Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Prince and His Harem - Ch 19 & 20

Chapter 19

In a large conference room, the group of 5 women and one man sat at an oval table, looking at two figures against the wall flanking either side of a projection screen.

“Okay, now that everyone is here, it’s time for introductions.  My name is Raine, and I’ll be the direct contact with the main BKN office in Putrajaya.  My liaison and the head of this think-tank is Rick Ahmad here,” Raine gestured to the tall man standing with her, “and he will be your direct report.  Our job here is to take information from various sources and look for overall patterns that will assist in protecting our country, and I thank you in advance for your help in this.  All of you have been carefully chosen for your expertise and knowledge; I know this will be an enjoyable challenge.  Now let’s introduce ourselves, starting on the right side.”

All eyes looked at Meaghan as she stood and carefully avoided looking at Rickie.

“My name is Meaghan; I normally work for a distribution company here in Kuching.  I know English and French, with a smattering of Chinese, and have a four-year degree in marketing.”  She sat down. 

One by one, the rest of the team stood and gave a little description: Alua, who was a translation expert in Mandarin and standard Chinese; Jennifer, a computer science and internet expert; Ahjummabunny, a system analyst, MJP25, a sociologist specialising in population movements; and others.  The introductions continued around the table until ultimately Rickie was left.  He looked at each person in turn, his eyes warming when they reached Meaghan, making her squirm uncomfortably in her seat.

“I am Rick Ahmad; I have a background that includes employment in both the government and secular fields.  As such, I have the final review for anything we find that needs to be sent to the command staff.   I look forward to working with you all.  I intend to meet with each of you individually over the next day or so.”  Raine then stepped forward again.

“Several of our sources are only identified by their credentials and will be periodically sending data to us for analysis. They will be sent directly to the individuals identified in your information packets. Are there any questions at this time?”  No one raised a hand. “Then, just orient yourselves with the information and each other, and we will begin in earnest tomorrow.”   Meaghan waited until everyone had stood up and were milling around before she made her way to the doors and freedom.

“Isn’t he cute?” exclaimed MJP to several murmurs of assent.  Meaghan privately agreed, glancing back to where the “he” they were talking about stood at ease, talking with one of the workers.  Making her way to her cubicle station, she sat down, turned on her computer, and sighed.  She hadn’t had a moment to think to herself, since she realized the identity of her new boss. 

Rickie.   Somehow with the dinner conversation, she never got around to talking about their jobs much, mostly because she was a little intimidated.  However, she had agreed to this contract, and was ready to put her best foot forward and do a good job.

A beep indicated email from her office.  When Meaghan looked, there was one from Jules, the employee who was now doing her old job assignments.

[This was received in the mail office email, but it was in your name and appears to be encrypted.  Please let me know what needs to be done with it.  Thanks, Jules.]

Meaghan read the sent information – wait, Ivoire?  She recalled that her chatty friend from the France office had been replaced by Mystisith without any notice.  She focused on the attachment and confirmed that it was locked.  Her computer had the standard Public Key Infrastructure for encryption; it was just a matter of knowing what the encryption code was.  Meaghan looked at the original email from Ivoire to see if she included some type of code key.

[Salut Meg, tout en Malaisie est comment ? Me manquer ces jours où nous avons utilisé pour jouer dans cette bande dans ma ville natale. Il a été rien d'autre que la boue ici avec le temps, que nous avons eu. De toute façon, vous trouverez ci-joint les chiffres de distribution. Rester en bonne santé ! Ivoire]

[Hey Meg, how’s everything in Malaysia?  I miss those days when we used to play in that band in my hometown.  It’s been nothing but mud here with the weather we’ve had.  Anyway, attached please find the distribution figures.  Stay healthy!  Ivoire]

Meaghan puzzled over this.  She had never been to Cameroon, Ivoire’s native country, much less played in any band.  Leaf was the musical one in the family, as Iv well knew.

Suddenly, she brightened.  She remembered that Iv had showed her several words and phrases translated from French into Bulu, one of the major languages in Cameroon and Ivoire's native tongue.  The code easily leapt from the paragraph:  bande  = nsamba, boue = ndobok, bonne santé  = mvoé.  She typed these into the encryption key field.

With a quiet beep, the attachment opened, and the bottom fell out of Meaghan’s world.

Chapter Twenty

[Meg – I’m sorry I can’t talk to you right now.  There’s something very wrong going on in the company.  I found discrepancies in the records, but my boss didn’t believe me.  After I talked to him, strange things started to happen around me.  I think I’m being followed, so I’m sending you the information. Don’t look for me as I’m going to disappear, and don’t trust anything coming from this office anymore. If I’m able, I’ll contact you later and tell you everything.  Au revoir, Iv.]  The attachment contained what looked like the typical spreadsheets, with the exception of several highlighted fields.

Meaghan quickly transferred the file to her thumbdrive and deleted the email after sending a reply to Jules giving permission to delete the original email.  She had just tossed the drive into her bag when Raine tapped on her cubicle wall and spoke.

