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First pages

Chapter 1

As he drove to the job interview, Jay Ecklund took an inventory of himself, to be sure that he had done everything possible to make a positive impression. He had worn his best suit, shirt, and tie, all fresh from the cleaners. The leather shoes were fresh out of the box. His dishwater-blond hair had been parted sharply on the left side and combed. When he had checked himself in the mirror, he thought even his spit-and-polish military parents would have approved of his appearance.

Jay's car, an eight-year-old Valedictorian with over 100,000 miles on it, had been freshly washed. He hoped it would not pick up too much desert dust as he drove along the freeway. Few cars passed him this far out of town, but any breeze would blow sand across the road, and rain was rare enough so that it was seldom washed away.

He turned off the freeway to a two-lane paved road, and looked ahead to see it curve around a rock formation. Once around the bend, he saw two large buildings. Both had been constructed of local materials, and blended with the geological features behind them. One appeared to be separate from the rocks; the other seemed to extend right into the butte. He saw an LED-style billboard near the top of the butte displaying the company name: Modern Surprises LLC. Jay presumed the building underneath the sign was company headquarters.

Movement from the edge of the rock cliff caught his eye. Out of the shadows he saw a large motorized contraption about two stories tall. The bottom half resembled a tank, with treads. The front of the upper half showed a transparent cab. The driver seemed very intent upon her steering, leaning forward toward the dash. Two women passengers sat in seats beside and behind her. As Jay drove nearer, the passengers waved at him. He hesitated before realizing that since he was the only other person in the area, they must be waving at him. He waved back, and they gestured even more enthusiastically.

Jay took his eyes away from the strange vehicle to find a place to park. When he got out of the car, he saw a roofed entrance with windows that went from floor to ceiling. He opened the door, stepped inside, and crossed to another door that had a window on the upper half.

Walking in, he saw a desk with a high ledge in front of it. A woman with gray hair, wearing half-glasses with thick black rims, sat behind it. Standing beside the desk he saw a woman wearing a skirted suit. She extended a hand. "You must be Jay Ecklund. I'm Madeline Chang."

He smiled and gripped her hand firmly in the handshake. "Pleased to meet you."

She turned and indicated the woman behind the desk. "This is Vivian Davenport, our fabric artist."

He reached over and shook her extended hand. "Jay Ecklund. Pleased to meet you."

"I hope you're hired," Vivian said. "I hate working the phones."

"As do we all." Madeline turned to Jay. "If you'll come with me to my office...?”

He followed her up an open spiral staircase to a large room. The windows overlooked the parking lot. She sat behind a huge mahogany desk, facing away from the windows. Jay glanced around and saw a large wooden cabinet to his left, with its doors closed. On the wall were certificates recognizing her as a notable businesswoman, framed pictures of her in a military uniform, and other pictures of her standing with famous scientists and public office holders.

She extended a hand to a chair in front of her desk. "Have a seat, Mr. Ecklund."

He sat in the chair. It was nice and bouncy and upholstered. Ergonomic, too. "Thank you."

A laptop on the desk was open but at an angle where he could not see the screen. She glanced at it. "I have read your résumé, Mr. Ecklund, and your cover letter." She turned to him. "I also had a glowing recommendation of you from Don Quist, who served with me in the Army."

Jay nodded. "He also recommended you to me, quite highly."

She smiled. "Don said he was sorry that you were laid off. I take it that the organization you worked for decided that a receptionist was unnecessary and the duties could be spread among the other employees?"

Jay nodded.

Her smile grew wider. "I think they'll find that was a mistake." She glanced back at the laptop. "I see that your degree is in communications, you've worked as a civilian at various military bases or for defense contractors."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You like working phones?"

"Oh yes, ma'am. I love phones. My parents said when I was a toddler I slept with my toy phone instead of a teddy bear. Worked as a 911 operator while I was in college."

"That must have been challenging."

"I like talking to people, and helping them. I loved the job."

"When you think of your ideal world, what comes to mind?"

Jay raised an eyebrow. He had never received an interview question like that before. "A world where people are kind to each other and everyone's basic needs are met."

She nodded. "What do you know about our company?"

He straightened in the chair. "It was established a couple of years ago. Don told me that you invent things and make a profit from the patents. I understand that you created the CarryAlong smartphone and the MovingMap GPS, for instance."

"That's right. We have a lot of creative people working here, and some of them are...idiosyncratic. Would that bother you?"

"No, ma'am. As long as people aren't hurting anything, it's all the same to me."

