Randall Hardaway clasped his hands over his head, gasping for air. Sweat blurred his vision before he wiped it away with the hem of his shirt. The sweat soaked fabric abraded and stung the raw pores under his eyes. Thirst burned his dry throat and hunger gnawed at his empty stomach. He was running in sandals; burst blisters on his feet worked blood into their leather and stained it. None of those things mattered to him.
Hardaway saw that he was at the intersection of Dunkirk Avenue and 4th Street, Orpheum Park directly in front of him, but that fact did not register in his mind. Although very familiar with the area he had no idea where he was nor where he was going. He only wanted to get away. He sprinted such a long way down 4th the blocks merged into one long blur. Fear gripped his intestines and squeezed. In response he burst into a sprint again.
Within moments Hardaway's headlong flight took him down Gurdjieff Boulevard away from 4th Street, across 2nd Street and then straight east on Mary Celeste Lane. His stride no longer had any semblance of control. His legs churned pell-mell and he flung his arms awkwardly with every forward motion. The vision made it clear something was terribly wrong with the man.
Outside one of the fine old apartment buildings that still boasted availability to the general public in the wake of the nanobot virus scare, a night watchman checking the perimeter of the building stopped in his tracks when he saw a man running down the street. The runner looked terrified. Something about the wildness of his eyes suggested that he was fleeing from the scene of a terrible crime.
A spontaneous feeling of Good Samaritan compassion overpowered the night watchman's better judgment. He jogged out into the street, blocking Randall Hardy's route away from the unknown horror. Hardy failed to notice a lot of things as he was careening down the streets of the tiny nation's capitol, but a man wearing a uniform and a gun broke through into his consciousness and he came to a stop, chest heaving. The night watchman, a retiree by the name of Thaddeus Pourcieau, held his arms out wide, hands palms up, the universal sign of “unarmed.”
“Are you okay, sir? You seem to be awfully upset. Is there anything I can do to help?” Thad asked Hardy.
Hardy, clothed only in a t-shirt, khaki cargo shorts and salt-water sandals, looked frail and battered as worn out as he was, despite having always been athletic and in good condition. He once more put his arms over his head, a position that optimized airflow to and from the lungs, and also signaled a lack of aggression. He concentrated and slowed his breathing. His eyes came back into normal focus, and panic subsided from his thoughts.
“I need to calm down and get my thoughts in order. I've just been through a hell of an experience, and maybe if I can go over it with somebody it will make more sense. Is there someplace we can talk?” Randall asked the uniformed security guard in front of him, adding, “Only if it's not something that would get you in trouble.”
The rapid transformation in Hardy's demeanor was peculiar, as if nothing had happened to him at all. Even stranger was that the night watchman seemed not to find anything unusual in the man's sudden shift from saucer eyed panic to friendly and talkative. The air tingled with the sort of crisp energy that accompanies a heavy lightning storm, that ionic charge so many people have described as instantly exhilarating, yet the stars shone down upon them in a sky devoid of clouds. It would not be accurate to say that neither of them noticed, it was just that they appeared incapable of confronting the phenomena.
Thad gave a high snort of a chuckle that wrinkled up his cheeks and brought life to his grizzled features. It didn't sound pretty, but the difference it made in his appearance could only come from genuine good humor. “This place never sees any wild activity. There's no crime. Nothing to do most of the time but read and listen to the clock tick. You're welcome to come in and sit down by the front desk. Is there any emergency I need to know about, any authorities I need to call?”
“No,” Randy clucked in return, his face relaxing from the presence of the kindly old man and the stable surroundings. “I had a personal scare. I really panicked out of proportion to the actual events. I'll tell you about it. Somebody with your life experience will probably get a kick out of it.”
“Follow me. On second thought, I'll follow you. Your comment about my age makes me think you may be sizing me up to see if you can whoop me,” Thaddeus said, with a choppy “heh-heh” that by habit he regularly demonstrated his good humor.
“No, problem, Lazarus, as long as you warn me before I step into one of the bear traps you have no doubt laid out as a secondary defense line for this fortress.”
“You got jokes too. This night may go by faster than I thought. Here I was thinking I might have to use the defibrillator they keep locked away just to make it through the 3 a.m. Hour.”
