Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Prince and His Harem - Ch 49 & 50

Chapter 49

The room appeared to be the crew members’ mess hall.  Amid the long white tables, there sat about a dozen employees, most of them still wearing their hardhats, their work clothes showing the everyday grime of a driller.  They were all sitting in close proximity to each other, and were all staring in the same direction at a female figure pacing near the double doors that lead to the galley.

The cold eyes of Ani passed over the huddled group as she moved past them.   She was dressed in black fatigues and carried a SIG 553 snub-nosed assault rifle in one hand, its dark, squat shape somehow more menacing than a more standard weapon.  She was talking to someone using an ear mike, but Rickie was unable to hear what was being said. 

Instead, he quickly glanced through the room and noted that this was only part of the entire complement of personnel on the structure.  Maybe some of them had escaped and were.  John, her partner, was nowhere in sight, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that for now.

The important thing right now was to get those individuals away from that woman, and do what he could to prevent anything from happening to the drill.

Rickie pulled away from the frightening scene and thought about how he could create a diversion.  He warily opened the exterior door to the galley and went inside.   He looked around for some type of weapon or useful item. 

The gleaming stainless steel utensils and pots stacked on various metal open-weave shelves reflected the light trickling from the mess hall doors, but did little to inspire him.  He glanced around the perimeter of the room, but ended back at the shelves.  After staring at them for a moment, Rickie thought of an idea to possibly create a diversion; that was all he was able to do to assist them.  He hoped the crew members would be able to take advantage of his efforts and escape.

Pulling several aprons off the hooks near the sinks, he used a paring knife to cut the aprons in half, and then he knotted them together.  He tucked the knife into his boot and tied one end of his makeshift rope to an upper shelf.   He played out the fabric until it stretched towards the outside door.

Taking a deep breath, Rickie pulled with all his might, and heard a cacophony of sound as the shelf and all the cookware crashed to the floor.  He ran out the galley door back into the camouflaging darkness without knowing if his ploy was successful.

Chapter 50

Rickie crouched beneath a diamond-plate walkway and tried to catch his breath.  The sound of running feet and shouting meant that his distraction may have allowed some of the crew to escape.    Since the tower was miles offshore, the authorities were at least twenty minutes out, and Rickie needed to determine what the saboteurs might have done to the structure.  Deciding the Control Room was the best choice to reconnoiter, he headed towards one of the doors leading to the interior.

He hesitated a moment before spinning the door lock and pulling open the heavy iron door.   The brightness of the interior stung his eyes as they adjusted. He strained his ears but did not hear anything, so his quickly slipped down the corridor towards the center of the structure.

In short order, he reached the Control Room without incident, and pressed an ear against the door.  Since he didn’t hear anything, he cautiously opened the door and ducked inside.  Straightening out, he noted that most of the security cameras appeared to still be online.  Rickie locked the door, and sat down in the chair in front of the bank of monitors.  Scanning the cameras, he saw several groups of crew members throughout the rig, but did not see either of the saboteurs.

He attempted to use the main radio to contact the Maritime Enforcement Agency, but all he received was static.  Possibly the explosion he saw previously had damaged the communication dish.  He checked his phone again, and kicked the wall in frustration; he should have thought to bring a satellite cell phone with him.

Wait; maybe there was one here in the Control Room.  A brief search yielded no results, although there was a locked cabinet underneath the desktop.  He pulled the paring knife out of his boot and used it to force the cabinet door open.

Wonder of wonders, the cabinet contained a bank of two-way radios as well as a satellite phone.  He picked up one of the radios from the charging station on the table and turned it on.

“…where is everyone…she’s escaped…we need to find them…”  Rickie winced at the babble and turned the volume down.  Leaving the chaos for the moment, he switched on the phone and called Raine.

“Just what the hell is happening?”  Raine demanded once Rickie identified himself.

“It’s just as Meaghan said.  I saw one of the consultants with an assault rifle corralling a group of crew members.  I managed to make enough noise for a distraction, but I don’t know who escaped.  I’m currently holed up in the Control Room.  The male subject is nowhere on the camera monitors, and I’ve lost sight of her as well.  Several of the personnel have radios.  I haven’t contacted any of them yet.  I wanted to check with you first.”

Raine replied, “We’ve got two patrol ships on their way, and the APMM also launched their AS 365 Dauphin helicopter as well.  A STAR commando unit of fifteen is on both the ship and the helo.  Just sit tight and they should be there soon.”

“I can’t do that, Raine.  Those bastards might have explosives somewhere, and I’m not willing to have an ecological disaster happen to my tower.”

“Don’t be a hero!” Raine all but yelled. “You need to let the professionals do their job.”