"Do you know how to use the QRS phone system?"

"Yes, ma'am. There isn't a phone system I don't know about."

"The salary for the job is...." She named a figure. "Is that acceptable to you?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"We also pay bonuses if you develop a product or do community service. If you do community work, just have a supervisor sign a slip indicating how many hours you worked."

"That sounds great."

"There's a 90-day probationary period, after which your record will be reviewed for a permanent hire."

He nodded. "That's fair enough."

"You get a housing allowance for that period, and afterwards, you are eligible, if you wish, to live in company housing, rent-free, next door. Each unit has two bedrooms, a full bath, kitchen, dining area, and living area."

"Wow," he muttered before thinking about it.

Madeline simply moved on. "You can also pick your own job title, within reason."

He smiled.

"If I hired you, when could you start?"

He spread his hands. "Anytime, ma'am."

"How about now?"

He swallowed. "You mean I'm hired?"

"Yes."

He stood, took her hand in both of his, and shook it. "Thank you, ma'am."

"You're welcome." She gestured at the seat with her free hand. "If you'll sit down again, I'll give you some basic information."

He let go of her hand and sat, smoothing his hair. "Yes, ma'am."

"We're all on a first-name basis here. But don't shorten anyone's name without their permission. For instance, Vivian doesn't take to being called 'Viv.'"

"Yes, ma... Madeline."

"Dress is fairly casual unless we have a distinguished guest or go to a public event, in which case we'll give you a day's notice. A knit or button-down shirt, dress jeans, and walking shoes in good condition are fine."

He nodded.

"We give you four weeks paid vacation, and four weeks paid sick leave, meaning we expect you to stay home if you're feeling ill."

He nodded.

"Because our research is proprietary until the date of product release, there are certain areas of the building you will not be admitted to until you pass the 90-day probationary period. Of course you'll hear discussion of projects under development during that time and you will be expected to keep them confidential. You'll be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement."

"I've worked on military installations before. I can keep a secret."

"Glad to hear it." She stood. "Let me introduce you to Irene Williams. She's our human resources officer. She'll show you around."

Madeline led Jay back down the stairs and behind the reception desk to an office with windows facing both outdoors and the building's interior. He recognized one of the women who had waved to him outside. She rose from her desk and walked to the door to meet them. Now that he was up close, he saw that she was an adult with Down syndrome, somewhat shorter than both he and Madeline, with black hair cut short.

"Irene, this is Jay Ecklund, our new receptionist. Would you show him around and have him fill in the personnel documents, please?"

Irene smiled. "Right away!" Madeline left; Irene turned to Jay. "I'll show you around first, and then we can come back here and fill out forms."

"Okay."

She started to lead him through the ground floor, pointing out the restroom locations as they walked. He noted they were all single-occupancy restrooms.

Vivian called to them from the reception desk. "Is he hired?"

Irene turned in her direction. "Yes, but I have to show him around first."

Vivian threw her arms up in the air. "Hooray!"

Irene passed a room with windows. In fact, all the offices seemed to have windows where one could look inside. This particular office had a lot of large tables with fabric on them, plus a couple of sewing machines and various other equipment. The door was open. "This is Vivian's office."

The next office, also with windows, was occupied by an African-American woman wearing glasses with black rims – similar to the ones Vivian wore, but oval instead of split across the middle.

"Yolanda, this is Jay Ecklund. He's our new receptionist." She turned to Jay. "This is Yolanda Brookings. She's our financial officer. She signs the checks."

Yolanda stood and walked over, holding out a hand. "Among other things." She shook hands with Jay. "Pleased to meet you."

He nodded. "Pleased to meet you, too."

Irene gestured. "I'm showing him around."

"See you at the staff meeting." Yolanda returned to her desk.

Irene led him to a large room with several small tables and chairs. "This is our lunchroom. We ask people not to eat at their desks because it leaves crumbs. You can have a coffee or covered beverage container at your desk, though." She opened some cabinet doors. "Here's where the food and plates and utensils are. You can have your own cup, just put your name on it with a permanent marker. The food is free to employees. We mostly have pasta. Do you like pasta?"

"Oh, yes."

"Good. This is the refrigerator, the microwave, the toaster oven, the coffee maker, the hot water heater, and the dishwasher, where you can put your dishes and cups and utensils when you're done with them."

"Sounds good."

She led him to a closet just off the lunchroom and opened the door. There were shelves with bottles and tubes and various boxes. "This is where we keep the bandages and aspirin and such. If you're hurt at work, let Sumita—Dr. Patel—know."