“Are you ready for your chat with the two of us?” Raine didn’t wait for an answer but turned and walked down the hallway to a glass-front door.  Meaghan carefully stowed her bag in a drawer and followed Raine, wiping her hands on her jacket.

                                                      ~     ~     ~

Rickie had been anticipating this since he saw her in the lobby previously.  It had been a week since his conversation with Raine at Bourbon's, and even longer since he last saw the the woman that had been uppermost in his mind.  He smiled at Meaghan as she entered the office behind Raine, secretly amused when he saw her nervously rubbing her hands against the fabric of her outfit.  He remembered that same unconscious gesture during their dinner the previous week.  He motioned the two women towards several brown leather chairs arranged around a glass coffee table.  There was a white ceramic tray containing glasses and a pitcher of water in the center; Raine poured a glass for herself and Meaghan, and then sat down.

“I wanted to talk face to face with each member of this office, to get a feel of how each individual will fit into the overall scheme.  You read the information packet and are aware of what Rick and I are setting up, correct?”  At Meaghan’s nod, Raine continued, “The other team members will funnel the information to you and your responsibility will be looking over the compiled information and identifying any unusual trends, or anything that stands out.   You will be communicating directly with Rick.”

Meaghan looked at him with wide eyes filled with concern and maybe a bit of curiosity.   A stray curl escaping from her upswept hair swayed over her right temple, and Rickie fisted his hand to prevent himself from acting on the urge to touch it.  He swallowed, hoping his voice would sound normal.

“Raine’s team from the BKN has already created several preliminary reports.”  He stood, walked over to his intricately carved mahogany desk, and removed several files from a metal wire basket set to the right of a large computer monitor.  He walked back to the two women and handed it to Meaghan, both careful not to touch hands.  He sat back down.

“I want to draw on your expertise and knowledge to focus on the flow of goods between Malaysian companies and their Chinese counterparts.  In this age of global economy, we are finding more illegal activity on a corporate level than a government or political one.  Do you have any questions?”  Meaghan shook her head, looking down at the smooth manila folders in her hands, already thinking about how she should begin her task.  She looked back up at the face of the man before her, finally landing on his blue blue eyes.

With a sudden sparkle, she stood up and extended her hand.  “I’m ready to begin, sir.”  Rickie took it, marveling at the smoothness of her skin, and felt an internal shift as their relationship began on another level.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Prince and His Harem - Ch 17 & 18

Chapter 17

Meaghan leaned down, pushed her strappy sandals off her feet, wiggled her toes and sighed. It was Monday, and Cynthia had run her ragged all morning; a coworker called in sick, so she was doing the work of two. It was finally lunchtime, but she felt too tired to go get something to eat. She was contemplating a packet of crisps she found in her desk when she heard Cynthia’s high heels heading her way.

“Good, you’re still here.” Meaghan resisted the urge to give a snarky comment and swiveled to face her formidable boss. She was holding a couple sheets of paper in her elegant hand. “I have a request here from the National Security agency. They are looking to contract out for an analyst position on a special project. They need someone who reads English, French, and Chinese for a minimum of 90 days up to six months. If you are interested, you would still go through our payroll, but you would be working at an office in the industrial area. Interested?”

Meaghan thought for a moment, intrigued in spite of how tired she felt. “Would the pay be different?” Cynthia nodded.

“During that time, you pay would be significantly increased. Of course, we get to profit, too, as well as getting in a good word with the government!” Cynthia gave a laugh, and then gave her a pointed look. “I hope you agree. In fact,” she said smugly, “I’ve already submitted your name and credentials for their purview.” She took Meaghan’s silence for assent. “So, if they agree, you’d begin by next Monday. Make sure that you finish up any loose ends on your desk; Jules will be taking over your work until you return.”

Jules was one of the newest employees, but she was very capable and eager to help. Meaghan figured that her contacts would be in good hands. Making the decision, she stood up, and bowed to her manager.

“I’m honored, and I will do my best.”

~ ~ ~
Rickie was sampling Bourbon’s specialty today, tamarind balls, in the lounge area while waiting for Raine. He had received an intriguing phone call, asking for his assistance to create a think-tank regarding suspected Chinese movements along their southern coast.

He was finishing up his second Tiger Beer when his former supervisor showed up, sat down on the rattan sofa across from him and dropped a brown leather briefcase on top of the coffee table. Catching Bourbon’s eye, she held up two fingers. Bourbon nodded, and, giving the counter a final sweep, turned to a cooler behind the bar. In a matter of mere moments, two bottles, tiny bits of ice clinging to the neck, were on the table and expertly opened. Bourbon gave a wink to Rickie and sauntered away.

“So what are the details?” Rickie asked Raine, after nodding to the retreating bartender.