The classy art deco style of the apartment building belied the formidable size of the structure. The brightly colored curves looked so feminine, but the towering rise of the load bearing corner columns looked nothing if not strong and sturdy. Stiff against the marble embellishment above the revolving front doors, a canvas banner temporarily displayed the name of the edifice, The Prince. The permanent sign had been taken down, to be replaced by a newer, more stylized celebration of the architectural period. There was one normal door to the left of the revolving ones, and through that ingress Randall Hardy made his way, Thaddeus Pourcieau on his heels.
Once inside Randall paused to take in the vibe of the interior. It smelled like history, and it felt like a 19th century rooming house. Both perceptions were off the mark considering the designers finished the blueprints for The Prince in 1926, and nothing noteworthy ever took place there since its inception. The pause allowed Thad to show Hardy the way to the side entrance to the security desk, which opened into a short hallway tucked behind a moderately tall colonnette placed to partially hide the passage from view.
Tinted glass set in ornate wrought iron caging on either side of the main window obscured the majority of the spacious front desk and security booth from public view. The company providing security installed state of the art cameras the previous year; a bank of high definition monitors lined up above the front glass of the booth provided rotating views of nearly every square foot of the building. A small kitchenette occupied the rear portion of the room furthermost from the door. It consisted of a dormitory refrigerator and a short modular stand for the microwave and coffee pot with cabinets and two drawers underneath. There were two high backed, leather covered office chairs with adjustable everything, really too comfortable for use by security since falling asleep in one of them might be difficult for a weary person to hold out against.
“Do you mind coffee from a few hours agao? I try not to waste it, since keeping costs down helps ensure my continued receipt of this meager but useful supplemental income.”
“Not at all. My only requirement when it comes to java is that it be strong enough to require sugar and that it not be so old it has something floating on the top of it.”
“I've been poor too. I know about drinking the last drop of coffee from two morning's prior just to get one more day out of the bag. By the way, in all the excitement we didn't introduce ourselves. Thaddeus Pourcieau, at your service,” the old man said as he extended his hand.
The city's champion runner of the night clasped the night watchman's big paw in his own, and was surprised at the softness of the old man's skin. From the size of the hands he had expected to feel a calloused lump of concrete in his grip. Soft hands spoke of a good education and a life not spent at hard labor.
“Randy Hardaway. I want to extend my apologies for appearing on your doorstep in such an alarming manner. This experience represents a huge departure from my normal, quiet life. Nothing like it has ever happened to me before, and I pray to God above that it never happens again.” His eyes glanced nervously, guiltily toward the heavens as he said the last bit.
Thaddeus handed the younger man a freshly heated cup of joe. His stout frame contrasted with the well toned musculature and exactly median body mass index of his late night companion. It might have surprised someone to find Pourcieau carried less than five pounds of extra weight around with him, that the old motherly claim assigning apparent portliness to the presence of big bones was unquestionably true. Not only was the big old man not fat, he had a head full of hair that must have once been so red that traces of the famous Scottish hue still emanated from a few strands of hair hidden amid the curly white locks.
As he blew on his own warm mug of heavily sweetened warm contentment, Thad asked Hardy, “What did happen tonight, young man?”
“I find the night's events more surreal with every passing moment, and more than a wee bit embarrassing. The story is more complex than just the events that sent me into a panic, though. I may have to backtrack more than once to clarify along the way.”
“Never you mind about that. I am a good listener. You just tell the story and I will know what you mean.”
Randall took a sip of bittersweet brew before continuing, “A few weeks ago a friend of mine from college. Dennis Whitter, sent out invitations to a reunion celebration tonight. It's been nearly ten years since our graduation, and I think he was feeling nostalgic. Back then we had a circle of about a dozen friends, some of us rather close. Nine people, including myself, showed up, starting around 6:00. Three of my old buddies brought their wives, four of them girlfriends. The other four of us, our host included, were all by our lonely selves.
“By 6:30 we were having a terrific time telling stories from the glory years over wine, and of course with fine cheese. Not to have fine cheese with the run of the mill wine would have allowed the wine's aftertaste to linger far too long. Just to call the cheese fine would be to gloss over one of the evening's great niceties, but I can't remember them all. There was smoked Gouda and Jarlsberg, and a bunch of those designer creamy cheeses in foil covered mini wedges with herbs and stuff. Somebody busted open a bottle of cognac so I decided to step outside for some fresh air.
