To: Inga, Lisa, and Susan, thanks for your help.
The Anne Azel's World web site is now found at
Note To The Reader: All the information used in this story about trends and concerns on our planet is current and accurate data. In the next fifty years, our world will change completely.
Iron Rose Bleeding:
These are the events as we know them.
We recorded them factually and objectively.
And now we report them to you.
Taylor Alexandria Punga was an enigma. Courtney Hunter had worked for her for almost two years now and she had seen her only twice and knew nothing about her. That is, almost nothing. Courtney's job was to archive the material that flowed in from Punga's busy schedule. In a way, she knew all and understood nothing. And finding out what motivated and financed Punga's life had become an obsession with Courtney Hunter because Punga was an enigma that Courtney Hunter had to understand.
From the moment she had met Punga, she had been fascinated by the tall, striking woman. Courtney had to admit that part of the attraction was the woman's strength. Punga simply radiated confidence and energy. If energy was strength, Taylor Alexandria Punga was very strong.
She was beautiful too, not in a pretty way but with the sort of beauty generated by the danger. Punga was mesmerizing; dark, gracefully, lethal in her movements and very mysterious. That flame of deadly energy attracted Courtney until she fairly buzzed with need.
Who was Taylor Alexandria Punga? She seemed to have incredible power, yet she had no title and no office. She was immensely rich and yet had no visible source of income. She was present at every significant meeting in the world - it seemed - and yet never spoke or presented at them.
Taylor Alexandria Punga had become Courtney Hunter's project. And that was why she was at Punga's residence that day even though it was her day off. It would be a day that would change everything and so it is a good place to start. It was not the beginning of the story, which had been going on for some time and was near to reaching a climax. It was, however, when Courtney Hunter entered the story.
She parked her old car in the parking lot allotted to household staff that was discretely hidden behind a neat box hedge. She parked in the same spot she always did because her car's oil pan had a slow leak and she didn't want to ruin anymore of the parking area than she already had. She headed over to the security gate and punched in her personal code. A small screen glowed green and she stood straight in front of the camera lens and held up her I.D. tag with her picture. She did not feel the picture did her justice and was always mildly annoyed when the security system accepted the photo ID as her.
Electronic squeals and bleeps came softly from the speaker. "Hunter...Courtney...you are scheduled for time off,"came a mechanical voice. "Indicate reason for access."
Courtney tapped in number 24. The code for required overtime. More squeals and bleeps. Then,
Courtney placed her hand over the red hand that now glowed on the screen beside the gate. She heard the power switch trip and the metal cover over the key slot slide back as her hand print was read and accepted by the security system. Courtney inserted her card-key and removed it again when the screen turned green. The security door slipped open and Courtney entered standing in the box formed by white lines painted on the cement until the door had slid closed behind her. The mechanical voice came again. "Access has been granted to ...one...individual...Hunter...Courtney. It is now safe to step forward. Do not step back. Proceed forward." Courtney did so. She knew that she crossed a laser beam when she did. Anyone following would trigger the elaborate security system.
She walked up a fieldstone path that was bordered by a high cedar hedge that hid the security fencing on each side. It was a prison walk disguised in country attire. At the guard house, she once again showed her I..D. card. "Hi Ian,"she said to the serious looking man dressed in the black jump suit.
"Hi Court. The system is showing you as having today off but it has cleared you for entrance anyway," Ian Philips informed her. "I bet you were called in because she is coming," he stated almost managing a smile.
Courtney's heart skipped a beat but outwardly she gave no indication that she was unaware of this information. She took the green security tag from Ian that would allow her to move freely about the green zone sections of the house and estate. "Have a good day,"she smiled, with no further explanation and waited for Ian to punch in the code that would open Taylor Punga's world to her. It was also the moment when everything changed.
Punga was coming to the estate. That might change Courtney's plans but it might also give her the rare opportunity to see her boss. Access to the house was through a maze created by dry-stone walls that edged high beds of flowering trees and plants. Here and there, water danced down garden rocks or gold fish flashed in a still, silent pool. Courtney promised herself every time she walked through this beautiful area that if she ever had a house of her own it would have a mysterious and beautiful entrance like this.
She came on the house suddenly, reaching a stone wall and then having to turn to follow it in a curve to the brass front doors. Once again, she stood on the white box painted on the flagstone. The tag that Ian had given her and that was clipped to her pocket, automatically fed data into the security system and the brass doors clicked open.
Courtney pushed on the one on the right and entered a quiet lobby beautiful in its simplicity. A floor of black tile was divided by a rectangular pool of water. A rough cut slab of granite was the only means across the water. The walls on each side were polished teak and on the other side of the bridge a glass wall allowed a view of an interior courtyard of thick vegetation.
Courtney knew that turning left once she crossed the pool would take her into the green zone of the elaborate house. These were the public areas, the library, banquet hall, kitchen, conference room, and staff rooms. Going right would take her to the red zone areas. The private chambers of Taylor Alexandria Punga.
For a minute, she stood on the bridge steeling her nerve, then she crossed and walked to the right over the black tiled floor. Taylor's quarters were separated from the rest of the house by another set of brass doors. Courtney swallowed hard and wiped the sweat from her hands. She had no idea why she was doing this. If she got caught, she suspected that the consequences would be swift and serious. She had hesitated for over a year, her common sense and need for self-preservation over ruling her compulsive need to know who Taylor Punga really was.