"You have a doctor on site?"

"Yes, though you probably won't see much of her. She stays mostly in her lab doing research."

"I see."

"You'll meet just about everyone at the staff meeting tomorrow. You're supposed to be here at eight am and the staff meeting is at eight-thirty."

"I'll be here."

She led him to another office and peered in the door. The name plate said, "L. M. Yeager, Security." She turned back to Jay. "L. M. isn't here right now, but you'll probably see her tomorrow, too."

"What does 'L. M.' stand for?"

Irene smiled. "If she wants you to know, she'll tell you."

"Fair enough." He glanced inside the office. He could see a lot of figurines on the desk and the shelves and cabinets. Each was about three inches high. "I take it she collects figurines?"

"Oh, those are her dolls. She makes them herself from wax. She has a mold." Irene reversed course and led him back to her office. In addition to her desk, there was a small table with a laptop on it and a chair behind it. She invited him to sit with a gesture. "These are the tax and other forms you have to fill out."

Jay sat. "Okay."

Irene sat back at her desk. "Just let me know when you're done with them."

He began to fill them out. "These are well organized."

“Nadia is a good programmer. You’ll see her at the staff meeting.”

When Jay was finished with the forms, Irene led him back to the reception area. "This is your desk."

Vivian stood from the chair and shook Jay's hand. "Thank you, thank you, thank you. Now I can get back to work." She put her headset in a box that had her name on it and hurried away as if expecting someone to catch her and push her back into the receptionist's chair.

Jay sat.

Irene reached into a box and brought out a headset in a clear wrapper. "These are sanitized every evening by our building supervisor. Put your name on your own box. When you go to lunch or breaks, Vivian or I will take over for you." She gestured. "Those are our headsets."

Jay took out the headset and put it on. "Got it."

"Lunch for you is from eleven-thirty to twelve-thirty," Irene explained. "You can take a fifteen-minute break in the morning, and one in the afternoon. Quitting time is four to four-thirty pm." She indicated the computer on the desk. "If you're not working the phones, you're allowed to use the computer to read articles or do research. You're not allowed to play games, though."

Jay nodded. "That sounds fair."

Irene used the mouse to bring up a screen. "If someone calls, you can type in their question here and the computer will tell you who to direct the call to."

"That's impressive."

"Nadia is a good programmer." Irene brought up another screen. "Here's the company directory and contact information."

"Got it."

Irene indicated two large monitor screens, on opposite sides of the room, mounted near the ceiling. Each showed a weather channel. The sound was turned off, and the closed captioning was on.

“We use these to keep up with the news and weather. Vivian likes to watch the weather. You can change channels or bring up an internet site here,” she indicated a console display, “or on the wall panel near the door intercom.” She pointed.

“Can I switch to any channel?” he asked.

“You can, but there are only a dozen channels. Madeline doesn't want us watching the entertainment channels unless we're on break. And keep the sound off unless everyone wants to hear.”

“I'll remember.”

"If you have any other questions, let me know. I'll be in my office."

"Thanks." After Irene left, he began familiarizing himself with the system. The QRS protocol was sophisticated and top-of-the-line—one of his favorites to use, though most places he had worked did not go to the expense to get it. He explored the computer and found a number of company files, some of which asked for a password to open. The files without passwords he did open and examine, especially those describing the building wiring and telecommunications.

He had forwarded a couple of calls and was just about to ask Irene to relieve him for lunch when he saw a large robot rolling down the aisle toward him. The robot appeared to be a narrow post with a sphere on top. The sphere had long metal spikes sticking out of it.

Suddenly, beams of light issued from the spikes, going ping! ping! ping! off the walls and ceilings. Jay immediately dived under his desk. The sounds and lights reminded him of a ray gun fight in a science fiction movie.

"Turn that thing off!" Vivian shouted.

The noise stopped.

"Terry, this is not 'freak out the new guy' day," Madeline said.

Jay emerged from under the desk to see Vivian and Madeline standing near his desk. He also saw a tall figure standing by the robot, presumably Terry. Terry was thin, with a long narrow nose and short shaggy brown hair, dressed in a country-western outfit featuring an embroidered denim shirt, denim pants, and boots.

"Are you all right?" Madeline asked Jay.

"Yes."

"What are you trying to do, scare him off?" Vivian demanded.

"Sorry! I didn't know."

Madeline gestured. "Terry, this is Jay Ecklund, our new receptionist. Jay, this is Terry Thompson, our robot wrangler."