Rickie gritted his teeth.  “Don’t forget, I’m one of those professionals, too.  I went through PASKAU training, just like them.  Moreover, I know this building, and I’ll be careful.  What frequency will they be monitoring?”

Raine blew out a breath, as if she knew he wasn’t going to budge on this. “Fine, Tac Channel 7 has been assigned.  The boat team is Unit Alpha; the helo team is Unit Bravo.  And Prince, if you get damaged, you’ll hear it from me.”  Rickie laughed and gave a smart salute as if she was standing in front of him.

“Yes, ma’am.”

The Prince and His Harem - Ch 47 & 48

Chapter 47

Several hours later, Rickie was exhausted.  After the endless phone calls between his staff and fire department personnel in France, he was ready to rest.  JoAnne capably fielded calls from the newshounds and the curious; pictures of the fire had already spread through the internet.   The French investigators believed some sort of accelerant was used in portions of the building; the preliminary finding of arson hung heavy in his mind.

Taking a sip of still-warm coffee, he turned to JoAnne, who was hanging up after another call.   He gave her a tired smile. “Thanks for your help.”  JoAnne shrugged.

“Once I convinced your father to have a lie-in, it was easy to help you.  And thanks for the food.” She waved at the table, where chocolate pieces and cheese curls were side by side with turkey sandwiches and sliced vegetables.  JoAnne stretched and sighed after looking at the wall clock.  It read 7:35 pm.  “I’ll follow up with everything in a couple of hours, our time.  Hopefully by then, we can determine what can be salvaged from all this.”  

Rickie gave her a one-armed hug.  “What would my father and I do without you?” he asked with affection.  She smiled and lightly punched his arm.

“You can always give me a raise to show your gratitude.  I still have my kid’s college tuition to pay for.”  She picked up her bag, gave a little wave and headed out the door.

Rickie sat down and rubbed his temples.  What a mess.  The Nice servers were physically backed up to magnetic tape once a month and stored offsite, so everything was not lost.  It was going to take a long time to rebuild, though, and some records were irretrievable.  He thought about the main office here in Kuching.

Of course.  He snapped his fingers.  The monthly reports were compiled from data from their various distribution locations, so maybe the data could be reconstructed from those records…

Meaghan.  Somehow, with the turmoil of this evening, she had left his thoughts.  He quickly pulled out his cell phone and saw Meaghan had tried several times to reach him.  He dialed for his voicemail and sucked back his breath when he heard her strained voice.

[“Rickie, please call me back.  I…I found something bad.  I think someone’s going to destroy your gas tower, and I think it’s going to happen tonight.”  With a sigh, Meaghan continued. “I’m really worried, so please call me. Please.”]

The voicemail ended.  With a curse, Rickie quickly dialed Meaghan’s cell phone.

                                                  ~     ~     ~

Meaghan was perched on the couch in a pair of jeans and a green cable-knit long sweater.  Tina had already gone to her room to study, after she was unable to keep her big sister from pacing.  Her dizziness had finally abated, but she was still experiencing weakness.  She picked up the phone again and willed Rickie to call.  After the first voicemail, she had called several times, but each time it rang several times without Rickie answering, and she hung up before leaving any additional messages.

The strains of Minnie Ripperton’s “Loving You” came on immediately after her phone vibrated. “Finally!” Meaghan breathed and quickly answered.

“Rickie?”  At the sound of her worried voice, Rickie sharpened his focus.

“Meggie?  How are you feeling?”

“Nevermind me,” she stated impatiently, “I need to talk to you about my information…”

Rickie interrupted her.  “The Nice office burned down today.”

Meaghan was stunned by the appalling news.  And, yet, given the conclusion she found, it made  strange, terrible sense.  “Are all the employees safe?  What about Mystisith?  Has anyone seen her since this happened?”

“I don’t recognize the name, but I was told all employees were accounted for, why?”  Rickie questioned.

Meaghan replied, “I think she started the fire.”  Swiftly, she gave him the information from Ivoire’s files, as well as the altered files of Mystisith, and her conclusion.  “And I think those two consultants are some type of terrorist or saboteurs, and it’s going to happen tonight.”

Rickie made some swift calculations.  The sun was already setting, so it would be close to dark before he reached the structure by boat.  Given the situation, though, he thought the boat would be the most viable option.

“I’m going to get in touch with Raine and the team, and try to prevent anything from happening.  Just stay home, and if something happens, someone will contact you.”

“You can’t go alone!” Meaghan cried, “It’s too dangerous!”  She gripped the phone tightly in her trembling hand and whispered, “Please don’t go.”