She slipped from her pocket the red tag that she had picked up and kept after it fell from one of Punga's coat pockets last winter. She took off her green tag and clipped on the red. If this didn't work the security system would automatically sound an alarm and pin point her location on monitors. Then security personnel would literally come from everywhere and she would be carted off. She had witnessed practice drills many times. If the red tag didn't work, then the next intruder alarm would be for real and it would be her that was carted off, goodness knows where.
She stepped into the white box, the doors slid open and Courtney stepped into Taylor Alexandria Punga's very private world.
It was disappointing. There was a very conventional lounge area consisting of over-stuffed, distressed-leather chairs and sofa around a fireplace. The fireplace was made of natural stone, the walls silk, in soft, warm tan. The original art on the walls was an eclectic mix of well known twentieth century artists. Over the fireplace was a Jackson Pollack. There were several oils by the Ash Can School and a sketch that Courtney suspected was by Picasso.
Everything was neat and tidy and devoid of any personal items. Nothing was worn or scratched. The room looked as if it had just been set up by an interior designer for show. Everything was perfectly placed, even the stainless steel briefcase with the initials TAP on it was placed with deliberate casualness on the granite block that acted as a coffee table.
TAP! The implications of the briefcase being there exploded on Courtney's mind and left her feeling faint with worry. She turned to beat a hasty retreat and found, to her horror, Punga standing right behind her.
"I can explain,"stammered Courtney, looking up the lean, muscular body dressed totally in black, to the hard, classic features, and the startling, aqua eyes.
"I doubt if you can,"purred the deep, liquid voice.
We warned you.
She is the weak link.
This is a problem.
Courtney looked around startled. Had she heard voices? There was no one in the room only her and the towering Punga who looked down at her with angry, curious eyes. Someone touched her hair and she jumped and turned around. No one was there.
How can this be?
This development is puzzling.
Courtney looked around in annoyance then spun on the tall silent woman behind her. "What the hell is going on?"she demanded.
Punga raised an eyebrow and looked at her condescendingly. "I believe that should be MY question. You will come and sit in the chair over there," she ordered, pointing to one of the leather chairs near the fireplace.
"No I won't. I'm leaving," Courtney responded firmly, trying to brush an invisible hand from around her arm.
"That would be unwise and futile." Punga shrugged. "You really have no choice but to stay."
Courtney felt her hackles going up. "I apologies for being in a restricted area. I shouldn't have been." She took off her red tag and pulled the green one from her pocket. Lifting Punga's hand, she dropped the tags onto Punga's up turned palm. "There are your tags back. I found the red one when it fell out of your coat pocket last winter. I guess I am fired but you certainly don't have any right to hold me here. What the hell is that?!" she finished in frustration, pulling away from the unseen hand.
And she feels.
She can not see.
Taylor nodded. "Yes. This is unexpected and most interesting."
Courtney could feel herself starting to panic. Outwardly, she forced herself to remain calm. This was not the time to show fear. "What's interesting? And would you please let me go!" she demanded, pulling violently away from the invisible arm. Released suddenly and unexpectedly, she stumbled against the tall frame of Taylor Punga. Her body was unnaturally warm. Like touching the hot sides of a tea pot.
"Oh shit," Courtney whispered, as strong hands took her shoulders and strange aqua eyes burned into her own.
"I would prefer for us not to have a scene, Ms. Hunter. I repeat, please sit down."
Courtney nodded, backing away in shock. She swallowed, pulled herself together, and slowly turned to survey the room. No one. She went over and sat down on one of the leather chairs with as much defiance in her walk as she could muster.
Courtney sat still in the chair afraid of what might happen next . Punga had not sat down, her remaining standing was a reflection of her method of control. That is, Punga did not control directly but passively. She stood silently observing Courtney Hunter. At last, she spoke. "Why?" It was a long speech reduced to its bare essence.
Courtney swallowed and squirmed in her seat. She did not wish to tell the truth but was afraid to be caught in a lie. "I don't know." This too was a short speech with a long meaning mostly to do with guilt and avoidance. It was not a very satisfactory answer because it stemmed from a fear of expressing knowledge. And Punga was not satisfied.
Courtney would have liked to have stood up again so as not to remain at a disadvantage but Punga was too close, not so much looming but hovering near. Courtney was trapped in her seat by Punga's position. If she stood it would mean she would be face to face with the annoyed woman. That would be a worse position than the one she was already in for she found in Taylor Alexandria Punga a dangerous fascination.
Taylor Alexandria Punga was not satisfied with Hunter's explanation. She stood close, hovering and waiting and finally, in order not to be observed growing old, Courtney gave a longer speech that was more satisfying but shorter in its meaning.
"I have worked here for two years archiving material that you send me. The range and extent of your research is amazing and yet you don't do anything with it. You live surrounded by security and wealth and yet you have no occupation or income. You know everyone and no one knows you. I wanted to know."
Punga nodded, a smile not quite making it to her lips. "Am I not entitled to my privacy?"
