diminishing the impact of her distracting, if pleasant, cleavage. “I’m the real deal. She’s the demon in possession.”
“I have to tell you, doll. If I go by looks and temperament alone, you’re the most likely to be the evil possessing thing.”
She rolled her eyes. “All right, maybe she’s not a demon. But she’s definitely an alien. I’m possessed by some prudish alien who’s intent on ruining my life.”
“Ruining your life how?”
“I have these blackouts. I wake up from them in the weirdest places.”
“Such as?” I couldn’t wait to hear what this woman considered outré.
“Such as church. Quilting parties. Soup kitchens.”
I couldn’t hide the grin.
“Hey, okay, my life — when I’m not working — is pretty wild. But it’s my life, and I have a right to keep it.”
“You’ve only been coming here a month — seems to me that goes to her claim, not yours. You’d have been a regular here if the high life had always been your thing.”
“I’ve only been assigned to this city for six weeks. It took me awhile to decide which hot spot I like best. And I was gone for a week on the mission where I picked up…her — whatever she is.”
“Where were you assigned before?” I’d be checking up on her once I got back to the office. I’d have done that already if I hadn’t been so sure Katherine had been telling me the truth. Those wide blue eyes had seemed incapable of lying. Whereas Viyelle seemed to be a pro at that — and probably a whole lot of other — vices.
I frowned. That was a posting that people vied for. You didn’t just make that up. If you wanted to disappear into a crowd you said you’d been on Luna Station, or maybe the interplanetary ferry network.
“You don’t believe me?” She leaned forward, and my eyes leapt to the cleavage that just didn’t quit. “I wouldn’t lie about that, Maxie. About other things, sure. But I’m an officer and a scientist — and a damn good one. My career matters to me. Making a difference matters to me. What I do in a place like this, well, that’s just recreation.” She tapped her lips. “I bet I know why she picked you. You must have a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. Especially if a woman asks for your help.”
I gave her my stoniest look.
“She played you.” She took my hand, her skin warm on mine, and laughed huskily. “How were you going to get rid of me?”
I hadn’t really thought that one through. I’d just heard the story, seen the tears falling from blue, blue eyes, and taken the case.
“Killing me is out. Maybe a mind sieve. Remove all the Viyelle parts?” She smiled. “It’s what I’d do. What I plan to do, if she’d quit commandeering my body every time I head for the psych department at work.”
“She knows, then? What you’re up to when you’re in control of the body?”
“Oh, I think so.” She slid out of the booth, an incredibly graceful maneuver, and leaned over me, practically shmooshing that amazing chest into my face. “Do some damn research before I see you again. Try thinking with your brain instead of your gonads.”
Then she was gone in a cloud of oriental-spice perfume.
I hated doing research. I was really much better on jobs that required a steady hand, a smart mouth, and no difficulty pulling a trigger. And I prided myself on being able to read people. Viyelle, for instance, wasn’t a very nice person. She was out for herself, self-confident to the point of egocentric, and probably into a lot of kink. But she also hadn’t seemed to be lying.
Problem was, neither had Katherine. She was a sweet kid. Earnest, into doing good works. And she wanted to get rid of “that hussy” as she’d blushingly called Viyelle. I didn’t think she’d been lying, either. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t the one who was doing the possessing rather than being possessed.
I turned on my NetBox and ignored the urge to play vid games, which is what I normally did with the machine. Bypassing them, I fired up the search engines that only a very few had access to and began to check out Viyelle De Lande.
Fleet employee? Check.
Stationed at New Armistead? Check.
Reassigned to Miami six weeks ago? Check.
I looked deeper. Viyelle didn’t just work for Fleet. She was a leading scientist and seemed to have had her pick of assignments. Her professional file made no mention of her personal proclivities.
But there were other places I could look for that kind of information. I typed in the passwords that took me through three firewalls and probably some booby traps before I got to a list run by those in the business of knowing what made people’s socks roll up and down. Kink or vanilla, it was all here. If that person was someone.
And Viyelle was someone.
I looked up Katherine Landis. She existed, all right, but not in the “who’s who” list, only in the general database. Right age. Right gender. Blurry image of her in the file. Could be the woman I saw, might not be.