Rickie sighed.  “I have to.  It’s my family’s property, and I have to protect it.  And I can’t send anyone out until I know for a fact that something is happening.  I believe you,” he said, to stop a protest he knew was already on her beautiful lips, “but I’ll need more evidence before I can activate the troops.  Don’t worry; I promise I’ll be careful.”

Meaghan bit her lower lip. “I wish you wouldn’t go, but I understand.”  She closed her eyes and willed her voice to stay steady.  “Do what you must, and come back to me.”

A lump formed in Rickie’s throat, and he had to cough several times to clear it.  He realized how much he had grown to crave for this incredible woman, and how much she cared for him.  “I will always be there for you, my Meggie, and I hope you will always be by my side.”

A quiet sob greeted those words.  Rickie finished.  “Now I have to go protect what is mine.  I give you my word that, when this is over, you and I will have a very important conversation.”

“Be careful.” It was little more than a whisper, but it reverberated in Rickie’s chest and settled warmly in his heart, and he blinked back sudden tears.

Chapter 48

Rickie called Raine and swiftly explained the situation both in France and Malaysia to her as he hustled to his Rexton.

“I’m heading out to the boathouse right now.  I’ll let you know what I find when I get to the platform.  If the team is correct, everything is going to happen tonight, but I won’t be completely sure until I arrive.”

“Should you take a helicopter?  It would be faster.”  Rickie shook his head as he climbed into the cab and turned the engine over.

“If they have set up any type of explosive device, the sight of a helo might cause them to set it off.  I’d rather take the boat; it will be only about a half-hour to reach it.  Raine, just stand by until I have some information; that way we don’t have a false alarm to the APMM.”

There was a pause, then Raine replied, “Okay, but if I don’t hear from you within the hour, I’m sending the troops.”

Rickie agreed, snapped the phone shut, and concentrated on reaching his boathouse in the shortest possible time.

                                                 ~     ~     ~

The sleek white boat sped across the waves towards the gas rig. Rickie hoped that his hunch and the data collected by his team were incorrect, and that his family’s property was not the target of a terrorist act.  He had attempted to contact the tower by phone, but was unsuccessful; and, as the steel scaffolding of the platform showed as black webbing against the barest orange glow from the sky, he slowed his pace and regarded the structure.

Outwardly, everything appeared serene, with nothing out of the ordinary.  Maybe we are wrong about this, Rickie thought, a thread of doubt surfacing for the first time as he approached closer.

A bright puff of light exploded near the helipad, and suddenly the exterior lights illuminating the helipad and tower shut off, plunging everything into almost total darkness to his dazzled eyes.  Rickie immediately slowed to a crawl and turned off his running lights.   He swore when he realized his cell phone wasn’t showing a signal, so he grabbed the boat radio and switched it to an emergency frequency while he waited for the retinal afterimages to fade.

“May Day, May Day, this is the boat Air Harimau Bintang from Ahmad Holdings.”

“This is APMM Maritime District 11, Leftenan Madya Maritim Najib bin Talib speaking.  What is the nature of the emergency, over.”

“This is Rick Ahmad; there appears to be a possibility of a terrorist act at our FLNG platform, Compliant Tower # 3, GPS location 2.459538 / 109.126682.  Director Raine of the BKN is aware of the circumstances and may already be in touch with your office. Please activate STAR on our behalf.  At this time, I am unable to contact you by anything other than this radio at this time, over.”

“We copy, and recommend you wait until we arrive and confirm the situation, over.”

“Negative, Maritime.  I intend to recon and make sure my crew is okay.  I’ll contact you again once I am on the tower, over.”  Rickie switched off the radio before they had a chance to protest.  After he signed off, Rickie stared into the night, where he could just see the tower, and, as quietly as he could, continued his course until he was directly underneath the drilling platform by the dock.

An unfamiliar black and white Bayliner was moored to the dock; Rickie shut down his engines and glided in, jumped out and secured the bow of his boat before tying off the aft section.  He loaded his Glock 17 and placed it in a holster in the small of his back, and headed for the stairs leading to the upper decks but paused every few steps to listen for any disturbance.

On the lower deck, where the employees’ quarters were located, he saw several lighted windows and decided to sneak a look through one of them.   The sight that greeted caused his heart to skip a beat.

It had already started.

The Prince and His Harem - Ch 45 & 46

Chapter 45

Thursday morning, Meaghan barely stirred when her alarm went off.   Her limbs felt like lead, and a tickle in her throat warned her that she probably was coming down with something. 

After multiple attempts she was sitting up, but the dizziness that accompanied it made her feel slightly nauseous.   Her face felt hot, too.  Realizing the futility of going to work in this state, she called the office.

“Hello!”  Somehow MJP25’s perkiness made her feel even worse.

“Hi, MJP.  It’s Meaghan. I’m too sick to work today.  Can you let everyone know?”