It was a weighted question and it dropped heavily from a great height because Punga had the advantage of standing and Courtney Hunter did not. It was a great disadvantage. Courtney stammered. "Of course you are. I realize I was wrong to come in here..."
"Nonsense," Punga stated, correcting her employee. "You would not have done it if you had not thought it the thing you wanted to do and so your action was right for you. What was wrong for you was getting caught."
Courtney laughed and then jumped up with a gasp as something seemed to touch her mouth. The wall she hit was not a wall but Punga. This caused her, Courtney that is, to stumble and step aside. She acted skittish and went to put her back against the wall. Punga observed this. She also observed that the woman's golden hair was as silky and rich as the wall covering.
"What the hell is that?" Courtney demanded, using the back of her hand to wipe away the touch from her lips.
"What?" asked Punga, which is not a question at all but a type of period that ends any enquiry.
"The thing in the room that keeps touching me?"
This time Taylor Alexandria Punga did smile, but only briefly. It was cut short by a briefer explanation. "It is a type of security system."
"Doesn't it bother you?" Courtney asked in annoyance.
"No. I was meant to be here. You are not. You were about to tell me why you really came in here."
Courtney's deep green eyes lifted and so made contacted with the brilliant aqua ones that observed her. In the silence, Courtney could hear voices.
She is more aware than I would have suspected.
Perhaps we should recheck our findings.
She was Tap's responsibility and so Tap must say.
Courtney drew herself up to her full height, which was not so tall but she wore her body well because her body was fit and so she looked taller and more confident than she was. "I came to learn about you because you fascinate me and now too, I want to know about the voices."
Punga nodded. "Then you will. But it will not be easy and having started, you may not stop."
'And having started you may not stop' was what Taylor Alexandria Punga had said and yet Courtney Hunter had stopped only a short time later. She had been left in a room that Punga had taken her to and she had been there for a good time. The door was locked and there were no windows to frame an escape through.
It was, as conventional rooms go, very unconventional. The walls were rag rolled in a misty swirl of blues, greys and lavender. The floor was grey stone. Along the length of one wall a channel of water ran through, bouncing over smooth grey river stones. There was no furniture but in one corner there was a neat stack of pillows and sheets in grey silk.
There were two alcoves. One was small and had a rod to hold clothes. It was empty. The other was big and held a toilet and a shower but no basin or mirror. The toilet was not a toilet but a stainless steel basin recessed into the floor which one squatted over. It was designed in an eastern style and there was a stainless steel button on the wall to flush the basin clean. The shower too was strange. There was no curtain or door. Just a stainless steel basin to stand in and the water came through holes in a ceiling fixture. It too was stainless steel as were the hot and cold water controls on the wall. In this room, the tiled walls were steel-grey as were the towels that were stacked neatly on a recessed shelf. No doors, except the one that was locked, no windows, no furniture. It was a no room and Courtney felt the no.
For a while, she was grudgingly content with the no. After all, she had trespassed. But after awhile the no became intolerable and then simply rude. Eventually, it became frightful. She was not prepared to be held as a prisoner.
As Courtney Hunter saw it, and she saw the situation very clearly having had considerable time to see it, there were only two ways in and out. The first was the door which was locked and the second was where the water exited. Courtney decided to go with the flow.
The channel was three feet wide and about one foot deep once the layer of stones had been removed. The stones were removed by Courtney Hunter and beyond she could see that the water flowed through a metal screen and then dropped.
Courtney considered. It was unlikely that the house had different water channels. More than likely the one that she crossed in the lobby was the same system. She thought about how this might work while she used the screw driver on her Swiss Army Knife to remove the metal screen. She lay down in the channel and had a look. Dimly, she could make out a large holding tank. On the other side was another rectangle of light framed by green plants where the over flow was escaping. She smiled. Her room must back onto the inner courtyard of the house.
She went feet first, which as her mother would have said was her way, to step where angels feared to tread. It was a squeeze but Courtney Hunter was, as mentioned, both small and fit and so with a push she did fit and splashed into the cold water tank below. The water was icy and dark and smelt of plastic and mold.
Courtney felt that she would have molded too had she remained in the unconventional room a minute longer. So she had left and now found herself in a very cold and not very pleasant place. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, her mother would have said.
She wasted no time in swimming to the other side and grabbing hold of the grate. It was going to be harder this time, and it had not been easy last time, to remove the screws as they were on the outside. She used her knife to bend some of the wire enough that she could wiggle her fingers through. It was a tight fit and only accomplished because she was so cold and wet. Slowly, shaking with cold, she worked the screws loose, bending the grate back as she went.
Almost too cold to move, like a lizard seeking sun, she slid from her prison into the light. For a few minutes, she lay on a rock in the warmth of the rays that beamed thought the glass above into the inner courtyard. Then she slid off her rock and back into the cold water.
She knew her situation was desperate and so threw her sleep and exhaustion back like a blanket. The aluminum grate needed to be replaced so that they would think she had not got this far. She wanted them to be delayed searching the holding tank for her. She knew that she could not continue her escape until the sun had set.
This accomplished, she moved with relief back onto the warm land to rest again.
Taylor Alexandria Punga looked at the rocks that had been removed from the stream of water. She then looked at the grate that had been removed and set aside. Her eyes went back to the rocks. They had been very carefully arranged to spell, FUCK YOU.