Jay reached out and shook Terry's hand. "That's an impressive robot."

"I’m really sorry."

"Don’t worry about it," Jay said.

"Terry," Madeline said, "take the robot back to the lab."

Terry turned and pushed the robot away.

"You aren't going to quit, are you?" Vivian asked.

Jay chuckled. "No, Vivian, I'm not going to quit."

Vivian let out a sigh of relief. "Good." She returned to her office.

"You have good instincts," Madeline said.

Jay scratched his head. "Well, I'm a little embarrassed. I guess I should have known it was harmless."

"Don't apologize," Madeline said firmly. "You had no way of knowing and did the right thing to protect yourself." She gestured for Jay to sit, and when he did, she leaned toward a console on the desk. "As long as we're talking security, you've probably noticed the monitors here."

"Yes. One shows the entrance, one shows the parking lot, and one overlooks the road coming to the building."

"If you see any sign of trouble, press this button here. It's a silent alarm that goes to my office and our security officer's office. When in doubt, press it. I'd rather have a false alarm than miss a possible threat."

Jay nodded.

"This button right here raises transparent walls around your desk. The same material is in our outside windows. Bulletproof, and just about everything proof." She stepped closer to his chair. "Let me show you."

She pressed a button and panes of glass started to rise from the floor, encasing the desk. When they reached the ceiling, she pressed another button. "This puts them back." They retreated back into the floor.

"Good, I'll remember."

"I have monitors in my office, too, which show the entire building and surrounding areas. I'll alert you if I see something."

"Thanks."

"You'll meet our security officer tomorrow. She's out today." Madeline left.

Irene came over to relieve him. He went to the lunchroom and found a bowl of pre-made pasta in the refrigerator. He took off the wrapping and put it in the microwave. While it heated, he found a clean mug, used the marker on the counter to write his name on it, and poured himself some coffee. After checking to see that no one else was around, he drew a small pillbox out of his pocket, removed a pill, and downed it with a sip of coffee. Then he got a spoon and sat down to eat.

He still had time when he finished, so he walked out to his car, pulled his tablet out of its insulated box, grabbed his sun hat, and walked to a wooden lounge chair outside. Other employees sat at a nearby table with an umbrella over it, eating lunch. They waved at him and he waved back. Then he settled down to read.

After a few minutes, a woman wearing a faded blue jumpsuit sat in a similar wooden lounge chair next to him. She had a round freckled face and red hair. He realized this was the other woman who had waved at him this morning. She smiled and said, "I have an ereader too."

He extended a hand to her. "Jay Ecklund. I was just hired."

She reached over and shook it. "I heard. I'm Ginnie Mae Parsons. I'm the lead mechanic. What are you reading?"

"Mystery novels. I enjoy trying to solve them before the detective character."

"I read romances. I don't read mysteries because usually someone dies, and that's sad."

"It is sad. That's why the detective works so hard to bring the killer to justice."

"Still, I'd rather read romances. There's a site on the web where someone posts all the romances that have happy endings and no deaths. I read those."

"It's great that the web has resources like that."

"I think so, too."

They both went back to reading.

 

The next day, Jay sat at his desk promptly at eight. At twenty-five after, Irene came over. "Time to go to the meeting."

Jay stood. "Who'll take over the phones?"

Irene leaned over and pressed a button on the console. "We'll just go to an automated message during the meeting. You can check it when we get back."

The meeting room was on the second floor. A large wooden table in a reverse-hourglass shape dominated the room. Irene sat in a chair near the bulge in the middle; Jay sat beside her. Others started to walk in: Terry Thompson, Vivian Davenport, Yolanda Brookings, Ginnie Mae Parsons. Another woman walked in and sat across from him. She was taller than he; she wore glasses with an orange tint, and held a toothpick between her teeth. Her denim shirt had L. M. Yeager, Security embroidered over the pocket. She reminded Jay of a kick-ass protagonist in a zombie apocalypse movie.

The room had three doors, all open. A woman entered through the door at his left. He estimated her height as four-foot-nine. Jay recognized her as the driver of the vehicle he saw the day before. Entering behind her was a woman wearing an olive green flight suit with Jean embroidered over the chest pocket. They sat next to each other. A woman wearing jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and a hijab came in and sat to the left of Irene. Madeline came in last, shutting the door behind her, and then shutting the other two doors before sitting at the head of the table. She held a folder. Once seated, she set it on the table and opened it.

Turning to L. M., Madeline said, "Lose the toothpick."

