By Tarot Barnes
Stretching her arms over her head, Rheda Eirhárljóss, AKA, Ms Klara Lindströmn, owner of Cardinal Pharmaceuticals, sighed and arched her back until every vertebra popped, stretching the tight white silk of her shirt and soft grey lamb’s wool jacket in a way that would have likely pleased her male employees.
Another time, she might have enjoyed the attention; boys were so much fun when they didn’t know they were being teased, but temptress was hardly part of the persona she’d constructed for Ms Lindströmn, dedicated businesswoman... and besides, it wasn’t too late in the evening.
Rubbing her eyes, she stared at the screen before her, then at the various boxes of paperwork blocking her view of the floor through her glass desk. The advantage of owning a small company, staffed with highly efficiently people, was that she only had to come in three days a month, allowing her to concentrate on her real job. The problem with owning such a company was that it was so effective that she usually had to find a way of squeezing four days of work into those 72 hours.
Unfortunately, while Bruce Wayne might be able to manage both a company and two different types of nightlife, she really didn’t have the time to waste. Of course, he only patrolled one city; she had an entire planet to protect.
Not for the first time, she wished the gods had removed the need to sleep from her species, it would make so many things so much easier… but as with so many pre-release promises, that feature had remained vaporware.
Moving her fingers from her eyes to the bridge of her nose, she stared at the screen. Again, she thought of Bruce Wayne; how did those writers think a man could keep up with the demands of a multinational corporation, and nightly fistfights? She was superhuman, and she found it nearly impossible to balance saving the world with ensuring her, relatively small, company was developing the drugs she wanted it to.
Covering her mouth as she yawned, she decided that if she was more concerned about realism in a comic book than a drug that could bring peace to tens of thousands of people, she was probably too tired to make an informed decision.
Shutting the computer down and gathering her papers, Rheda wondered if she should take her CIO’s advice and order those monitors which reduced eyestrain; until Earth learned how to make something better than semiconducting diodes, it seemed silly to let her people suffer.
Scooping reports into half a dozen folders and then dropping the folders into a cardboard box, Rheda paused to glance at the time; it was after six. Her secretary had called more than an hour ago to tell her she was going home, and gently suggest perhaps “Klara” might consider doing the same?
“Good advice,” Rheda murmured to herself, feeling a little defeated by her inability to come to a decision about this new drug course. Scooping the box of folders onto one hip, she dialled reception with her left hand. “Hey, Mason, is George still around?”
“I don’t think I’ve seen him leave, ma’am; one moment please.” There was a three second pause, filled with the rustle of paper as he checked the signing in book, “Uh, according to the sheet, he’s still here; would you like me to call the garage, ma’am?”
“If you would, please; tell him I’ll be heading down in a minute. If he could have the car ready, that would be great.”
“Of course ma’am; have a good evening.”
“You too, Mason,” Rheda smiled as she put the phone down. She didn’t draw much money from Cardinal Pharmaceuticals, since the salary she drew from her homeworld could let her live like a queen, if she ever chose to do so, but she did allow herself one luxury; George, her chauffeur.
It would have been more cost effective to channel the money into R&D and get a taxi every day but Rheda justified the expense in three ways; first, a personal driver was far more versatile than a taxi, Second, George could do other driving work for the company when she wasn’t using him, and Third, she really, really wanted a chauffeur.
The phone call to reception had been a mere formality; while they were outside of his usual hours, George was reliable enough to have said if he was heading home, but to leaving things to chance wasn’t in her nature.
On that note, she stopped by her Secretary’s desk and, swinging the thirty pound box easily onto one hip, quickly scrawled on a post-it note.
Mariana. Please ask Alex for costs regarding those monitors he wanted to give everyone.
She bit her lip as she re-read her slightly scratchy script, and then added.
Everyone means everyone.
It wasn’t that she thought her Chief Information Officer would intentionally ignore the lower echelons, but he did have a tendency to forget that the company extended beyond his department.