She has bested us.
It is amazing.
Punga took off her shoes, dropped to her belly and wiggled through the hole. Head first was her way although at this particular moment she was not necessarily using her head. She hit the cold water with a gasp and felt immediately her body heat bleeding, haemorrhaging out. Several strong strokes took her to the over flow gate at the far side. Her fingers, now blue, wrapped around the metal and shook the frame. It was screwed in place. Courtney Hunter had not got through and she had not returned to the room so she must have drowned.
Punga dived, and dived, and dived. Then she once again held onto the gate, her strength and heat completely gone. She wasn't sure she could make it back across the tank and force her body back up and through the water to the room. She shook the grate with all her strength hoping to dislodge the metal.
The rattle woke Courtney Hunter from her exhausted stupor. She looked through the branches and saw Punga's hand wrapped around the bent grill. The hand was an ugly shade of grey blue. A memory stirred in Courtney's mind.
"Are you alright?" Courtney had asked last winter as Taylor Alexandria had staggered into the library.
"Cold," the woman had revealed on this their second meeting. "I got too cold." Courtney had helped her boss to a chair and had brought her a hot cup of tea. Taylor Alexandria Punga had recovered quickly, thanked her and had left. It was then that Courtney had found the red tag that had fallen from Punga's pocket. It was this tag that had planted the seed of an idea that had brought Courtney and now Punga to the water grate. Now once again, Punga was in trouble.
"Hold on," Courtney ordered, as she knelt in the water and started to remove the screen once more. It was easier this time. The screws were not in as tight and she was working from the outside. She could not see Punga from where she worked. She could see only her hand. It was now white and claw-like. The last screw fell into the water, and Courtney reached around the screen to grab Taylor Alexandria Punga's wrist. It was ice cold. Dead weight.
Courtney sat on her bum, placed her feet on either side of the grate and pulled. An arm and shoulder appeared. Gasping with the effort, Courtney let go with one hand and made a grab for Punga's collar. Gradually, inch by inch she pulled the body from the water. It was a body but not a person. It was still and cold and unreactive. The body did not feel like the warm body of Punga but the cold body of death. Struggling, she pulled the long form clear of the tank and up on the warm rock ledge.
She remembered the first time she had met Taylor Alexandria Punga it had been hot. They had met on a terrace, in San Francisco. They'd had coffee, Punga sniffing at hers but drinking very little. They had gone through Courtney Hunter's resume. Her life, reduced to two dimensional symbols on flat white. It was a good resume but a boring life. There was another side to Courtney but it wasn't on her resume, it was in her heart.
Punga was offering a fantastic salary for archival work. A few years in the job and Courtney would be out of debt or at least only in the debt that it is appropriate to be in.
"I do not want you. You are too qualified for the job." It was an arrow through Courtney's dreams. Its point was ludicrous and so she protested.
"But I want the job. I can handle it easily and the money is good." This was true. Looking back, however, after the incident in Geneva, which has not yet come into this story, she wondered if even then the attraction to the enigma that was Punga had not been there.
"You will leave for a better position and I need someone to stay."
"I WILL stay." And so they had come to an arrangement then and there. It was a good arrangement and it had lasted two years, one month and eighteen days. Then it had changed.
Later, Courtney remembered pulling Punga from the holding tank as a scene in sharp contrasts like a Escher drawing in black and white, perspectives distorted. The body was cold, the rock warm, the shadows dark, the sunlight brilliant. Her emotions were fired by worry, and the dread of the guns that were trained on her, and there was an ice ball in her gut. She had been taken away. She had protested, wanting to stay with Punga. Her protests went unheard.
Once again she was returned to the room. The grate and stones had been replaced and the stone floor was dry. Had she escaped? The no of this room was even louder now. This time Punga's annoying security system was on. Like a thousand invisible bodies pushing against her. If she tried to go near the water channel, the force pushed her back. Eventually, she accepted the no grudgingly. She showered and found to her surprise a red jump suit lying on the stack of pillows. She switched from towel to jumpsuit and slept amongst the pillows in the corner, emotionally and physically drained.
When the alarm had sounded after Courtney's escape, security personnel had charged about knowing only that there was a security breach. Then that Punga was somehow trapped in the water recycling system. Lastly, that the intruder had her in the courtyard. They had charged in, assault rifles ready, fanning out across the space like shot. To their surprise, the intruder was Courtney Hunter, whom many of them knew, and she held Punga gently in her arms.
They were separated. The bond between the two still and silent women cut with surgical precision. Punga was carried gently away. Courtney was taken roughly away. One silent and still, one turned loud and fighting her keepers. They were confused. How had this happened? Nothing like this had happened before. Courtney Hunter had out smarted them and this should not have happened. Stranger still, Courtney Hunter had not made good her escape but had pulled Taylor Alexandria Punga from the holding tank. This could not possibly have happened and yet it had.
What are we to do with her?
It seems most regrettable.
Termination is for the best.
Termination is the state of coming to an end not by choice or by nature but by decision. A decision had been made and that was to - regrettably - terminate Courtney Hunter. There was no anger or malice in this decision. The decision was simply an observation that termination was necessary and regrettable. Courtney slept through this decision making process as did Punga.