“Our agents are noticing an increase in both covert and overt movements towards the coastline. In addition, we noticed some strange anomalies in shipping records at their major terminals. We’re hoping that, with your analytical skills and some strong backup, we can ascertain what they are planning to do. We’ve already set up an office near your headquarters, and will have the wiring and the server in there by the end of the week.” Raine opened the briefcase and pulled out several manila folders. “Here are the curricula vitae of several potential contractors to round out the group. Just look them over; we need at least two from this group. My team will also be there.”

Rickie nodded, and Raine placed the folders back in the case, and closed it, pushing it towards him. He instinctively grabbed the bottle before the briefcase touched it, and Raine smirked.

“Glad to know your reflexes are still fast, especially when it’s important.” They continued to chat for a short while, and then amicably separated.

Chapter 18

Walking from the bus stop, Meaghan nervously toyed with the plackets of her brown jacket, and then touched her hair to make sure it was still smoothly in its chignon.  She wanted to make a good first impression with her new boss.   The Bureau had sent over a packet of information, including her ID badge with directions and a map to the building, and the itinerary for the first week.  Arriving 20 minutes early, she paused for a moment in front of the three storey glass-front building to look up at the façade.

Suddenly, with an ‘oomph’ someone struck her on the right side.  Stumbling slightly, she looked over and saw a young woman balancing a taro bubble tea in one hand, with a brown leather bag on her shoulder.  The woman glanced up at Meaghan and smiled, revealing even teeth with a slight overbite, and looked down at her feet, where a pretty blue sandal was haphazardly perched on her foot.

“I’m sorry about running into you.  I was trying to adjust my new Jimmy Choo’s while walking, and I wasn’t paying attention.  Are you okay?”  She reached down and reset the strap across her ankle, then straightened up and ran her fingers through her short, light brown hair.  “There, that’s better.  Do you work here?” she asked as she opened the glass doors held for Meaghan.

“Today is my first day here,” Meaghan confessed as they walked into the vaulted lobby.  The lobby was decorated with beige granite floors; several banners with stunning intricate designs reminiscent of linangkit textiles were hung on the stone pillars, adding a colorful accent to the monochrome interior.  A grouping of white couches were located on either side on the lobby, and in the center of the space stood a fluid sculpture of metal strips that appeared to be two figures dancing with their arms outstretched.  Lush tropical foliage completed the interior.  They both stopped to admire the figures.

 “That looks like a Yusof Ghani original,” the woman said, as the two of them walked towards the security desk, “It’s very beautiful, isn’t it.”  Meaghan agreed, awed that she would be temporarily working in such a wonderful environment.  She hoped that the job would be as good.

Meaghan greeted the security guard and gave him her ID card.  He punched up the computer, and then said, “Your office is on the third floor.  Use your card in the elevator to gain access.”  Meaghan nodded to the guard, smiled at the young woman and walked towards the bank of elevators partially hidden by large palm trees.

She had pushed the button and was waiting for the elevator when she heard the woman’s voice getting louder as she argued with the guard.

“Look, I know I don’t work here, but my brother does.  I just wanted to drop in and surprise him on his first day.  Can’t you make an exception?”  At the guard’s demurral she huffed and walked towards a couch, fumbling in her bag.   Meaghan checked her watch, then approached  the woman.

“Can I help you?  He might be working in my office.  Today is the first day for everyone, I think,” Meaghan offered.  The girl looked up from her bag and asked, “Can I borrow your phone?  I must have left mine back at the house.”  Meaghan handed over her white cellphone; the other woman quickly dialed and put it to her ear.

Abang?  I wanted to surprise you, but security won’t let me in.  Can you meet me in the lobby?  Uh-huh.  Kotohuadan.  Love you!”  She closed the phone with a snap and handed it back to Meaghan.  “He should be right down.  He says he’s on the third floor, so you’ll probably be working with him.  I’m Sethe, by the way.”

“Hi, I’m Meaghan.  What does your brother do?”

Sethe gave a little shrug.  “He mostly works for our father, and does consulting work on the side.  When I talked to him, he seemed pretty excited about his current job.”

Meaghan smiled. “I’m excited about it myself.  I’ve never done any consulting work, but I was recommended by my supervisor for this position.”  The sound of the elevator behind her alerted that it was finally down on the ground floor.  Sethe looked over her shoulder and her bright blue eyes grew wide as a huge grin erupted on her face.


Meaghan gave a sudden start, her heart accelerating as she whirled around just in time to see the young woman throw herself into the arms of a familiar figure, one who had recently taken up space in her thoughts entirely too much. 

As Rickie hugged his exuberant sister, he looked into the lobby and saw the one person he was waiting for, standing amongst the cool green foliage in the lobby, her beautiful eyes wide with surprise and apprehension.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Prince and His Harem - Ch 15 & 16

Chapter 15

Once they were seated, Meaghan picked up the menu.  She had been here several times, and enjoyed the western fusion choices and the relatively low price.  Still, she wanted to hide behind the menu as she thought about this evening.