L. M. took out a small box, opened it, placed the toothpick inside it, and closed the top.

"First, let's welcome our new communications manager, Jay Ecklund."

Everyone, including Madeline, turned to him and applauded. Jay smiled and nodded.

"Jay," Madeline continued, "let me introduce the members of our team here that you haven’t met yet. The others are in research or away on business." She turned to the woman in the olive green flight suit. "This is Jean Rosenthal, our company pilot."

Jay and Jean exchanged nods.

"This is our lead engineer, Athena Fairbanks," Madeline said, indicating the woman who had driven the vehicle, "and this is Nadia Siddiqui, our company programmer," she added, indicating the woman wearing the hijab.

Jay exchanged a wave with each of them.

Madeline took a breath. "Now, down to business." She turned to Yolanda. "Yolanda has our financial report."

Yolanda looked around the room. "I'm happy to say that our robot kit is selling very well, and we have more than enough to fully fund Arachne."

Many of the others cheered.

Madeline turned to Jay. "You'll get filled in on that after the 90-day probation period."

Jay smiled and nodded. "Of course."

Yolanda faced Terry. "We know that Terry's latest creation works."

Terry leaned over in Jay's direction. "I didn't know you would be starting so soon."

Jay waved. "No problem." For the rest of the meeting, he just listened as the others went over the electronic and toy kits they manufactured or were in development. Jean and Athena talked about the company plane—apparently it was a new design and undergoing test flights. When the meeting adjourned, he followed Irene back to his desk.

Between calls, Jay spent his time continuing to get familiar with the company's communications capabilities. In addition to the office intercom, phone, and Wi-Fi systems, they apparently had their own satellites that could focus anywhere on earth, and a private encrypted frequency that could keep them in touch anywhere on the planet. They could also pick up frequencies from just about anywhere. Testing it out, he eavesdropped on radio broadcasts from Canberra, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Anchorage, among other places.

Near the end of the day, he looked up to see L. M. standing in front of his desk. Since she still wore the tinted glasses, he could not see her eyes. A toothpick dangled from her mouth. She carried what seemed to be a weapon. It resembled a large toy water gun, but instead of being made from flimsy plastic, this had a formidable metal casing.

Nothing was said for about half a minute. Thinking that some comment on his part was expected, Jay guessed, "Duck hunting season?" The nearest body of water was over 100 miles to the west, but it was all he could think of to say.

"Kill weeds!" she insisted.

Getting into the spirit of the conversation, he replied, "Fight with honor. Return triumphant!"

She nodded, turned, and left.

Jay watched her through the windows as she exited the building. He noticed Irene walking up to him.

"L. M. has these moods," Irene said. "Vivian calls them 'the vapors.' It's okay, though. She's only mean to bad people."

"That's what I'm counting on," Jay said.

Chapter 2

The next day, as Jay drove to work, his car stalled at a stop light. He started it and it ran again, only to stall again at the next light. Remembering that the list Irene gave him of company benefits included free car repair, he started it once more, got on the freeway, and willed it to reach the company's parking lot. As he slid the car into the parking space, he saw Athena and Ginnie Mae standing in front of the entrance, waiting. The car's engine died even before he took out the ignition key.

"We heard you coming as we were walking to work," Athena explained. "Hand me the key."

Jay did.

"We'll take good care of your car," Ginnie Mae promised.

"Thanks."

When he reached his desk, he found a small flowering cactus there, in a compact green pot.

Irene called from her office door. "I saw L. M. put it there when she came in. That means she wants to be friends."

“So do I.” Jay picked up the pot and examined it closely. "This is very nice." He put it on the ledge so everyone could see it.

When lunch time neared, Jay wondered how his car was coming along. On the monitor, he saw a white car drive up. A blond woman climbed out and walked in.

"May I help you?" he asked as she stepped up to his desk.

"I'm Harmony Yeager. I'm in town for a couple of days and I'm meeting my sister for lunch."

"I'll call L. M. for you." After he completed the call, he added, "She'll be here in a moment."

"Does she go by her initials here? At home we just called her 'Lyr.' Short for 'Lyrical Melody.' Our parents are musicians."

"Oh? What do they play?"

"Violin."

"Do you play an instrument?"

"Yes, guitar. Lyr plays the harp, or she did. I haven't seen her in months...not since I took the job at M.I.T."

"What field?"

"Mathematics. I'm in town for a convention."

At that moment, Yeager arrived. She and her sister embraced. They left the building, got into Harmony's car, and drove off.