Katherine, according to her file, lived in the Miami suburbs and worked a variety of minimum wage jobs. Her monthly income was probably what one of Viyelle’s dresses cost. Which didn’t mean she wasn’t telling the truth — Viyelle could be stealing the clothing or maybe she did buy them, supplementing Katherine’s meager income with money earned through sex. It might be a reason Katherine had created Viyelle — to overcome the shame at what she had to do to make ends meet.
Provided that Katherine was really Katherine. I noted the address and drove over to her house. She was home. Blonde. Blue eyes. But not my Katherine.
“Have we ever met?” I asked her.
“I don’t think so. I’d remember.” She smiled and while it was a sweet expression, it lacked the angelic quality of my Katherine — my Katherine, who as Viyelle had known, didn’t exist other than inside her.
“Sorry to have troubled you, miss.”
She went inside, shutting the door and locking it. She seemed a timid person. Scared of the world.
I sighed and headed back to the office.
“Mister Norman?” Katherine–my Katherine–peeked her head in.
“Come on in.” I gave her my best smile.
She walked in, dressed primly, looking sweet in a hair ribbon and pink lipstick. It was impossible to see Viyelle in the way she moved, in the gentle way she met my eyes, how she clasped her hands as she sat down and crossed her ankles rather than her legs in the more provocative way I imagined Viyelle would do it.
“We have a problem, my dear.”
She cocked her head, stared at me with a trusting expression. “I believe there’s never a problem two people can’t solve.”
“Well, that’s our problem. We’re talking about three people, now aren’t we? You. Me. And Viyelle.”
“Viyelle’s a menace.”
“She’s also a brilliant scientist. Or did you think I wouldn’t do my research?”
Her eyes gleamed in a gently amused way. She clearly had been counting on me not doing it.
“You, on the other hand, are not who you seem. Katherine Landis exists, but she’s not you.”
I half expected her to reveal herself the way a bad movie villain would. Spilling her nefarious plans just before she pulled out a gun and blew me away. But she just sat, hands still folded, ankles still crossed. “You like me better than Viyelle, Maxwell.”
God, even that hated name sounded nice coming from her lips. “Yeah, Katherine, I do like you better. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re a hitchhiker. A parasite. And I’m really not fond of those.”
She looked down, and I realized I’d hurt her feelings. “I’m a person,” she said. “Just not the way you know it. I need a willing host.”
“Viyelle ain’t willing, doll-face.”
“The transfer is very complicated to explain, but trust me when I say I’d have never picked her if I’d known what she was really like. On assignment, she’s all business. But off duty? She’s everything I hate.”
“You’re not her favorite person — err, entity — either.” I leaned forward, tried to look stern. “Especially since you sent me to get rid of her.”
“I knew she’d talk you out of that. She could talk the birds out of the sky. Or just flash her boobs at them and they’d fall out.” The sweet expression soured a bit. She still looked charming.
“You don’t do so bad at the snow job, either, Katherine. Believe me, innocence has its own charm, just as powerful as raw sex appeal.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I could go with Viyelle to the psych department and have you wiped.”
“You could. It won’t work, though. I’m not resident in her brain.” She frowned. “We could get rid of her that way, though. There are men who do brain sieving on the Q. T.”
“There is no we, Katherine.” I raised an eyebrow. “And you want to go to a black-market wiper?”
“It would solve my problem.”
“Well, it wouldn’t solve Viyelle’s.” I got up, walked around the desk, and perched in front of her. “And you, my dear, are her problem. And I gotta tell you, she’s not going to be a willing host unless you can offer her something very special.” I pursed my lips, thinking as hard as I could, which came a lot less naturally than reaching for a gun and pulling the trigger. “Can you transfer to someone else?”
She shook her head. “Not till this host dies.”
“We choose people we assume we’ll be compatible with. That way there’s no fight for control, just a merging that’s barely perceptible to them or the people who love them. But Viyelle’s never going to allow that, and neither will I. We’ll always be separate — unless she vacates the premises.”
Back to the black-market wipers. “Shut up, doll.”
She looked down and wrung her hands. “I just want to live.”
“So does Viyelle. And I have to say, she has the prior claim to the body she’s in.” I leaned back. “You must have picked her for a reason.”
“I did. As you said, she’s a brilliant scientist. I thought we’d be very compatible.”
“Because you’re a brilliant scientist, too?”