Although he appeared to be oblivious, as they were walking into the restaurant, she could see the interested stares of the females in the lounge area.  She peeked over the top of her card stock to find him looking at his own menu.  She took a moment to look at his features, trying to ascertain why the attraction.  He was the epitome of the strong male, and she wondered again why they kept meeting when it was obvious they were in two different spheres. 

Rickie glanced up from his menu, only to see those beautiful chocolate eyes quickly skitter away.  He put the menu down and steepled his hands on the table.

“I’m glad you chose a restaurant that one of my favorites; I like that we share the same taste.  What do you plan to eat?” 

“Uh, I’ll have the lemongrass chicken.”  Meaghan cursed at how breathless she sounded, then cleared her throat and turned to the brightly-dressed girl next to her.  “Leaf, what do you want?”

“I’ll have the small lamb cutlet, please, no bread.  I want to save room for dessert!”   Rickie chuckled, a sound that sent a frisson up Meaghan’s spine.

“And I’ll have the sea bass.” Rickie waved a hand, and immediately a young waiter arrived to take their food and drink orders. 

Leaf sighed as the boy walked away, “That’s why I like to come here.”

While waiting for the meal, the trio stuck to safe topics: Tina’s school and classmates, local politics, entertainment news.  Meaghan was awed that he could easily keep up with her younger sister’s quicksilver subject changes, and she gradually relaxed for the first time since Rickie showed up at her house this afternoon.

When the steaming dishes arrived, she sniffed appreciatively at her chicken, and then dug in.  After a few minutes, Meaghan looked at her sister.  She was still dreamingly following their waiter as he handled his other tables.

“How are your plates?” Rickie asked, as he sampled his wild rice.  Leaf nodded and gave a thumbs up, her mouth already filled with spaghetti.  Meaghan stated, “This is one of my favorites here at this restaurant.”

The meal settled down into a companionable silence as they applied themselves to their dinner, and Meaghan felt herself relax in his easy company.  Once, when she returned from the bathroom, she saw Rickie and her sister in earnest conversation, but they broke apart when she reached the table.

“What were you two up to?” Meaghan asked suspiciously, only to be met by two overly-innocent looks.  Rickie spoke up, “She was asking if she could have the Moroccan date tart for dessert.”  Meaghan didn’t believe them, but the evening was going well, so she didn’t argue.

Later, replete from the meal, the drive back to Meaghan’s was quiet, as Rickie stopped at the front of their terrace house.

However, as soon as he alighted from his truck, Rickie felt a tingling sensation between his shoulder blades and quickly scanned the area by the house.  His instincts were telling him they were being watched, but he was unable to determine where the lurker was.  The malevolence in the air made it seem almost metallic, and he wanted to get Meaghan and her sister inside as soon as possible.  Quickly walking around to the passenger side, he handed out first one girl, then the other, then hustled them towards their door.  Meaghan must have felt the urgency; she didn’t protest as he practically pushed her to the door.

He didn’t take a deep breath until Meaghan had unlocked and opened the front door, and Leaf had slipped inside. 

Meaghan turned and looked at Rickie, who was distractedly looking around her front yard.   She hesitantly touched his arm, feeling the warmth of his skin.  He turned and focused on her, those points of blue staring into her eyes.

“Thank you for this evening, En Ahmad.  My sister appreciated it, too.”

“Rickie. I’d like you call me Rickie, and I had a good time, too.” He placed a hand over the one Meaghan had on his arm.  Suddenly self-conscious, she tried to pull away, but he had her hand trapped.  He gave it a slight squeeze and released it.  Meaghan could feel the hairs of his arm as she removed her hand, and stopped herself from wiping it on her skirt to try and stop the tingling.  She nodded, quickly went through her door, and closed it behind her.  But not before she looked at his face a final time.

Rickie felt a moment of triumph; Meaghan was no longer avoiding eye contact or keeping her head down.  The moment was short-lived when he remembered the feeling he had when they drove up to the house.   He stared into in the dark shadows along the road, but could not discern any movement.  The feeling of evil had faded, leaving nothing more than a bitter tang in the air.  Rickie glanced one more time at the front door, and walked back to his truck.

Chapter 16

Aéroport Nice Côte d'Azur, as the second busiest airport in France, normally teamed with passengers hurrying to one of two terminals to travel all over the world.  On a late Sunday night, however, there were few people roaming the glass rotunda of Terminal 2. 

A tall figure, muffled in a long grey coat and kinte-cloth scarf, paced nervously by the Qatar Airways ticket booth, stopping occasionally to look out the windows past the quiet runways to the fathomless black expanse of the Mediterranean Sea beyond.

Finally, she sat down at a café-style table, by a closed lounge. She unwound the colourful scarf, revealing the dark skin and high cheekbones of central Africa, with short, curly black hair.  Reaching into a large overnight bag in burberry print, she pulled out a laptop computer, and opened it up in front of her.  As it hummed to life, she chewed her lower lip a bit, then, going into an email program, began quickly typing. A silver and bronze bangled bracelet quietly chimed against the table as her fingers flew over the keyboard.