Jay was about to rise in his chair to go to lunch when Ginnie Mae and Athena walked in. Ginnie Mae handed him his keys.

"We cleaned the fuel injector that was causing the problem, changed all the fluids and filters, and did a complete tuneup," Ginnie Mae said proudly. "Good for another 100,000 miles."

“Thank you both,” Jay said.

Ginnie Mae smiled and left.

Athena wore a stained coverall and wiped her hands on a rag. "Yes, the Valedictorian is a nice, study car, built to last."

"Do you drive one?" he asked.

She smiled. "No, I only drive cars I design myself."

"Which ones have you designed?"

She raised her head, then counted on her fingers. "Let's see. I designed the Predator, the Raptor, the Lancelot E-series—" She faced him. "Not the A-series—that was a pile of junk."

Jay nodded. "I know. My brother bought one."

"It appealed to a certain demographic. Passed all the safety tests, and sold enough to satisfy the auto executives. But it was still junk."

"Which one do you drive?"

"Oh, I drive the Airhawk. Customized mine, of course."

"Design any others?"

"No. We were going to present the Airhawk at the auto show when the production manager came up to me and suggested that I attend in a bikini and talk to the prospective buyers. I told him that since our marketing research showed that forty percent of our buyers were women, maybe he should show up in a Speedo."

"...and that's when they fired you."

"No, that's when they fired him. I quit. They pissed me off once too often. I wouldn't go back if they begged me— which, in fact, they did."

“Their loss, our gain.”

She smiled. “Yes, best thing that ever happened to me.” Stuffing the rag in a back pocket, she left.

Outside, he saw Harmony parking her car. Her sister got out and waved as Harmony drove off. When L. M. came in, Jay indicated the cactus. “Thank you. It's very nice.”

“No problem!” L. M. insisted as she walked to her office.

 

At the end of the week, Jay sat in his usual spot at the Dry Cactus bar, nursing the one tall glass of beer that his doctor allowed him per week. The television near the ceiling showed the local baseball game; interested, he ordered a burger and fries and coffee and ate dinner while his team pulled ahead. He put cash on the payment slip and slid it to the bartender as he watched the screen.

“So, how's the new job?”

Jay turned to see Don slide in next to him. He pushed his empty plate away to make room for Don to put his beer down. “Great. Never a dull moment. Thanks for recommending them.”

Don nodded.

“How are things at the old place?” Jay asked.

Don shook his head. “We've been scrambling to reorganize to make up for all the vacancies. I've been thinking of leaving and starting my own company.”

“Good luck.”

“Care to come with me?”

“You mean at your new company?”

“If I leave, yes.”

Jay scratched his head. “No, I think I'll stay where I am. They have a fantastic communications system.”

“You know, they're just a startup, and startups often fail within a couple of years.”

“That could apply to you, too, you know.”

Don threw his head back and finished his beer. “Touché.”

“I honestly wish you the best, though.”

Don nodded. “I know. Catch you next week.” He left.

As Jay watched Don go, he saw Ginnie Mae come in. She spotted him and walked over.

“You left your credit card on your desk.” She handed it to him.

He took out his wallet and checked his cards. “Oh, thanks. I made an online purchase during lunch and must have forgotten to put it back.”

She nodded. “I didn't want you to think it was lost or stolen. I was coming into town to see a movie anyway and was going to stop at your apartment before, then I saw your car here.”

The bartender leaned over. “Can I get you anything?” he said to Ginnie Mae.

“Just a Virgin Mary.”

“Coming right up.” The bartender turned away.

“What movie are you going to see?”

“The new romantic comedy.”

Jay nodded.

The bartender slid a glass in Ginnie Mae's direction along with a slip of paper with the total. Ginnie Mae paid for the drink and told the bartender to keep the change.

Meanwhile, a loud noise from the television drew their attention. One of the players on the home team had hit a walk-off home run, ending the game.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Joan Marie Verba has a bachelor of physics degree. She has worked as a computer programmer, editor, publisher, health/weight loss coach, and social media manager. An experienced writer, she has many novels and nonfiction books in print, as well as a number of short stories. She is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I enjoy writing stories where the characters have fun, and are altruistic. Since I have a physics degree, I also enjoy watching television shows where the characters use science in their investigations.
Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
A.
I’m a fan of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, and the Narnia series. The latest book that I have enjoyed immensely is The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I have had a strong interest in astronomy since I was in second grade, and found that science fiction consists of stories about the universe in particular and science in general.

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