So when Courtney woke hours later, she was not yet aware of the possibility of her termination and would not be aware of that decision until the Geneva incident which has not yet entered this story. What Courtney was aware of was hunger and sore muscles. The sore muscles she was willing to put up with, the hunger she was not. "I need food," she said loudly, assuming that she was being monitored. "I'm hungry."
It was a reasonable request although she did not know she was about to be terminated. One is entitled to a last meal. Does it lie heavily on their stomachs, those that ate and were terminated? One wonders. Courtney did not wonder, not knowing her fate had been decided. She grew angry instead. She had come back and saved Taylor Alexandria Punga's life and she deserved better treatment. She took a pillow, walked into the bathroom area and stuffed it over the drainage hole of the shower. The security system did not react at first and when it did, it was too late, Courtney had managed to get the water running. She was finally pushed from the alcove just as the water broke the rim of the stainless steel basin and started to run across the floor.
Then as quick as lightening, she stopped struggling to remain and ran back into the main room, bouncing off the walls, back and forth like an Indian rubber ball out of control. The security system could not keep up and so on her third bounce she was able to break through to the channel of water. She picked up a stone and hurled it, then another and another, heaving them in all directions with considerable force. They bounced and rolled, and rattled about and still she threw more.
Courtney had been the pitcher of the local baseball team for years and she could pitch. Which she did, over and over again. She threw until she could throw no more and could no longer feel the security system around her. The water spread. The stones, now left alone, remained in a helter skelter pattern on the floor of the room.
Silence. Then the door opened. It was Ian. "Court, what are you doing?"
"Getting my point across." Ian crossed the room and disappeared into the alcove to turn off the water. Courtney ran to the door. It was locked. She needed a red tag to get through the doorways. Ian wore a red tag. Courtney faced Ian. "The door is locked."
"But you can open it."
"Yes." Ian stated. "What do you want, Court? Why are you doing this?"
"I want food, I want to see Punga, and I want my freedom."
Courtney picked up a fist size stone and hurled it at Ian with considerable force. It was a high, fast ball that caught Ian between the eyes. Much to Courtney's surprise, Ian buckled and dropped. She was there in a minute and had undone and pulled the jumpsuit from his body. The red tag was fixed to the collar. She slipped the black jumpsuit on over her red one and stood in the square. The door opened and Courtney once again escaped.
She did not escape into a corridor but into a domed courtyard. This one had a small circular pool in the centre of a room. The room was empty except for a magnificent bougainvillaea that grew up the one wall and partly across the glass dome. The dome was dark, night had come on while Courtney had been held in the room. The area was lit by a single light in the centre of the dome.
A number of doors led off each side of the interior square. Courtney started opening each one in turn and saw some very interesting things which will be talked about later but not now as Courtney had opened the door to the room where Taylor Alexandria Punga lay. The room was very hot and a number of people in black jump suits stood around looking worried. They looked more worried when Courtney Hunter walked in. Worried and bewildered. They did not react, not realizing at first that Courtney had not been released but had escaped yet again.
"Has anyone called a doctor?"Courtney asked, pushing through to where Punga lay on the floor covered in layers of sheets and blankets. No one spoke. Courtney rolled her eyes and knelt down beside Punga reaching out to touch her arm. The arm was cold but not so cold as it had been.
"You can't be in here, Courtney," Haichen Lai said, stepping forward, and placing a restraining hand on Courtney's shoulder.
"Look!"snapped Courtney standing up. "I have had it! I am hungry, tired and royally pissed. I've worked with most of you for over two years and it seems I am the only one not in on the big secret of who Taylor Alexandria Punga is! Well, that just changed. I want to know what the hell is going on here."
No one responded. Finally from behind them, a quiet voice asked. "Courtney Hunter? What is going on?"
"Tap, It appears that Courtney has now escaped a second time and ..."
"Not now," Punga cut in calmly. "You are all to leave, please. Courtney, you stay."
"I want food," Courtney demanded.
"Bring food and drink. You know her. Bring whatever she likes." The group looked uneasy but after a moment's hesitation backed from the room.
"Why?" Punga asked. It was a small speech which demanded a complex answer, as noted before.
"I will not be held prisoner. I have not done anything to warrant imprisonment. And I came back because you were in trouble. I would not let you die."
"You will wait outside the door for me. When the food arrives, please come in and eat with me. I need your word that you won't escape if I allow this."
"You allow nothing. But you have my word that I will not escape until I have eaten and talked with you."
"Agreed," stated Punga which was a very big speech, a policy statement really, that would lead to a rather interesting picnic and a series of events that would be quite startling in nature.
Courtney, having made her point, left. And being a person whose word was good, she did indeed wait in the domed room by the pool. She was not stupid, however, and used the time to consider possible ways of escape. One was reasonably sound and two others would take daring and some remarkable luck. These ones, she favoured.
Tap blinked. Then she blinked again which indicated the degree of her surprise. She had never met someone quite as spunky and resourceful as Courtney Hunter. She had never anticipated that her quiet archivist would be a potential revolutionary.
We have recommended termination of Courtney Hunter.
It is regrettable.
"No," Tap sighed, lying down again and snuggling below the blankets. "At least not yet."
But Tap she has broken into your chambers.