That task done, she turned for the elevator, noting how quiet the building seemed after hours. Cardinal wasn’t exactly a 24/7 enterprise, but as with everything to do with organic systems, it couldn’t shut down overnight; there were patients in the lower levels who’d volunteered for anti-cancer trials, the labs were filled with cultures, including a number of interesting lichens that needed hourly monitoring, and of course, security to ensure that all their valuable equipment was still there in the morning. She made a mental note to check the nightshift’s morale with Pauline in HR; it couldn’t be good for them to work in such a dead atmosphere.
Turning to wave to Mason as she left the building, she found George looking relaxed despite his pressed dress shirt and black suit, with an arm resting on the open passenger door of her Skoda Octavia.
“Thanks for sticking around.” She beamed, with not a small amount of genuine relief.
“Of course Ms. Lindströmn; you pay double after six after all.” He answered with a wink. Seeing the box she had switched to both hands in the elevator, he flipped open the cars’ trunk and offered to take it from her.
“Why not? Twice a pittance is still a pittance.” Rheda smirked good naturedly
“Perhaps a pittance to—” He grunted in surprise as she dropped the files into his hands, “…to those who live in great silver towers?” He continued, looking curiously at the box which had looked so light in Rheda’s hands.
Rheda struggled to keep her expression a picture of innocence; it was so tempting to crack a smile in face of his obvious question. Instead, she deflected by tossing her flame red hair in the direction of the towering edifice above them. “I might work in a great tower – which is glass incidentally, not silver – but I hope you know I live in Scottsdale, George?”
“I always thought that building was your carport?” He answered, slapping the trunk closed and checking it was locked.
“Yep; a multi-story one, for all those cars I don’t know how to drive.” Rheda chuckled, allowing him to escort her back to the open passenger door. “Seriously though; I am grateful.” She assured him, demurely drawing her legs up so as not to reveal too much thigh as she slipped into the seat.
“I know you are, Klara,” He nodded, dropping the playful façade. “But honestly, I don’t mind; what would I do at home anyway?”
“Watch the game, make dinner, play on your Xbox, spend time with Sam?” Rheda recited without hesitation, giving the last proposal a mildly suggestive wink.
“Sam’s away this week; family stuff.” George shrugged, shutting the door.
Catching the tiny wrinkle of concern on his forehead, Rheda twisted, impatiently following him around the car. “Is it Sam’s mom again?” She caught his arm as he dropped into the driver’s seat, “If you need time off, you only need to ask.”
“Oh, not that kind of family thing,” George assured her with a disarming smile, trying to brush her fingers away, “He’s just upstate for a few days; nothing serious, I promise.”
Studying his rich brown eyes and seeing no lie, Rheda dipped her head and allowed him to prise her hand off his toned bicep. “That’s good to hear; family is important.” She agreed, neglecting to mention relations with her own family were... strained, and not due to distance. If anything, a few thousand light-years made it easier to live with them.
“That they are,” George nodded, putting the car in gear and smoothly pulling into traffic. “Oh; I don’t know if you saw the traffic from up in your glass tower, but there’s major traffic on the 202?”
Rheda groaned, smacking her head into the seat rest. “How bad?” She asked once she’d swallowed her initial, entirely out of character response.
“Bad enough that I wouldn’t count on getting home before 7; sorry, Klara, half the city’s backed up..” He apologized with a shrug, enviously watching a red Fiat overtake them; his boss insisted on boring speeds.
“Did you cause the tailback?” She arched a ruby eyebrow at him.
“I think that answering in the affirmative would be a quick way to the unemployment office.” He answered blithely.
“That it would; but as I suspect you don’t have superpowers, I’ll assume you didn’t,” She slapped his thigh. “Just do you best.”
An hour later, Rheda was regretting her decision to take the car. She had chosen to create her human identity in Phoenix because of some tax incentives, and it was a desert city. She’d thought that it’d be a reminder of a childhood, but she’d only needed to live there a week to realize how different it was to the one she’d grown up in.
Very few buildings, even in the city centre, were more than a storey tall and had shallow roofs which combined with wide streets, gave her the impression some giant had squashed the city with a rolling pin. Unlike New York, there were few convenient high rises to hide the flash of her teleports, but if she’d only told George to take the night off, jogged half a block, crossed the empty lot and dipped into that handy blind alley behind Starbucks, she could have crossed the twenty miles been Cardinal and home in the time one of the baristas took to pour a grande frappacino.