Her voice instantly became concerned.  “Anything we can do for you, Meg?”

“No no, I’m just going to stay in bed today.  If something comes up that’s important, though, call me.”  At least she had her laptop and could work a little from home if needed.

“Okay, Meg.  I hope you feel better,” MJP25 replied.


                                              ~     ~     ~

After a hot bath and some medicine, Meaghan felt marginally better.  Straightening the house left her feeling exhausted, so she sat down on the couch, a box of tissues within reach and a thermos of hot tea on the end table.  She glanced around the room until her eyes rested on her computer bag.  Maybe this is a good time to go over Ivoire’s files again, she thought.  

She heaved herself off the well-sprung cushions and shuffled to the bag.   She sat back down on the couch with an audible sigh, plugged in the power cord to the wall outlet, and booted up the computer.

While sipping the hot, strong tea, her cell phone went off, and she smiled when she saw who it was.

“How are you feeling? Do you need anything?  Should I come over?”  Rickie barked the questions out, his concern underlying the bossy tone.

“I’m fine, Rickie.  I’m just resting a bit right now. It’s just a slight fever, and I’m sure I’ll feel better soon.”

Rickie’s voice became gentler.  “I don’t like you being alone when you’re not feeling well.  Should I have Sethe keep you company?”

“I’m fine,” Meaghan insisted, “I’m going to read a little, have some tea, and rest some more.”  A quiet beep showed the computer was ready.  “If I need anything, I will call you.  I promise.”

“Are you sure there’s nothing I can do that would make you feel better?” Rickie’s tone became intimate, and Meaghan squirmed at the image that suddenly popped into her mind; lying on Rickie’s chest, hearing his heartbeat against her ear while he stroked her hair.   She took a sip of tea to ease her suddenly-dry throat.

“N…nothing comes to mind,” Meaghan said.  A low chuckle greeted this, and Meaghan knew he caught her stammer.

“Call me later, Meggie.  I want to know you are still doing okay.”  After she promised, he disconnected, and Meaghan fanned her face, feeling hotter than the fever warranted.

Once her unruly heart slowed, she plugged in the thumb drive and began looking over the files, trying to find whatever data Ivoire had tried so desperately to send her.

Chapter 46

Meaghan pulled up the most recent data from France and compared it to the information found in Ivoire’s file.  It was clear that several businesses were missing.  She compared the files and found the same companies that she had flagged previously based on the wiretap information were suspiciously absent from Mystisith’s files:

Chiang Tung Investments.  The Samui Group.  Chiang Mai Distribution.

Meaghan pushed back from the laptop and sank back into the cushions of the couch with a sick feeling in her stomach.  The similar nomenclature of the names; the wiretap discussion of festivals.

Mystisith was more than likely involved, and not in a good way.

It was probably going to begin tonight, at the start of Gawai Dayak.

And it was happening on Rickie’s drilling platform.

Her heart in her throat, she quickly attempted to call Rickie, but the call went straight to voicemail.  She left a voicemail asking him to call back as soon as possible, then walked to her bedroom and began changing into outside clothes.

                                          ~     ~     ~

Just back from lunch, Rickie contemplated leaving early to go see Meaghan.  She had sounded a little congested; surely she would appreciate someone bringing some abalone porridge and a sympathetic demeanor, someone willing to keep her company and cater to her every need.  He grinned as he pictured her, curled up on the couch and wrapped in a fluffy blanket.

He was reaching for his phone when it rang.  Looking at the Caller ID, he answered it.

Selamat tengah hari, JoAnne.  How are you this afternoon?”

“We have a problem at our Nice office.”  The seriousness of her tone had Rickie sitting up.

“What happened?”

“The building is on fire. Witness said they heard what sounded like an explosion. Since it’s early in the morning in France, there wasn’t anyone besides the custodial staff, and they have all been accounted for. The firefighters are still battling the blaze, but it looks like our offices have been gutted.”

Rickie leaned back in his chair.  “At least no one was injured.  Our servers back up at midnight there, so we shouldn’t have lost anything.”  There was a long pause, and then JoAnne sighed.

“It appears there was some type of malware or worm that made it past our firewalls.  The backup servers have been completely corrupted.  For all intents and purposes, the office has disappeared.”

Rickie couldn’t speak for a moment, thunderstruck at the complete destruction of the branch.  He mentally shook himself, and then addressed JoAnne again.

“I’m on my way to the house.  Please collect whatever information we can gather, and get in contact with our command staff in France.  Let’s see what we can do.”

“Okay, boss.” JoAnne brusquely signed off. 