Escaped through the water channel.
Hurt Ian and escaped again.
"How was Ian hurt and how badly?" Tap enquired calmly as she lay still, eyes closed.
We sent him in to talk to her.
She was going mad.
She hit him with a river rock.
It knocked him unconscious.
She took his uniform and tag.
And so she escaped again.
"Had she wanted to escape she would not have come in here. There will be no termination at this time."
Perhaps there would have been more argument but at that point the food arrived, followed closely by Courtney, who was very hungry and could smell a toasted cheese sandwich and a carton of chocolate milk from under its plate cover.
"You may go. I will be alone to have my meal with Courtney Hunter." This too was an unusual request on the part of Taylor Alexandria Punga but Courtney did not realize the significance or care. If Punga wanted to dismiss the waiter that was alright with her. What she cared about was calories and the more the better.
"You will call me Tap in the future. What is that I smell?"
Courtney looked down at the pale figure lying on her back as if asleep. "Aren't you afraid I might bludgeon you to death with my milk carton?" Courtney asked, one eyebrow raised in a sarcastic expression. It was, as noted, Courtney's way to pull the tail of tigers. And Punga was undoubtedly a tiger.
Pale blue eyes opened and looked directly into Courtney's. "Should I be?"
"No. Sit up and join me. There is lots. I'd just like to go on record, in case we ever meet again after today, and you invite me for lunch, as saying that I think a fancy joint like this could provide better for their guests, Tap. I mostly like a toasted processed cheese sandwich and chocolate milk at lunch because it fits so nicely into my tummy and into my budget."
Tap blinked rapidly. Courtney had sat cross legged on the floor and was eating her sandwich between slugs of milk. She wore a brown moustache for a second and then wiped it off with her napkin. Tap was surprised on a number of levels. She could not recall having been given an order before and she could not recall ever having her name spoken quite in that tone. It lacked title and appeared to have considerable amount of warmth in it.
Tap sat up and gingerly took a half sandwich from the plate Courtney offered her. She sniffed it.
Courtney laughed. "Do you always sniff your food? You sniffed your coffee the day you hired me too."
Tap's face hardened and she bit down on the sandwich, chewed deliberately, and swallowed defiantly. The mixture was acceptable - just. It was her first toasted processed cheese sandwich.
For a little while they ate quietly. Tap ate little. Courtney ate a lot. It was only when Courtney had eaten a lot and was just savouring the last few mouthfuls to fill up the more remote corners, that she opened up the conversation. It was, in fact, not so much a conversation but very much more a negotiation "Tap, I do want to learn what is going on around here and I do want to spend more time learning about you. But I will not be held a prisoner. What you did to me is illegal and that worries me. I won't be a party to any activity that is illegal. If that is the case I am out of here."
"Are you afraid of nothing?" Tap asked, once again lying down and covering herself with blankets. Now that the half a grilled cheese sandwich had been processed she wasn't at all sure that it had been a good idea.
Courtney looked at the pale woman wrapped like a cocoon. "I was afraid you would die," she admitted.
"It was close in the tank. I too had considered the possibility that you might have drowned and I searched for your body." Tap considered this statement to be highly personal and a great compliment to Courtney Hunter.
Courtney thought the comment a slap in the face. "Gee, I really feel bad that I was an annoying possibility. But I'm relieved to know that you were not worried. Why do you go to all those environment and world health conferences if you care so little about human life?"
Pale aqua eyes focused on her. "I strive to be objective. It is not good research if it is tainted by emotion and personal bias."
Courtney snorted. "You are one flawed human."
Tap was on her feet in a second and looming over Courtney bristling with anger barely in check.
"I am NOT ... flawed!"
Courtney sat back in surprise and looked way up, because Tap was very tall, into a face taut with anger. She frowned and stood although she still had to look up. "Okay, you are not flawed. You know, Tap, humans have weaknesses. It's unrealistic to think otherwise." Tap visibly jerked when Courtney reached out and touched her arm. Then she composed herself with effort. Courtney's eyebrow rose in disbelief. "If a person didn't know you were not flawed, a person might assume that you had a fear of being touched."
"I have no fears." Which, of course was a lie but one that Tap did not realize she was giving, believing that she did not have fears but only uncertainties. An uncertainity is a fear. This, however, is different from being afraid. To be afraid is to not face your fears. At this time Tap did not know the difference between fear and being afraid. This she would learn in Geneva.
Courtney smirked. "Yeah? I have a lot."
"You do not seem to fear anything."
Courtney put her hands on her hips and looked up at Tap in exasperation. "I didn't say I was afraid. I said I had fears. I am not the least bit afraid of you, You are just a big bully."
Tap walked away, stood quietly for a minute and then turned to look at Courtney. "Let us start again." Which meant she had realized that she had not handled the situation well. "If you are to train here then you must stay here. Once classified information is given you, it would be a security leak to let you go."
Courtney laughed. "Who do you think you are? The president of the United States?
Tap stood looking at Courtney with an expression of considerable frustration. It was the sort of frustration that one felt when trying to find the missing end on a spool of thread. One should start at the beginning but there was no beginning to be found. She tried.
"Do you remember when the American surveillance plane was intercepted by a Chinese fighter?"