After a few minutes, she turned off the device, stored it back in the bag, and resumed pacing as the sky lightened over the water.

                                               ~     ~     ~
The ringing of the doorbell startled Meaghan as she straightened up the living room.

Opening it, she found Shel, holding a half of durian in her hands.   “I just bought one, and I know how much you like its buttery pungent goodness, so I brought you some.  So who was the guy that took you and your sister out last night?”  She bustled in, heading for the kitchen.

Meaghan followed her neighbour into the kitchen and sat down on one of the chairs.  “Remember the guy I mentioned a week or so ago?  He invited Tina and me to dinner last night.  We went to Jambu’s, and he apparently knows the owner.  We had a nice time.”

“So tell me about him.  What’s his name, what does he do, all the particulars.  You know I worry about you going out with strange men.”  Shel expertly scooped the custard-like flesh into a bowl, discarding the sharp rind in the sink.  After wiping her hands on a towel, she turned and accepted the business card from Meaghan.

“I’ve heard of this company.  I remember something in the news that they were having some sort of dispute over the ownership of their oil fields.  Did he talk about that at all?  What did he say about his businesses?”  Meaghan thought for a moment, but couldn’t answer her neighbour’s questions.

“I don’t really remember talking about any business related topics.  We mostly talked about music, television, Tina’s classes, things like that.  Why?”

Shel shrugged.  “Unless he has something to do with your company, I don’t see why he would ask you out, especially under the circumstances that you met.  It just seems odd.”  Meaghan privately agreed.

“Well, I don’t believe you’ll see him again here, unless he’s still looking for properties.  So, Shel,” Meaghan smiled, “tell me about the guy you’ve been flirting with on the Internet.”  Shel  had always lived in her home alone, so Meaghan was curious about what kind of man Shel was attracted to.  As they dug into their bowls of durian, Shel began talking.

“Well, his name is Sam, and we’ve been talking for a couple of weeks now…”

                                               ~     ~     ~
Rickie was in his office, reviewing a contract to supply a French firm with palm oil, when there was a perfunctory knock on his door, and his father’s assistant breezed in.

“It’s the end of the day, and I figured you were still here going over the Pomme Verte proposal.  What do you think of it?”  Rickie looked up at JoAnne.

“Is that really why you came to my office?” He raised his left eyebrow.  JoAnne grinned back.

“No, I just wanted to talk you.  Alright, to interrogate you.  You came into work in a remarkably chipper mood, and I wanted to pump you for any juicy information.  Is it the somebody that you met at that birthday party and won’t talk about?”

Rickie asked, “Why, am I sparkling?  It’s nothing.  I went to dinner last night with a couple of people I know.  There were three of us, if you must know.”

“Oh,” said JoAnne, deflating, “I had hoped you love life was getting a kickstart.  Anyway, before you leave, I wanted to give you the latest update on our talks with the Chen Dong group for the Balai oilfield exploration.  They rejected our first offer, and plan to send us a counteroffer tomorrow.  I just wanted to give you a head’s up.”

“What does my father think?”

“En Ahmad believes they want to formally dispute our rights to explore those fields under Chinese law, and are using this as proof that we weren’t willing to negotiate properly in order to press their claim.”

Rickie thought for a moment, and then nodded.  “Okay, we’ll see what they come up with tomorrow.  Tell my father I’ll talk to him once I review their proposal.”

“And you’ll tell me if you find that perfect girl, right?  I have to meet and approve her.  I know,” JoAnne acknowledged his silence with a gesture, “my first love is Rain, but I still want to make sure she’s good enough for you.”  And with a smile and a nod, JoAnne walked out, shutting the door behind her.

After she left, Rickie thought about last night’s dinner.  With her lively sister acting as a chaperone, the conversation was safe, but Rickie still felt it was a success, seeing several fleeting smiles on Meaghan’s lovely face, her warm brown eyes crinkling up at the corners.  He caught himself reaching for his phone; he balled his fists to resist calling her.  He didn’t want to seem too eager, even though he wanted to see her again.  He stood up, slid the rest of the papers into his correspondence basket, and gathered up his things to go home.

Aéroport Nice Côte d'Azur, Terminal 2.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Prince and His Harem - Ch 13 & 14

Chapter Thirteen

There was a long pause, but then Tina began talking.

“I saw him in the neighbourhood, and invited him over.  That’s okay, isn’t it?”  Tina asked worriedly in the continued silence.  Meaghan was the first to wake up, reminding herself of who and what he was.

“Of course.  En Ahmad, how are you doing tonight?”  Rickie looked at her for a moment, and then suddenly bent down, causing Meaghan to jump back with a squeak.  He straightened up, the dishtowel in one hand.   He reached out and Meaghan took the cloth from him, pulse jumping as their fingers touched.   She gestured with her free hand towards their sofa.  “Please have a seat, and I bring out some tea.”

“Oh, you don’t need to do that…” Rickie began, but she quickly retreated to the kitchen.