Rickie collected his keys and computer bag.  Heading out the door, he looked at his cell
phone and realized Meaghan had called and left a voicemail.   He put the phone in his pocket with some regret; his visit with his woman was going to have to wait a while.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Prince and His Harem - Ch 43 & 44

Chapter 43

Meaghan was sipping her morning coffee when Tina emerged from her room, wearing a bright pink shirt and Patrick Starr boxer shorts.   Yawning, she shouldered past Meaghan, grabbed a container of orange juice from the refrigerator, and fumbled for a mug on the countertop.

“You’re early today,” Meaghan observed over her steaming mug.

Tina shrugged.  “I didn’t finish my homework yesterday, so I wanted to wake up early and finish it before school.”  Giving her sister an absentminded hug, the younger girl wandered back to her room, mug in hand.

“Don’t be late for the bus!” Meaghan called. She finished her coffee, rinsed out the mug and placed on the drying rack.  Taking her time back to her bedroom, she bumped the sideboard, causing their parent’s wedding album to hit the floor with a soft thump.

She picked up, and noted that the threads holding the leather cover together were unraveling a bit on one of the corners.  Feeling guilty about dropping it, she carefully replaced it and proceeded into her room to get ready for work.

                                                    ~     ~     ~

At the office, she continued her analysis of the information trickling in from CMPrindle.  It had been a week since the first wiretap information, and she had an idea on how everything was interrelated.  On impulse, she pulled Ivoire’s file from her bag and plugged the thumb drive into her computer, and attempted to match any key words.

One of the companies immediately caught her eye, and she wondered why she hadn’t seen it before.  She cross referenced her current data, and there it was: Chiang Tung Investments.  The company was identified both in Ivoire’s file and in the data coming from her co-workers.

Feeling like she was onto a lead, she sent an email to Rickie asking to meet him.

Later that afternoon, when Meaghan walked to Rickie’s office, she was sure that her instincts were on the right trail.  Her thoughts were scattered to the four winds, however, when, as soon as the door was opened, she was enveloped in a hug, the familiar scent tugging at her senses. 

Rickie savored the feel of his woman.  She fit perfectly under his chin, her hair smelled of strawberries.  She gave him an answering squeeze and then pulled back.

“I needed that,” he admitted out loud. 

At his statement, she placed a warm palm on his cheek, a gesture he already recognized and craved.  Stepping back further, he took her hand and guided it to one of the chairs in front of his desk, and sat in the other, their knees almost touching.  With an effort, he stopped staring at the length of leg revealed by her skirt, and tried to focus on the folder she handed to him.

“What did you find?”  He asked in an almost normal tone.

She stopped smiling and turned very serious.  “I think something bad is planned for this weekend.”

Chapter 44

She pointed out a chart on the top of the paperwork.

“The wiretaps have mentioned Thailand, but it seemed like a codeword or a concept more than the country.  The taps also mentioned a festival and we have several starting this weekend that are in the early part of the month.  I spoke about that last week, if memory serves.   There are several companies in our database that use derivatives of Thai words, and they seem to be in similar fields. 

“Chiang Tung Investments is located in Shanghai; they invest in energy exploration.  There’s the Samui Group who specialize in petroleum geophysics, supplying manpower.  

“Then there is Chiang Mai, which is a marine distribution company.  There has been an increase in exports of containers identified as industrial machinery being shipped from China to Malaysia.  Oddly enough, for this company, it seems they have little activity planned for June, which is unusual given their manifests for May.”  She leaned forward.

“I think that something is being planned to happen the beginning of June.”  At this admission from Meaghan, Rickie looked through the report, made the decision, and met Meaghan’s eyes.

“I think you’re right too, Meggie.  Now we have to figure out what it is.  I’ll meet with Raine either tonight or tomorrow and see what she thinks.  Did you want to come to dinner with us?”

Meaghan shook her head.  “I promised Leaf I’d help her with a school project tonight.  If you would like, I can send her my report via email,” she offered.  Rickie nodded and stood up.  Meaghan did likewise.

“Please do.  And if something else comes along, contact me day or night.  In fact,” Rickie’s eyes warmed, “Call me for any reason whatsoever.”  He touched her shoulder, and ran his hand down her arm, intertwining their fingers.  He held her hand for a moment, gave her a quick kiss on the back of her hand, and then reluctantly released her.  The bright pink spots on either cheek belied his effect on her as she bobbed her head and hurried out of the office.

Outside his door, Meaghan held her hands to her burning cheeks and willed them to die down.  Making her way back to her desk, she sent the file to Raine’s email box and prepared to finish up for the day.

                                               ~    ~    ~

Rickie met Raine at Hillary’s restaurant. She had taken them to an out-of-the-way corner table, and promised to return when she had a moment.   Meanwhile, they sipped glasses of wine as they waited for their entrees.