"Yes, of course. The fighter came too close and clipped the wing of an American aircraft. The jet fighter crashed into the sea and the American plane had to make an emergency landing in Chinese territory."
"Yes, then what happened?" asked Tap, crossing her arms and looking at Courtney with interest.
"The President took a very strong stand that the plane and personnel must be returned immediately and they were."
"The President had the Secretary of State feel out the Chinese Embassy in Washington. Who communicated the strong line that was going to be taken by the Chinese government. They needed help. I was contacted and I made the arrangements. The President was allowed to take a strong and threatening stand. This was needed to appease the American people and was acceptable to the Chinese government who had no problem with the United States portraying themselves as world bullies and spies.
"The Chinese were given a formal apology for the death of their airman. This was necessary in order for the Chinese to save face. They would have preferred that it was the President that made that apology but they could not push too hard because they need foreign currency and the support of the World Bank to pay for the Three Dam Project. American investment is an essential part of their development plan. The Americans then were able to save their own face by having the Secretary of State make the apology."
"I am not finished. There had to be a price paid for the release of the flight personnel. The Chinese would have liked to imprison the spies for life. The price was the surveillance system that the United States had planned to establish in Taiwan. The crew was returned. The President got to brag about taking a strong stand against the communist threat and a month later the U.S. quietly dropped their surveillance system."
"The President has no power. He played the role he was told to play in order to get out of a very embarrassing political situation. The power is mine."
Courtney laughed. "You are arrogance personified!"
"I speak only the truth."
"So you are telling me that you run an international consulting service for world leaders. Do you do anything illegal?"
Tap considered, then responded in carefully chosen words. "I run nothing but sometimes help if requested, then I provide it for a price. Humanity has common moral and ethical values. Laws vary greatly, however, from country to country. I try never to violate a law of the country with which I am dealing."
Courtney nodded, then frowned. "Tap, you need to lie down again and get covered up. You don't look very well."
"You have caused me much trouble." Tap did not mean this as a criticism but as a statement of fact. She had much to do and had wasted time on Courtney and on being ill.
Courtney took the remark as a cold and nasty dig. "Hey! Get real! You locked me up! I should have escaped, called the police, and laid a complaint. Instead, I came to you and gave you a chance to explain."
Anger rose like lava through Tap's frame. She had saved this impossible woman's life by putting a hold on the order of terminate and she was totally flummoxed, at the moment, as to why she had bothered. She fought for control and managed to respond neutrally. "You are not in a position to threaten me. It is my good will that protects you. I remind you that you have broken into and entered my home."
Courtney blushed. She was now feeling very uncomfortable with her poorly made decision to use the red tag to gain access to Tap's chambers and although she would never show it, she was very worried about the mess she was now in. The best defense is an attack. "I didn't break anything and you didn't give me any time to enter. I was barely across the threshold when you and your weird security system showed up."
"I need your word that you will stay, learn, and be part of my organization. There will be no more escape attempts." Tap would have liked to lie down. She needed to lie down and cover up. But to do so would be to show weakness. That was not an option.
"Can I go and come as I please?" Courtney bargained.
"Once you have completed your training. Until then you may wear a red tag and have access to most areas," Tap stated. This was going to cause a problem, she knew, but it was necessary. She felt Courtney Hunter had much to offer. If Courtney did not agree then she would be terminated. That would be regrettable.
"How long is the training?" Courtney asked, her chin up with determination.
"A month." This was not so much a truth as it was a lie. It would take at least a month for Courtney to do some basic reading. It was only then that she might be given an opportunity to be a participant in their undertaking. She could never, of course, be told the truth but she could be a willing subject. That had never been attempted before.
"I'll need things from my apartment," Courtney held out stubbornly. She felt that she was doing very well here and that things were turning in her favour. This was not true either. She was, had she known it, only a hair's breadth away from death.
"Tomorrow. I have no time to deal with this issue today." For Tap it was the last concession. If Courtney argued, Tap would give the order for termination. Tap needed to lie down. It was regrettable if Courtney Hunter must be terminated.
Courtney opened her mouth to argue, then decided against it. She had made her point and achieved her aim to learn about Tap and what was really going on. "Tomorrow, okay."
The door opened and Haichen Lai entered silently. "Haichen, you will see that Courtney is given a proper outfit, red tag distinction. You will escort her through the rooms and explain anything that she wishes to know about."
"Yes, Tap," Lai responded, keeping her face and voice passive despite her surprise.
A smile almost made it to Tap's face. "Go now, Courtney Hunter. And please find a room that you are prepared not to escape from."
Courtney did smile and reached out to touch Tap's arm, which shocked both Lai and Tap. "You rest. Your lips are turning blue again." Courtney was concerned. Her anger spent, she now felt bad that Tap was suffering from her time in the cold water. She wondered what was wrong with Tap that she felt the cold so intensely. Haichen hurried Courtney from the room.
This is not right.
Is this wise?
These are uncharted waters.
"Enough, I will rest."
Haichen was confused by the change in Courtney Hunter's position. She never doubted, however, that Tap had a logical reason for this change. It would be best to make sure that Court saw her in a positive light. Tap's relationship with Court was very informal. "It is good to find you are now part of the organization, Court. I have always found you very obliging and efficient in your job."