Tina brightly spoke, “We don’t get many visitors, except when my friends come over to study.”  She looked at him curiously. “So are you a playboy?” Rickie looked at her, affronted, but she blithely continued. “Meg said the birthday party was nothing more than players showing off.”  She giggled at his face.  “She was probably exaggerating.  Anyway,” Tina performed a lightning-fast shift, “my birthday is coming up soon.  Do you play any instruments?”

“Well, I play a little guitar, but I’m not all that good.  I don’t have a lot of time to practice.” Rickie secretly smiled, thinking about Raine and her cello. “So what classes are you taking in school?”

                                                              ~     ~     ~

When Meaghan returned to the living room, carrying a tray containing a plate of fruit, several coffee cups and a teapot, she stopped for a moment to look at the pair on the couch.

In spite of his high-quality attire of dark gray slacks and lighter-toned golf shirt, he looked perfectly as ease on the well-sprung couch as he listened to her sister’s prattling.  The two of them seem to hit it off.  It seemed like a chance meeting, but she was still suspicious.

Their conversation broke off at the sound of the tray being placed on the coffee table.   Meaghan poured three cups, and then sat down on the wing-back chair.

Rickie admired the picture she made, dressed casually in green cotton pants and a button down blouse in a purple-check pattern, tied at the waist over a light green shirt. The curve of the shirt exposed the smooth skin of her throat; a gold necklace with a floating heart peeked out between the plackets.  Her hair was in a simple braid; two small gold hoops in her ears.  Her eyebrows suddenly moved together into a frown and he realised he was staring.  He blurted out the first thing that came to his mind.

“You’ve got flour on your nose.”

Meaghan’s hand flew to her face as she rubbed her nose.  Sure enough, there were telltale white smudges.  It must have happened when she was refilling her flour tin.  The heat creeping up her neck warned her that she blushing furiously.   Tina squealed, and even Rickie was unable to hold back a chuckle as she rubbed her nose with napkin.   To cover up the incident, he took the closest cup and brought to his nose.  Sniffing, he said, “Chai tea is one of my favorites.  Thank you.”

Meaghan decided she needed to gain back a little control.   Picking up her own cup, she asked, “So why are you in this area?  Aren’t your offices located in Sama Jaya?”  She nearly cursed when his eyes sharpened, and she realised he now knew she had looked for information about him.

He relaxed into the couch, his response ready.  “I’ve been tasked with looking at various properties for sale, and bumped into your sister.  Should we go out to dinner tonight?  I promised you a meal that morning at the waterfront.”

Meaghan’s first thought was to immediately refuse, but she glanced over to Leaf, who was coiled on the couch looking at her pleadingly.  She sighed.  “I need to finish putting away the groceries and change.  And I’m choosing the restaurant.”  She looked challengingly at the gorgeous man lounging on her sofa.  He acquiesced with an almost royal wave of his hand.

“I’ll stay here with my tea until you’re ready to go.  In fact,” he said, “I’ll help you with your kitchen chores so we can go to dinner that much faster.  I’m getting hungry.” He rubbed his stomach.

Meaghan was momentarily mesmerized by that slowing circling hand, but rallied to give him a curt nod.

“Leaf, go ahead and get ready.  En Ahmad and I will take care of things here.”

                                                        ~     ~     ~
Rickie was very aware of the woman as they navigated her small kitchen.  With the exception of helping with putting away things on the higher shelves, there was little he could do.  At least until it came time to clean the remains of the tea.

“Let me wash those for you while you go get changed”. 

Meaghan demurred while holding the teapot.   “I can do it.  After all, you are a guest.”

Rickie decided to see if the attraction went both ways; after all, did she look for information on him?  He stepped towards her; she took a step back.  He advanced until she was up against the sink, still clutching the pot.  He took it from her unresisting hands and placed it on the countertop, and placed an arm on either side of the wide-eyed woman.

Meaghan could barely breath, watching as his eyes drifted over her face and hair, a visual caress that left her skin tingling.  He leaned down towards her right ear.  Incongruously, she stared at the diamond stud in his tragus as his breath whispered along her sensitive lobe.

“Trust me.”  He pulled back and tweaked her nose.  “Just go get ready.”

She practically flew to her bedroom and slammed the door.

Chapter 14
Meaghan stood before her cheval mirror, holding up several shirts.  Snorting in disgust at her dithering, she selected a scoop-necked blouse in cool beige, and paired it with black and brown tribal-patterned broomstick skirt.  A pair of leather sandals completed the outfit.  She had washed her face and decided to leave her hair in the simple braid, but reapplied her makeup.   Once she finished with her lipstick, she nervously smoothed the front of the skirt and performed a final check in the mirror.

She almost didn’t recognise the face in front of her.  Her cheeks seemed flushed and her eyes brighter than usual; she almost looked like a teenager on a first date.   This isn’t a date, she scolded herself, its just dinner.  But her traitorous body was telling her otherwise.