Raine reviewed her copy of Meaghan’s report.  “I think it’s a good call on Meg’s part, but we need to pinpoint the location if at all possible.  Any ideas?”

"I have two consultants on my gas rig near Pulau Serasan.  I checked their references this afternoon, but everything appears to be legitimate.”  Rickie thought for a moment. “I’ll go ahead and check with my contacts, and see if anything unusual pops up.  My first impression was that they were a bit odd, but I’ve only been working the family interests for only a short while, so I don’t personally know their reputation.”

Hillary showed up with their meals, and after serving them, and sat down with the pair.  They had a friendly discussion of favorite wine selections, and the meal proceeded amicably.

                                              ~     ~     ~
In the quiet darkness above the bustle surrounding the drill, two figures leaned against the railing around the helipad and looked down at the movement below.  A matched flared up as John lit a cigarette, deeply inhaled and then sighed a puff of smoke.

“Are we prepared for tomorrow?”

“Affirmative.  And you know,” Ani added dryly, “Those things will kill you.”

A laugh was the only reply.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Prince and His Harem - Ch 41 & 42

Chapter 41

Rickie was whistling as he drove down Jalan Bako from the marina.  The inspection on the gas derrick was completed quickly; he met the two consultants and they struck him as an odd pair.  The petroleum geologist, John, was knowledgeable and chatty but had that slick feel of a used car salesman.  The woman, on the other hand spoke very little and only the bare minimum number of words to create an appropriate response.  Still, it looked like the drilling would begin by Thursday or Friday, and Rickie was well pleased with the entire crew.

Rather than linger on site and eat with the team, he took the boat to the marina and headed back to the city.  It would still be dark by the time he got there, but maybe he could convince

Meaghan to go on an evening stroll, if she had finished shopping with Sethe.

He tried calling her cell phone, but it immediately went to voicemail.  He left a message anyway; if she was still at the house, it would be only proper to offer her a ride home.  Her sister Tina would be with them, too, but Rickie knew after the party, he had her full support to court Meaghan.

Meaghan.  When he looked back, it was less than a month since they first met at that dinner party; now it seemed that he could barely tolerate a single day without seeing her.

Yeah, he had it bad.

He came out of his ruminations to find himself in front of the house.  After he parked the SUV in the carport, he picked up the inspection report and strode into the house.  The downstairs was quiet, so he went up to his father’s apartment.  There he found the elder Ahmad on a couch, reading a paperback novel.  The older man looked up at the sound of Rickie’s knock and broke into a smile.

“There’s my son.  How did everything go today?” 

Rickie greeted his father, and then handed him the envelope containing the inspection report.  “We are actually a little ahead of schedule, and we should begin drilling the prospect at Tower # 3 in two days.  It’s all in the report.  Is Sethe back?”

His father’s eyes sparkled. “She hasn’t returned yet.   She called to say she was dropping the girls off at their house and would head straight home afterwards.  Do you miss your sister that much?”

“No, no, I was just curious. Well, I’m going to head to my room.”  Rickie hugged his dad and turned to go, but then his father spoke.

Sit down for a moment, Rick.  I’d like to talk to you about your young lady.”

Chapter 42

Rick sat down on the sofa, and tried a little misdirection.

“I don’t own Sethe, and if I did, I’d sell her to a circus.”  His attempt fell flat as his father’s zeroed in on him, and he felt like he was in the crosshairs of a sniper.

“Son, you know who I’m talking about.  En Meaghan Torno, with whom I spent a very good supper before she and your sister went out.”  Rickie felt sweat breaking out on his face and resisted the urge to rub his palms on his trousers as he waited for the other shoe to drop.

“I like her.”  The older Ahmad allowed a small smile at his son’s expression. “She isn’t like your customary woman, and her sister is, um, unusual as well.  I enjoyed their company; you need to bring her here more often, to relieve an old man’s loneliness.  That’s all I’m going to say about today.”  He looked at the mulish expression on his son’s face and almost laughed out loud.  “Go, and have a good night.  I’ll see you at breakfast.”  He finally allowed himself a chuckle after his son left.

Misdirection, indeed.

~     ~    ~

Meaghan collapsed on her worn sofa, and winced as her bottom connected with one of the supports under the cushion.  Her feet and back were aching, and she wanted to take a warm shower and go to bed.  She pulled the pins out of her hair, allowing it to fall down her shoulders, and massaged her scalp.

Supper had gone surprisingly well.  JoAnne had chatted amicably to both of them, and Meaghan was charmed by the elder Ahmad.  Sethe and Tina, it turned out, liked many of the same music artists and idols, and the conversation flowed easily between everyone.  She couldn’t help but wonder why she wasn’t interrogated, given that Rickie’s father had to know what was going on between her and his son.