"Yeah, well, I was a little surprised today to discover I wasn't seen as part of the organization. How is Ian?"
"He will recover but has a large area of swelling and bruising on his frontal eminence."
Courtney stifled a laugh at the double meaning of this statement knowing that Haichen would not understand. Instead, Courtney shook her head in disgust. "I usually have better control. My pitch was high. I was under pressure."
Haichen smiled although she had not meant to. Courtney Hunter showed great nerve. That was to be admired.
"This room is where our uniforms are kept. Tap prefers that we change twice a day. You come here and pick out your size and transfer your tag."
The room was empty except for hundreds of black jump suits that hung from the rods that lined the walls. "Where do we change?"
Haichen looked surprised. "Here. Oh, of course, you would not understand. We are very open here. We live and work together so there is no embarrassment in changing in front of others. The pools, saunas, and whirlpools are open to all and many prefer to be naked."
Courtney went for flippant. "One big happy family, huh?" Inside Courtney felt both uncomfortable by this revelation and excited. She wondered if she would get the chance to see Tap naked. The thought pooled and spread low in her being.
Haichen felt the need to correct her charge. Haichen saw things in black and white and could not bear misinformation. "Oh no, none of us are related. Accept, of course, by the genetic similarities that we all share." She chuckled, enjoying her joke.
Courtney smiled although she wasn't exactly sure what was so funny. Haichen went on. "The A suits will have to do for you. You are very small. A is the closest we would have. You will please change now and give me back Ian's tag. I will get you your own."
Courtney could be rash in her decisions but she prided herself in never making the same mistake twice. " Tell you what, I'll change while you get my new tag. Then we'll switch."
"You do not trust me?"
"After the day I've had so far, I wouldn't trust my own sweet grandmother if she was decked in one of those jumpsuits." Courtney was not one to beat around the bush, ever, in all senses of the word.
"I understand your caution. You will change and then we will go together to get you your own tag." Haichen was concerned. It appeared that Courtney Hunter had much favour with Tap and so she did not want to displease her. Yet she knew that Courtney had tried to escape twice. Tap would be very displeased if Courtney was to succeed.
"Agreed." Courtney felt she was doing very well in asserting her rights. It is easy to feel pleased with yourself when you had no idea yet of your possible termination. This she would not learn until Geneva. The events then would, of course, change everything again.
They went to a room to the right. Here a number of men and women whom Courtney had never seen before worked in near darkness. The only light came from the reds, blues and greens of each computer screen which made the room glow like some alien world.
"Courtney Hunter has been granted red status," Haichen said to one woman who nodded and without looking up went through a series of security checks on Courtney. The last item to appear on the screen was a brief statement. Courtney Hunter is to have red status. It was signed simply Tap in large, bold letters.
The woman typed again and a few seconds later Courtney's red tag was spat out of a machine. Now that Courtney was properly clothed and tagged, Haichen took her on a tour of the red zone area. Off the domed court there was the computer and uniform room, the room Courtney had been held in, the room that she had found Tap in and a communal dining hall, kitchen and a state of the art library.
This room Courtney had a good look around. All books and data were stored on a server. The people doing research sat in comfy chairs with small, swivel tables on which they placed their palmpilots. The data was presented on wall-mounted monitors. Haichen explained that novels and data could also be download should she wish to read in the privacy of her quarters.
The last door off the domed room led down a corridor off which was a huge gym and at the end a sauna, showers and large swimming pool. They turned right and the corridor opened up into the interior court yard that was much larger than Courtney had realized. Haichen explained that the rooms that formed the north wall of the garden were the private quarters of the house staff.
"I do not know where you wish to establish your quarters. Our only guest room is the one were you were..."
Plans have changed.
You are to bring Courtney Hunter at once.
Tap wishes to speak with her.
Courtney forced herself not to react or look around her. She wasn't about to let Haichen know that she thought the voices the least bit strange. "It looks like our tour has been cut short." Knowledge was power. Lack of knowledge was weakness. Courtney planned to play her cards close to her chest until she knew what was going on around here.
Haichen showed shock at the realization that Courtney had heard the voices then recovered quickly. "I will take you back to Tap's quarters."
"No need. I know the way. I am sure you have things to be doing and I don't want to keep you from your work." Courtney talked with authority, testing to see how much power she now had.
"Very well, if you wish. It has been a pleasure to show you around," Haichen agreed immediately, much to the archivist's surprise. She had anticipated a power struggle. Haichen must suspect that Courtney was closer to Tap than she actually was. Courtney smiled her thanks and walked as casually as she could back to the room where she had last seen Tap. She was well aware that Haichen had followed some distance behind and watched with curious and interested eyes until Courtney cross the domed room and disappeared into Tap's quarters.
The room where Tap had been was now empty. Even the sheets, blankets and pillows had disappeared. Courtney crossed the room and opened the door at the back. She entered a room that was beautiful in its simplicity. Here the walls were rice paper in frames of polished camphor wood. A gentle, warm breeze from wall vents stirred the spicy fragrance of the wood into the air.
The floor was white sand and along one wall a channel of water ran bubbling over black river stones.
The door behind Courtney opened and she turned and almost swallowed her tongue in shock.
Return to The Bard's Corner