…Of course if she’d done that, she’d have had to leave the files behind; her species could teleport short distances in any direction where they had clear line of sight, but bug #1243 was a resolution issue that limited her carrying capacity to little more than what she was wearing.
She sighed; it was an irony that her species was considered the epitome of perfection. Perhaps if the gods hadn’t let the mere collapse of their civilisation and subsequent extinction prevent them from resolving a few support tickets she’d be worthy of that title.
Her mood soured as she saw an elderly man with skin like leather hobbling along the still hot streets in sandals; even from the car, her sharp eyes allowed her to spot the characteristic red sores, and atypical toe position of a bunion. She shook her head; it was such a simple condition to treat, but the laws of her people prevented her from bringing all the miracles of their civilisation to Earth, lest they pollute their ancestral cultures. As if $15 coffee, four thousand TV channels or indeed, the entire North American continent, had played any kind of role in the lives of Palaeolithic German tribes.
Which, of course, was why she was forced to use subtly when she broke those laws.
Seeing the pensive look on his boss’s face out of the corner of his eye, George asked, “Penny for your thoughts, Klara?”
Unaware that she’d been so transparent, Rheda blinked and shook her head, causing ripples to shimmer in her crimson hair. “Sorry; I was just woolgathering.”
George gave her a disappointed look, but before he could speak, a car ahead of them slid forward a couple of feet, interrupting him as he shifted his hand down to the gear stick, put them into first and edged forward. “You’re usually better with your dissembling.” He commented when they were once again in neutral, with the hand brake on.
“Am I?” Rheda tried to lift her eyebrows mischievously, but knew her face enough to know that in her current state, she merely looked puzzled. “Sorry; it’s just been a long day. I was thinking about something we’re trying to develop. It’s… complicated.” She yawned.
Her driver gave her a penetrating look. He’d worked out pretty early on that his role involved more than getting his employer from point A to point B; the people he drove – at least until Klara had hired him as an exclusive client – were powerful, well connected and… isolated. Sometimes they needed a confident; someone who wasn’t a friend, but who was trustworthy and discrete, but outside their usual circle.
However, despite the years he’d served as her driver, he didn’t actually know much about Klara on a personal level. She was Swedish, though you could barely tell from her accent, and she didn’t get along with her parents, but that was about it. However, he didn’t need her history to know she was friendly, driven, highly intelligent and very compassionate; not a combination of traits he associated with people in her position. Not that she was soft, he got the feeling she’d push someone off a building if she needed to, but only after she arranged a net beforehand. In a word, she was inspiring, and it hurt to see her looking beat.
“Complicated like long division?” He quipped with a curl of his lips, “Because you know I could never figure out where that pesky dot went.”
Despite herself, Lisa’s eyes sparkled as she laughed, “Complicated like… I’m not sure what the best route is?”
“The one that’ll save the most lives?” He offered, but she shook her head.
“It’s not that kind of treatment; it’s palliative.”
“Palliative… like, hospice care?”
“There are other applications; it’ll reduce recovery times for certain kinds of surgery but… yeah,” her brilliant blue eyes stared ahead of them, out over the dusty streets and her tone turned sombre. “‘End of life’ would sums it up pretty well.”
Recognising the switch of mood, George changed tracks, “I thought you weren’t into that; ‘we are in the business of life, not death?’” He quoted one of her earlier press releases.
“We are, but like any other rational, intelligent person, I reserve the right to change my opinions when new facts present themselves.” She breathed heavily and looked at him. For once, her eyes weren’t like blue lasers, but almost pleading as she admitted, “...A while back, I lost someone very dear to me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” George answered, and meant it.
Rheda nodded, accepting his sympathy, “We can do a lot these days, but not everything. Because he was my friend, I was able to get him the help he needed to ensure his… passing,” Her throat contracted as she swallowed the painful memory, “was easier, but afterwards… it occurred to me that there are a lot of people out there, in wards and at home, suffering in the knowledge that all they can expect from life is more pain. It’s not necessary,” She spoke bitterly, an angry trace of moisture in her eyes. “But people haven’t thought how to bring the relevant disciplines together until now.”