“When I first got there I noticed an inviting courtyard behind my friend's house. Jupiter is in the fourth house for the rising aspect of Sagittarius tonight, and I wanted to gaze at Venus twinkling in the darkness, with the crescent moon almost totally waned. There were two teak chaise lounges in the courtyard, and one of them was calling to me. The wine spread sleepiness all the way into my fingers and toes. I almost never drink. Cognac would have done me in. I hoped to sober up while I relaxed beneath the night sky.
“I stepped outside through sliding glass doors that opened directly into an elongated corner of the dining room where all my friends from the past sat and reminisced. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. When they did I noticed someone sitting in the chaise lounge furthest from the door.
“Needless to say, I jumped out of my skin. I immediately got fight or flight. Catecholamines hopped me up, like 'Boom!' My heart started thumping. All my muscles bunched up. But then I heard a soft voice from the seated figure...”
A quiet but unmistakably female voice in the near total darkness told Randall that there was no need to be frightened. He couldn't see the speaker, but her silvery voice sounded so pleasant all of the tension drained out of him. The same words spoken in a slightly different tone, or by a male speaker, may not have achieved their intent so efficaciously.
The two of them spoke the next words simultaneously: “Would you --” and “Who --” broke a stillness so deep and far reaching beyond the immediate setting it suggested a resistance to their presence (the house sat in a cul-de-sac in an unfinished neighborhood). The distinct sounds collided with sharp clarity. They gave Randall a mental image of two rubber balls bouncing off of one another. Nothing was disturbed, but the impact redirected all forward momentum. He took in air with an awkward shushed suction to try his question again, but the other unfinished question whisked out, sotto voce, “Would you like me to light a candle?”
“Yeah, that would be nice,” he answered.
A match was struck even as he answered, so his response didn't make any difference at all. The first timid spurt of light revealed only long wavy hair to Randall's perspective. That he had to wait for the light caused in him an uncharacteristic impatience out of proportion to the negligible time involved. Momentarily the citronella wick sputtered, caught and dispersed illumination, and both of their features became pleasantly visible. With nary ado Hardaway sat in the closest chair, thoughts of reclining replaced by rampant inquisitiveness
“My name is Phygenaia,” the young woman enunciated. The tone and tempo of the sound waves transitioned from the first syllable to the last, from simple statement to what could only be described as an utterance of power. The moment of tension accompanying the variable tones of the sound of her name vanished when she followed the sentence gently and airily, “But you can call me Jenny.”
Like a photographer of rare birds naming a sought after species to a companion on a photo shoot, quietly and hesitantly so as not to disturb the atmosphere, Hardaway nudged out his response, “That's a lovely Greek name. My name is Randall.” He chose to give his formal Christian name, abruptly ashamed of the shortened version's double meaning. Neither felt compelled to gush forth a fountain of words, but the man felt at ease in the sudden silence between them.
Jenny studied the face of the man across from her. A less than astute observer might mistakenly render the pronounced squareness of Randall Hardaway's jawline into an overall aspect of boxiness, especially with a profile glance. However, his slight, angular cheekbones redirected studious eyes from an aquiline nose to smaller than average ears with plump, nearly perfectly round lobes.
Randall's eyebrows halted that shift towards true handsomeness from the overly masculine side view due to a simple lack of attention to their appearance. They required only trimming to prevent an interested onlooker from assigning him to the average category. Hardaway never gave enough thought to other people's perceptions of him to accomplish that simple task.
The young lady seated a few feet from “The Brows” missed no details when it came to her appearance, and she need expend no energy to radiate allure. Fine strawberries require no sugar to be categorically delicious, the inviting scarlet multiple fruit can be a delicacy all by itself. When nurtured to ripeness with care, infinitesimal droplets of juice seep through the largest pores, one of life's most mouth watering sights. There could be no more exact a comparison in all of nature than the one between the mademoiselle's beauty and a particularly fine strawberry.
For all that natural fitness of appearance, Phygenaia did expend energy to enhance her appeal, for even the finest strawberry can be made even more exquisite if prepared properly. Her efforts were nothing like sprinkling some sugar on the “false fruit,” they were the five carat pink Cassel diamond adorning the Strawberries Arnoud, the world's most expensive fruit desert. The woman was a goddess primped with stardust and decked in heavenly attire, or, anyway, that was exactly what Randall Hardaway thought.
The young lady's rounded almond shaped face glowed from exposure to the rays of the equatorial sun.
Time spent near the lapping waves of the mother ocean kissed Phygenaia's peach complexion to high blushing red. Her delicate cheekbones captured the eyes of the beholder and bore them forward until they settled upon the tempestuous red of her lips, her mouth open ever so slightly, like a calla lily first opening its blooms to the world.