Ultimately ignoring the fluttering in her stomach, she opened the bedroom door and stepped into the living room.

                                                                     ~     ~     ~
Rickie ran his fingers through his blonde locks and tried to loosen tense muscles.  He was striving to look relaxed as he fidgeted in the chair and waited for the two ladies to appear.  He wondered what Meaghan would look like.  Would she look severely professional like the waitress uniform from Saturday last week, or casually chic like that day at the waterfront?  Or even slouchy comfortable earlier today?  The sound of the bedroom door had him looking up. 

His breath came out in a soft sigh.

Meaghan looked soft and approachable; the neutral colours of her outfit somehow enhancing the loose auburn hairs in her crown and the pink spots growing on her cheeks.   Dark pink toes peeked out underneath the long skirt, and her arms were long and sleek, ending with several gold bangles.

She looked both sexy and shy, a combination that Rickie found almost irresistible.  With his eyes still locked on her face, he started to rise from the chair, intending to walk to Meaghan; only to be startled by the sound of a slamming door behind him.

“I’m ready!” called out Leaf as she walked from behind the chair and went over to her sister.  “Wow, Meg, you look awesome”.  The teen was dressed in a bright purple tunic shirt over colourful leggings.  A chain belt was wrapped several times around her waist, and her feet were encased in high-top sneakers that had tribal figures crudely drawn on them in black marker.  Her flaxen hair was teased into spikes on the back and sides, with a blue streak behind her right ear.

As she stepped up next to her older sister, Rickie couldn’t help but note the differences between the two; one, bright and exuberant like a tropical fish; the other, cool and mysterious like the deep jungle.

“So, how do we look?”  The younger girl looked at him expectantly.

Rickie leaned back with his left hand under his chin, and pretended to be in deep thought as he perused them.  Then he straightened up, chuckled, and said, “All the guys will be envious.”

As Tina preened, Meaghan shot a narrowed glance at Rickie, unsure if he was making fun of them.  The clear, guileless look held a spark of humour, and Meaghan felt an answering smile reluctantly form on her lips.

“So are we ready?”  Meaghan nodded at the question, picked up her bag, and walked to the door.

                                                         ~     ~     ~

The Jambu Restaurant and Lounge was an old converted Colonial building, painted in a soft orange.  Inside, cozy groupings of chairs surrounded hand-carved tables, and native textiles adorned the walls and flooring.

At the entrance to the restaurant, Rickie looked at Meaghan and raised his eyebrow.  Meaghan felt the need to explain.

“I know it’s not high class or anything, but the food here is good.”  Rickie shook his head and opened his mouth, intending to say something, when an exotic female voice cut above the low murmur of the other patrons.

Tuanku Rickie! Bonjour!”  The sing-song sultry voice had a hint of British accent with overtones of the Caribbean, and belonged to a stunning dark-skinned woman, dressed in a tropical sarong.

“Bon jour, Hillary,” Rickie stated with laughter, before he was enveloped in a warm hug.  The woman air-kissed both of his cheeks before turning to the two women.

“Welcome to Jambu Restaurant.  I am Hillary, the owner.”  Meaghan gave a slight bow, but Tina immediately got closer to the woman.

“You talk our language funny.  Where are you from?” Meaghan stepped forward, grabbed Tina’s arm and tugged it.  Tina didn’t budge.  Rickie answered.

“Hil’s originally from Trinidad.  We brought her here to implement the computer systems for our emergency shutdown systems as part of our disaster planning for our exploratory oil platforms.”

Tina mumbled, “She doesn’t look like a computer nerd.  She’s too pretty.” 

Hillary replied in an amused tone. “Looks are deceiving; I have a PhD in Computer Science.  After I had a baby several years ago, I decided that pulling overnighters was too stressful, so I quit.  And started this restaurant.”

“She still consults with us,” Rickie said, “And keeps our systems up to date and running.   And she’s done well with this place.  In fact, the only thing she wasn’t successful was her indoor garden.”  Hillary punched him lightly in the arm.

“It wasn’t my fault the fuse blew and took out the automated watering systems and lights. I just had a lousy person helping me.  Anyway,” Hillary’s voice became businesslike without losing the lilting tone, “how many in your party?”

“Just the three of us, Hil.”  She led them to a round table secluded by lush tropical plants and left them with a smile.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Prince and His Harem - Ch 11 & 12


It had been several days since he saw Meaghan Torno at the waterfront, but Rickie was unable to dismiss her from his mind.  Last year, when her parents disappeared during a covert mission to mainland China, there was a frantic scramble of BKN agents to determine their fate.  The remains of the plane were found near the island of Hainan, but the waters were too deep to send an investigative team, and it was decided to announce that they had died in the crash, in order to keep their identities under wrap. 

On impulse, he called his old supervisor at the department and invited her out for drinks.  Since it was late afternoon on a Friday they swiftly made plans.

He arrived first at Bourbon’s, a local bar that served good food and was currently one of his favorite hangouts.  With his arms on the scarred wooden table, he contemplated the bottle of soju on the table.