George nodded, accepting her words; Klara had a… knack for finding treatments that no one had ever considered before. He presumed that she spent the 27 days a month she wasn’t in headquarters doing the research, but whatever her methods, whether it was peer-reviewed journals or divination, they worked. He knew that most pharmaceutical companies failed when they were trying to develop new drugs; 90% of the time, they didn’t work, weren’t cost effective or produced too many bad side effects. Cardinal though, managed to do the opposite; 80% of their products went to market. It was almost the only way a relatively small company could stay afloat next to the giants of Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson, which were so gigantic they could have drowned them by accident.
“That’s very noble,” George observed, with the expected neutral tone.
Klara snorted and looked out her window, sighing, “It’s the right thing to do; that’s not nobility.”
“Doing something for high principles is the very definition of nobility.” He paused, then added, “…When not talking about royalty.”
Rolling her eyes, Rheda chuckled. “I’m not going to argue with you.”
“Thank you,” George smiled, edging the car forward another three inches. “So… what’s the problem; can’t figure out how to make it?”
“No; I know exactly how to make it.” She said, with the certainty of someone who’d found said formula in a book.
“If it was a matter of money, I wouldn’t be conflicted. Knowing how to make a panacea is useless if you don’t have the funds.” She pointed out, again with absolute certainty.
“True… so what is the problem?”
Klara shrugged, evidently debating whether to tell him the whole story. Eventually, she shrugged. “You know that most of what we do here isn’t so much development as it is research?”
George nodded, his eyes locked on a Vectra trying to steal the space ahead of them. “Yes; you try to combine existing drugs into new therapies?” His hand drifted towards the gear stick, only to find hers in the way.
“Let it go, George,” She smiled patiently; he hadn’t realized she’d even been looking in that direction. “One space is not worth getting into a collision over.”
“…Yes ma’am,” George answered, trying not to feel the sting to his professional pride, given how stupid he’d have to be to let the road hog turn into an accident, but Klara was kind of funny about cars.
“And yes, you’re mostly right,” She continued, “Though in this case we’re trying to make something a bit more… novel than usual.”
“How; does it make people fly?”
“Of course not,” she smirked, “flying is impossible… though our patients might forget that. There isn’t really a term for what we’re trying to do; I could call it a hypnotic agent… but that’s actually the proper name for sleeping pills.”
“Hypnotic; it… makes people believe what you tell them?”
“In very specific ways, yes; it makes them susceptible to suggestion.” Klara nodded, “there are other effects too, of course; this is actually a treatment. The, uh, ‘hypnotic’ agent is really just a small part of it.”
“Sounds a bit dangerous?”
“So is digitalis, but you’d thank me for prescribing it if you had a heart condition.”
“True,” George conceded, “But if there’s a drug that makes them believe what you tell them… you can see what I’m getting at?”
“I do, and I’m going to have great fun convincing the FDA why it doesn’t do that,” She grinned predatorily; convincing a federal office to do what she wanted was fun, “The drug... we haven’t come up with a proper name for it, is highly targeted on specific parts of the brain.” It had to be; she had no intention of reinventing rohypnol.
Of course, others might. Once again, she was introducing an entirely new family of drugs to Earth; and while hers was designed to be specific in its effects, once other pharmacologists got their hands on the idea… well humans were so deliciously ingenious; it had taken her people a few thousand years to develop this drug, but at the rate Earth advanced, she doubted it’d have taken them more than a couple hundred years. She was just... speeding up the refining process. However, it was going to take some very careful regulations to ensure the abuses she’d read about in the history books didn’t happen here.
“And… what does it do?”
Her driver’s question brought her out of her entirely illegal fantasy; she wasn’t supposed to interfere with Earth nations after all, “...I’m sorry, George; what did you say?”
“This drug, or the treatment. What does it do?