The eyes through which Phygenaia viewed the world time and again caught the dancing candle flame in an instantaneous flash that interrupted their constant dewy luster. Two eyes one blink from dry, only just wet enough to refract the low lumen, yet an illusion was created: They emanated their own light. Like tourmaline threads frozen in quartz, sparse golden amber flecks accented their blue, a blue impossibly bright of hue so nigh upon the gray that would desaturate their intensity.
Phygenaia's eyelids became a locus of sensory and mental focus points. Time distorted. One blink expanded to engulf all of Randall Hardaway's attention. The longer lashes on top, meticulously treated with a Parisian mascara until the tip of each individual hair appeared wicked and sharp, closed slowly down upon the shorter bottom lashes that looked as soft as wisps of spider silk. When they closed Randall felt a deep despair, worry that he would never look into them again. The atrioventricular valves slammed shut, “Lub!” Oxygen flowed from the air into the blood. The semilunar valves slammed shut, “Dub!” The second hand of a clock on the outside wall of the house several meters away moved from :01 to :02. The tick echoed off of the walls and the furniture, and finally the wooden fence across the yard.
By :03 everything returned to normal. Randall was not consciously aware of what had just taken place, although every part of him but his mind received the message loud and clear. Because of that Bermuda triangle of the male libido traced by connecting human hormonal sexual urges, the raw animal drive to reproduce and the emotional attachment forged in that fire where thought meets the chemistry of the coupling, Phygenaia had just become the object of love at first sight.
Jenny, unlike Randall, knew exactly what had transpired. The tiniest trace of a smile nearly settled upon the outside edges of her mouth, so incredibly inviting the mouth of the 20-something man moved sympathetically and involuntarily along with his gaze. She disguised the occurrence by biting her lower lip and acting as though, “monter aux lèvres,” as though there were something she wanted to say but could not think of the exact word.
As intended, Hardaway missed all of the hidden nuances of her actions, his rational thought obfuscated by Jenny's subtle performance. She removed her teeth from her lower lip and made it quiver inappreciably. She stuck out the pink tip of her tongue just enough for it to be noticeable, and held it there, transfixed as though she was once again about to say something. Instead she ran it back and forth across the spot that had been so roughly abused by her pearly whites. Her eyelids had drooped until it was impossible to tell what she was looking at in the dim glow, but it wouldn't have mattered. Randall suddenly realized he was staring and removed his eyes from her completely.
Were the young man to begin analyzing his own thoughts and emotions reality might set in, and that ran counter to the plans Phygenaia had in store for them that evening. She wanted herself to be the sole object of Randall's attention. An element of tension between them briefly took wing when the young man became irritated with himself for pouting about politeness dictating he not drink in the sight of her endlessly. To scatter that introspection to he winds and achieve her ends, she proffered a bold little tale meant to lure him away with her to more private surroundings.
“Your friend Dennis told me all about you. He thought maybe we would hit it off. I wanted to sit for a moment to collect my thoughts. A girl gets nervous sometimes, you know, especially when meeting one of the world's foremost researchers and scholars of Grecian ceremonial magic. That's when you walked outside and caught me totally by surprise.”
Randall was flabbergasted by what Phygenaia said. In all the years he had known Dennis the man had never done anything remotely like setting a friend up on a surprise date. Even though he was not upset that a beautiful woman was there to see him, he wanted to rush inside and confront the odd shift in his friend's behavior. That was another thing Jenny had no intention of allowing to happen.
“Randy, please come back to my place with me,” Phygenaia pleaded with a convincing wanton lilt to her voice. “I'm very shy. The idea of walking into that party with everyone knowing I came here just to be with you is more than I can handle.”
The idea of leaving with a woman more haunting than any he had ever dreamed of appealed to Hardaway so strongly that he almost set off for his car without a second thought. Before he could take a step though, he thought about how he had not seen some of the people inside in years. He raised the index finger of his right hand in a signal of that thought, which he was about to vocalize.
Phygenaia preempted Haradaway's announcement that he needed to stay a while longer by insisting, “You might not ever get another invitation this sweet and open. I will be hurt if you turn me down. I am not in the habit of throwing myself at men.”
[Any number of swappable generic bizarre sex scenarios I have written in the past could easily be edited through find and replace to finish this. I really don't feel any need to publish any more speculative erotica under Creative Commons]