“Still into high-class establishments, I see,” A petite, dark-haired woman sat down across from Rickie, dressed casually in jeans and a blue patterned jacket over a white t-shirt.  She reached out for the bottle and poured a shot into the extra glass, drinking it with the ease of familiarity.  “So how’s civilian life treating you?"

Rickie smiled wryly.  “The atmosphere here is great.  I miss the buzz from learning each new assignment, but right now I’m where I’m most needed.  How have you been? I’m sorry I didn’t make it to your last performance.”

Raine heaved a sigh.  “I almost poked a guy in the eye with my bow.  He had the gall to ask me if I liked playing the guitar.  The guitar!”  She forcefully set the glass down, rattling a plate of sweet potato balls.  Other customers looked up briefly, and then returned to their conversations.  “Stupid man, can’t tell a cello from a damn hole in the wall.”

Rickie laughed out loud.  Raine was very passionate about her music, and very prickly about her Turkish-made instrument.  She was also one of BKN’s best agents, rising from field assignments until she became the head of the China division within the company.

Raine stabbed a sweet potato ball with a toothpick and popped it into her mouth.  Chewing thoughtfully, she stared at him and asked, “So why did you really ask me to meet you?”

He cleared his throat and thought for a moment.  “I recently bumped into the Tornos’ daughter, and it started me thinking back to last year.  Has there been any new development to the case, or is everyone still convinced they are dead?”

“There haven’t been any rumours of any captured agents along my lines of communication,” Raine said, “so as far as the command staff believes, they did die in the plane crash.  Why the sudden interest?”

“Like I said, meeting up with their daughter made me wonder a bit, since it’s been six months since I was there.”  She made a noncommittal grunt that made Rickie feel defensive.  “And that’s all.”

“Well, I’m happy you contacted me, anyway.  I was going to call you to ask if you would like to do some consulting on the side with us.  Even though you’re now caught up in your family’s situation, you were still one of our most intuitive agents, and we would like to continue to use those skills.  No field work is involved, and you would be compensated for your time.”  Raine looked up expectantly.  “Are you willing to help us?”

“Absolutely.” Rickie smiled.  “I’d be happy to.”

Raine beamed.  “Welcome aboard again, Prince.”

Rickie winced at his old moniker, created no doubt because of his illustrious ancestor, but secretly he was happy.   It seemed he could still be involved in the business, even with his wings clipped by current circumstances.


It was a sunny Saturday, and Rickie was driving along Jalan Stampin, ostensibly checking out several properties for sale in the area.  In reality, he was heading for Meaghan Torno’s neighbourhood.  He got her address from Raine, who razzed him good naturedly but shrewdly; luckily, he managed to deflect most of her pointed comments.  Still, he was happy to finally be out of her presence.

He slowed down as he approached the final turn onto her street.  The terrace houses were typical of the area; two -storey attached homes with small front yards and chain link fencing.  His palms started to sweat as he realized what he was doing.  He pulled over the SUV and stopped; this felt tantamount to stalking.  But, he argued to himself, since she hadn’t called him and hadn’t given him her phone number, the only way to contact her was face to face.

His inner monologue was broken by a tapping on the driver side window.  He rolled it down to see the blonde teenager from that evening in Miri.   She was grinning from ear to ear, her blue eyes twinkling.

“Hi!  I remember you.  Was the party fun? I had to wait for my sister to finish that night before we could leave.  It was boring, so that’s why I went outside so I could practice my music.  You said you liked my playing.  Do you play the flute too?  What are you doing here?”  The questions came out rapid-fire, as Rickie sought a way to answer them.

“I’m in the neighbourhood looking for some properties for sale.  Do you live nearby?” Rickie asked carefully.  The girl put her hand on the door.

“We live a couple of blocks from here.  I’m Tina,” she added, “but my sister calls me Leaf.  She might be home now.  Do you want to stop by?”

“If it won’t bother anyone.  Is it just you and your sister at home?” Rickie couldn’t believe his luck.  “If you want, I can drive you there.”

Tina opened the door and hopped inside, taking in the burlwood dashboard and leather seats. “This is really nice,” she said admiringly. “Just take the first right and I’ll show you where our house is.”

                                                                               ~     ~     ~
Today was payday, and Meaghan had walked home with an armful of groceries.  Leaf’s birthday was coming up soon, and her favorite cake was chocolate fudge with coconut ice cream.  The ice cream would have to wait until right before her birthday; the freezer portion of their old refrigerator wasn’t cold enough to keep the ice cream from becoming soft.

She hid the bittersweet chocolate behind some dishes and had begun sorting the rest of the foodstuffs into the pantry when she heard the front door open.  Leaf was home, and apparently brought a friend from the way she was chattering.   Meaghan wiped her hands on a dishcloth and stepped out of the kitchen to welcome them.

The dishcloth hit the floor with a soft plop as Meaghan looked into the cerulean eyes that had haunted her the past week.