“Why, it makes the patient believe that the drug works, of course,” She said, and chuckled at his confused expression. It wasn’t fair of course; George was far from stupid, though he liked to downplay his intelligence, but his expression was one she would remember into the next century.
“Sorry,” She apologized guiltily. “In answer to your question, the treatment itself tries to make life worth living again; it eases pain and reduces discomfort. The ‘hypnotic’,” she frowned again, disliking the misuse of the term, “influences the imagination.”
Her driver proved his intelligence by realising she was speaking literally. “I wasn’t aware that there were drugs that could do that?”
“You would be surprised by the weirdly specific effects certain chemicals can have on the human imagination; I mean, you’ve heard that some drugs can make you feel invincible?” When he nodded, she laughed, “That’s the tip of the iceberg; there is, and I kid you not, a peacock spider in South America whose bite can make you feel like you’re made of glass.”
“Seriously.” She nodded, still chuckling. “We imported a couple as part of the preclinical trials; they’re still on the thirteenth floor if you want to see them, they’re kind of cute. But the poor test subjects... the tiniest drop of venom was enough to lock them to the seats, too terrified to get up for fear of breaking in half.”
“Sounds weird.” George observed dryly, scanning the cars ahead and to the side of them.
“No, what was weird is that they were convinced, honestly convinced that they were transparent; the ones who could be convinced to move their arms were certain they could see through their hands. And I don’t mean they thought they could see bones and blood; as far as they were concerned, they were hollow.” She shook her head. “Nothing we could do to convince them otherwise either; if we tried putting a picture under their hand, they’d say the refraction made it too distorted, or some other excuse. It was a very fascinating study.”
“Sounds it,” George agreed, biting his lip as he eased the brake off and pushed the car forward another few feet. “So this ‘hypnotic’ came from spider venom?”
“Oh, no,” Rheda shook her head, realizing she’d been giving him the wrong impression. “We were studying venoms because their affects are related and their roles as neuromodulators are relatively well understood; it helped us make a case for human trials. The drug itself is largely synthetic; it was discovered in Portugal.”
“I’m surprised it didn’t make headlines?”
Rheda, who’d been a little surprised by that herself, could only say, “It was discovered by a handful of students and professors in the University of Coimbra, but their version wasn’t very flashy; the affects were subtle and It barely made the Acta Médica Portuguesa. Frankly, I don’t think anyone could think of a use for it.” That was true of most of the ‘finds’ she made of course; people often discovered things, but never developed them because there was no obvious application. Her favourite story from Ancient Greece involved an otherwise brilliant engineer who actually invented a steam turbine, but never got further than making it into a simple toy.
Fortunately, in this case, some Andskoti lieutenant noted it in his report and she read the enemy’s mail. Or rather, her people did.
“But.. how does this drug actually help?” George asked. “I mean, drugs are chemicals; their effects are a reaction. You can’t turn off the laws of chemistry with your mind, no matter how much you believe.”
“True,” Rheda dipped her head in acknowledgement. “But biological systems aren’t just chemistry… and it turns out that there’s a much closer link between mind and body than most people realize; that’s the basis for how placebos work.” She reflected on that; placebos were a pretty good analogy for how the drug worked; maybe she could call them placeboids?
George gave her a sceptical look. “That sounds like hippie bullshit.”
“It does… doesn’t it,” Rheda rolled her eyes; she didn’t like the association either. “I’ll have to get marketing to work on that. But to an extent, it’s true; I can even prove it.”
“Suppose I was to scratch you?” Leaning across the gearstick, Rheda very, very gently, brushed the tips of her nails down the side of his neck. “In so doing I’d tear open some blood vessels and expose subendothelial collagen to passing palettes, which will instantly bond together thanks to a coating of Glycoprotein 4. That’s chemistry.”
“Uh huh,” George nodded. “Your dramatic pause suggests that your next statement will explain why that isn’t proving my point.”
“You’re so cynical,” Rheda, checking the car was still in park, ruffled his hair and returned to her seat, “but you’re right of course. That’s just the initial reaction… well reactions technically; there’s a whole cascade of them following an injury, each building upon the last. The process of coagulation is quite fascinating in the abstract, but what you should take away from this is that it doesn’t happen in isolation; the platelets, and later corpuscles and other cells, don’t just wait for whatever the bloodstream brings them, nor do they go and collect it. Once the mind realizes there’s an injury, it actually starts funnelling resources to the injury site.”