Her phone rang, and the object of her thoughts was on the other end. 

“Hello, Rickie.  How was the trip to the coast?”

“Never mind that,” he impatiently replied, “are you alright?  Did my father bother you?”

“Do you think he would interrogate me over salmon?  Your father was a perfect gentleman, and I had an enjoyable time.  Sethe just dropped us off a couple of minutes ago, and it was a marathon session of shopping.  I could barely keep up with those two.”

Rickie relaxed incrementally.  Meaghan sounded a bit tired, but not upset or unhappy.  He was afraid she might feel intimidated, but it appeared that the evening went well.

“I’m glad.  I just wished I had been there, you know, just in case.”

Meaghan laughed, a sound which never failed to make him happy. 

“Should I be worried that I might end up on the ceiling of a headhunter lodge?  It was fine.  It would have been wonderful to see you, of course.”  Her voice dropped to an intimate level, and  Rickie felt the impact in his gut. He took a deep breath to slow his unruly heart.

“I’ll see you at work tomorrow, Meggie.  Pleasant dreams.”

“You too, sayang.”

Both wore silly grins as they completed their bedtime rituals.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Prince and His Harem - Ch 39 & 40

Chapter 39

Over lunch, Meaghan decided to take Ivoire’s file out and see if there was any correlation between her current assignments.  She was reaching for her bag when her cell phone rang.

Looking at the screen, she felt a little burst of happiness. 

“Hello,” she said, holding the phone in both hands.

“How are you doing, Meggie,” Rickie’s warm tones started a shiver across her shoulder blades, “I wanted to see you this morning, but I’ve been busy.”

“That’s okay,” she answered almost breathlessly “I’m doing good.  I’ve missed you.”

At her admission, Rickie wanted to haul her off and have some time for just the two of them.  Cursing his busy schedule, he thought for a moment, and then smiled.  “Would you like to come with me to our gas rig?  I promised my father I would perform the final inspection before they start drilling.  Since I know your boss, I’m sure he’ll allow you to take off for the rest of the day.”  He allowed a little hopefulness to creep into his voice.

Meaghan smiled.  “I’d love to, but I can’t; I promised your sister we would go shopping this evening.”

Rickie deflated, but, still, he wanted her to spend time with his family.  Sethe liked her, although no one in the family knew about them yet.  He didn’t want their fledgling relationship to come under the scrutiny of his father just yet.  If Sethe became her friend, then she would be firmly on his side if there were any objections.

“Well, have fun with Sethe then, and I’ll talk to you later tonight.”

“I’d like that.”  Meaghan replied.  “Be safe then.”  She hung up already anticipating when she would hear from him again.
                                                     ~    ~    ~
Meaghan had just changed into a floral print sundress when Tina came home.   She gave her older sister a hug and a kiss, looked at her critically, and then nodded.

“Just give me a moment to change, and we can head out.”

A few minutes later, Tina came out.  Surprisingly, she wasn’t as colorful as usual; she wore a short skirt in blue, with a yellow, green, and blue patterned jersey top.  A wide black belt and black sneakers completed the outfit.  Her normally spiky hair was pulled up in a curly ponytail, but without the streaks of color.  Even her earrings were simple gold dangling chains, not her usual eye-popping style.

“You almost look like you’re going to a funeral,” Meaghan said good-naturedly.

Leaf said, seriously, “I just want to give a good impression.”  Meaghan was surprised, but assured her she looked fine. 

“And you have the address?”  At Leaf’s nod, Meaghan grabbed her jacket, purse, and keys. 

“Let’s go.” 

She decided to use a taxi to get to the Ahmad residence to cut the travel time.  When they arrived at the front gate, she could only stare in awe.  The curly metalwork of the gate gave way to walls of native stone, a gilt stylized sun in the center surrounded by graceful metal palms.  Along the front of the wall, the bright green leaves of elephant’s ears competed with the fuchsia stars of bougainvillea.   Meaghan’s had crept out and squeezed her sister’s. 

Tina, on the other hand, was excited but not shocked at the opulence the gate hinted at.

The taxi driver rolled down his window and gave the security camera Meaghan’s name.

“I hope Sethe is ready, so we can leave quickly.”  Meaghan mused and turned to Leaf.  “We need to be on our best behavior; remember my boss lives here, too.”  Leaf looked at her only sister for a moment, and then nodded.

“I promise.  But, kakak, I don’t think you need to worry.  Everyone’s is looking forward to seeing you.”  Tina suddenly stopped, a stricken look on her face as the taxi cab drove through the now-opened gates towards the house.