She nodded. “I’m actually more brilliant.”
“I think it’s time you and Viyelle had a real conversation.”
“Not if you both want it. And if someone objective”– okay, I wasn’t really that, but I was the closest thing they were going to find –“brokers it. And records it.” I leaned in. “Can you give her back control of her body?”
“Can you take it back whenever you want?”
She didn’t look so sure. “Sometimes she fights me. And when she’s hell bent on partying, that’s when she’s hardest to control. We’re never less alike than when she’s in the mood to do…those things she does.”
“Okay. You need to trust me. Give her back her body, and I guarantee she’ll give it back to you so you can speak.” I reached behind me and opened my desk drawer, then dug around chewing gum and extra ammo clips till I found the recorder pen. “First, I want you to tell her a few things that will prove irresistible. Science stuff. Stuff she’ll understand and, more importantly, want to hear more about.”
Katherine smiled. She surprised me by standing and throwing her arms around me, pressing her body against me. It was a totally different experience than having Viyelle’s anatomy in my face. I felt moved–and not in that way, well okay in that way, too, but emotionally, you know? The way guys don’t talk about.
“Thank you.” She kissed my cheek. “I really like you, Maxwell.”
“Call me Maxie, sweetheart.”
“Maxie.” Her smile could have hung the moon.
I thrust the pen into her face before I was even more of a goner. “Talk.”
And she did. For quite some time, about stuff I couldn’t make up if I’d tried. But when she gave up control and I let Viyelle — after she got over the initial shock of her prim outfit and the general untidiness of my office — listen to it, it was clear Katherine knew her stuff.
“We could do all that… together?” Viyelle’s eyes were gleaming, and for the moment she’d forgotten about being sexy and actually looked like a scientist — if a damn hot one.
“You want the answer, toots, then you need to let go and allow Katherine to come back. I’ll keep the recorder running the whole time while you two take turns talking. I’ll play back what the other said, and then you can reply or ask questions. You can actually have a conversation.”
And converse they did. For hours. I nearly fell asleep as they went from physics to chemistry to bio-something-or-other. Science was not my strongest subject in school.
Well, nothing was, but that’s neither here nor there. These two were way out of my–or most anyone else’s — league.
Viyelle sat back, staring past me with an intent look. “Okay.”
“Okay, she can stay.”
“Really?” I didn’t like how happy I was. Katherine had played me, pure and simple. Just ’cause she was a real sweet girl in spite of that, did not make it all right.
Viyelle nodded, then gave up control, her eyes closing and Katherine emerging as they opened again.
“Something’s different. She’s not fighting me anymore.” She threw herself into my arms, knocking the recorder pen out of my hand as she kissed me for all she was worth.
And she was worth a hell of a lot.
“Baby, you don’t have to do that.”
She pulled away, the sweet smile lighting up her face. “I know. I just want to.” Cupping my cheek with her hand, she lifted her face to be kissed.
Oh, man, I was done for.
Then she frowned. “I… I think she wants a word.”
And just like that, Katherine was gone and Viyelle stood staring at me. Her hand on my cheek tightened dangerously, her eyes gleamed.
“It’s not that I’m not grateful for all you’ve done, but this is not happening.”
“Hey, when Katherine has the wheel, Katherine gets to pick the route.”
Viyelle looked like that might just be a deal breaker.
I thought about Katherine, how much it meant to her to be able to stay. To have a willing host. What I’d do to make that happen.
I grabbed Viyelle’s hair, yanked her head back, and kissed her. For a moment, she resisted, so I pulled a little harder on her hair and hoped Katherine wasn’t getting any of this.
“This,” Viyelle said as she pulled away, “is going to be very interesting.”
Very damned complicated was more like it. Very damn messy.
I realized Katherine was standing in front of me now. She looked pleased with me. “Whatever you did, it worked.”
“Yeah, about that. I had to –”
Katherine’s fingers settled hard on my mouth. “Don’t tell me. Really.” She took my hand and pulled me out of the office. “Ice cream sundaes on me. To celebrate.”
I imagined Viyelle would want to celebrate with very expensive booze.
Between the two of them, I might end up a fat lush. Not so great for my line of work. I’d have to hit the gym or jog or something.
The lengths I’d go to keep a woman happy…Share