Meaghan glanced at her sister as Tina’s words registered.  “What are you talking about?” 

Tina looked guilty.

“Sethe and I talked last night.  She wants to have supper here at the house, before we go shopping.”

“Why didn’t you want to tell me?”  Meaghan looked at her sundress, suddenly wishing she had worn something more formal.   Tina saw the movement.

“Meaghan, you look great; don’t worry about it.”  When she looked back up; they were at the house.

Chapter 40
The house was less formal than Meaghan would have imagined.  They drove under a wide portico, and then curved around to the front entrance.

A circular driveway with a white marble fountain greeted them.  The sprawling two-story colonial –style structure was painted bright white, with areas of soft yellow along the roofline.  Tall palm trees accented the corners, and wraparound porches with white balustrades looked perfect for a casual stroll.   The front entrance was a simple series of wide marble steps leading up to a double door in teak, with stained glass panels on either side of colorful birds and fruit trees.

As the two women climbed up to the door, they opened up and Sethe stepped out. 

Meaghan was relieved that Sethe was dressed similarly to her; a flower print dress and leather sandals with purple and green rhinestones.  She gave them both a hard hug and grabbed Meaghan’s wrist to pull her into the house.  Meaghan allowed her to drag her into the cool foyer, but stopped short.

They were not alone.  An older gentleman in a wheelchair sat to the right, and JoAnne, whom she had met at the office, stood behind him, her hands on the handlebars.  The features of the man were reminiscent of Rickie’s, and Meaghan realised his identity.  She suddenly felt like a mouse when a trap is sprung.

Her fears were born out when Sethe pulled her in front of him, and Meaghan’s mouth suddenly went dry.  Sethe released her arm.

“Bapa, this is my friend Meaghan.  Meaghan, his is my father, Charles Ahmad.”

Meaghan made a formal bow.  “Selamat sejahtera, Tuanku Ahmad,” she greeted him.

The elder Ahmad smiled, and laugh lines crinkled around his eyes.  He reached out and took Meaghan’s hand in a strong, though gentle grip.

Selamat datang, En Torno, but there’s no need to be formal.  I’ve wanted to meet you for a while now.  Why don’t we go into the parlour while we wait for supper to be ready?  It will still be a few more minutes.” 

Wait, dinner with the elder Ahmad?  Rickie’s father??

Meaghan sent a helpless look at Tina, who seemed unfazed by the situation, walked past her incredulous sister to address him.  After greetings, he gestured to JoAnne; she smiled at Meaghan and began to push the wheelchair towards an arched door.

After that, she felt compelled to follow the group into a large, sunny room with dark fruitwood floors and casual furniture.  She gingerly sat on the edge of a cool green sofa; her sister plopped beside her, earning her a glare from Meaghan.  JoAnne wheeled the elder Ahmad to the edge of the sofa, and then sat down in an armchair directly across while Sethe took the other armchair.  Before the silence grew awkward, JoAnne began.

“Did you have any problems finding the house?” 

Meaghan shook her head.  “The cab driver took us here without any problems, thank you for asking.”

“And what do you think of it?” 

Tina piped up.  “I think it’s beautiful, almost like The Astana, but smaller.  Can we see some of the rooms?”  Meaghan reached out and squeezed Tina’s knee in warning, but he just chuckled.

“Sethe can give you a detailed tour after dinner, if you have any time before shopping.” Here he glanced at his daughter in fond exasperation. “I know she has her heart set on buying more clothes, even though she brought back a lot with her from Korea.”  Sethe smiled.

Bapa, you know my weakness is shoes.  I promise to keep my purchases to necessities.”

JoAnne rolled her eyes. “You always think shoes are a necessity.”

Meaghan relaxed under the conversation.  It looked more like a family bantering back and forth than an employer / worker relationship.   She answered a few questions regarding her consultant job, and Tina contributed some amusing stories about school.   It shouldn’t have, but it came as a surprise when the conversation became personal.

“Well,” said the patriarch, “what do you think of my son?”

“Erm, he’s a good supervisor to work for.  All of us at the office…” 

He cut her off with a gesture and leaned forward in the wheelchair, his good left hand gripping the handrail.

“No, what do you think of my son.”  He sat back, studied her reactions, and was appreciative of what he saw. 'Excellent', he thought, already envisioning a rosy future. 

Out loud, he said, “I know he thinks very highly of you.  I want to know if you think the two of you are compatible.”

Meaghan felt a blush blooming on both cheeks as she panicked for an answer.  Looking at her sister didn’t help, for she was grinning from ear to ear.

The supper chimes were a blessed and welcome diversion.  They followed behind the wheelchair, and never noticed JoAnne give him a squeeze as he patted her hand on his shoulder.