George’s eyes narrowed, “But how?”
Rheda shrugged, “A lot of ways, the most obvious is simply releasing the needed proteins into the blood, but it can also dilate vessels so that their concentration is highest around the injury site.”
“Yeah, but that’s still automatic, isn’t it; just some part of the hindbrain?”
“True… well not the hindbrain; you’re right that it’s all subconscious. But so what; my point was that healing is influenced by the mind, and if we can, to steal a phrase, ‘hack’ that response, we gain control of the immune response.”
“And that’s important because…?” George struggled to see the connection.
“Because as far as the body is concerned, medicine is just a bunch of chemicals. Often very destructive ones; if we can convince it that those chemicals are doing good work then we can improve a drug’s effectiveness, merely by stopping the body from trying to neutralize it.”
“I guess…” George didn’t sound convinced.
“That’s just the start of course,” Rheda continued. “With proper research, we can actually get the body to help the medicine. For example, there are drugs that work better in an oxygen rich environment; if we can convince the body to send oxyhemoglobin to the active site then we not only improve the drug’s effectiveness, but we can even tailor it to work only where it’s most needed.” She smiled; it’d taken her people about three thousand years to reach that level of understanding of course, but she was fairly confident humanity would do it considerably faster, even without some “innovative research” from herself.
“Ok, ok,” George held up his hands in defeat. “I’m not saying it doesn’t sound stupid but… you’re the boss.”
Rheda frowned at him, her tone suddenly defensive, “George; I don’t want people to believe something just because I say it. I’m not inflatable.”
“Of course… sorry,” he apologized, “I know you, uh that is to say Cardinal, does the research to back up your claims.” A pause, and then, “…So is that the problem; the research says it’s not working?”
“More a case that it’s working too well,” Rheda grimaced, remembering the contents of the files. “We’re still trying to formulate the best approach; some of these drugs are very potent and in the concentrations we’re using them… they could cross the blood brain barrier in areas other than where we want them.”
“Sounds like a fairly serious bug.” George observed.
“Everything in medicine is a case of percentages; what affects one patient one way, may affect another in a totally different way. In this case… the research suggests that the treatment in its current form will prove detrimental to 40% of those over 65.”
‘Which would describe most of the people you want to help?” George realized, and when she nodded, he scratched his chin in thought. “You said ‘in its current form’; I take it there are other approaches?”
“Yes; Pfizer has this really nice synthetic entheogen they’re willing to lease us. It would be safe for that 40% but… not much more. It has a pretty consistent 50% effectiveness in trials.”
“So you can either make a drug which only 60% of the elderly can use safely, or one which works on only half the patients?”
“That’s the size of it, and we simply don’t have the money to bring both versions to market.” She sighed. “Capitalism is a bitch sometimes.”
“And you’re worked up trying to justify one version over the other?” George raised his eyebrows, to which she nodded. “Tricky. Uh… I don’t suppose one is cheaper to produce?”
“The Pfizer alternative is more expensive,” Rheda conceded, “but not significantly so; I’m going to go over the research again tonight but…” she shook her head, “I doubt I’m going to find a quantifiable reason to choose one over the other.”
George grimaced, mentally trying to figure out the mathematics of one versus the other, finally admitting, “I don’t envy you the choice.”
“Me neither,” Rheda agreed, resting her chin on her fist and staring out the window. She hated partial victories, and whichever path she chose… she was going to fail someone.
Hoping to distract herself from her musing, she looked out at the yucca sticking out of the sand, her eyes falling on a side street... one that lead to a road that looked pleasingly free of traffic. “Hey, George,” she pointed, “what if we go north and cut through midtown?”
George, who knew the streets even better than she did, looked dubious, “That’s... not a good neighbourhood, Klara.”
Rheda looked at the empty road again, revaluating her options. Like most cities in North America, Phoenix used a gridiron plan for its streets, but was oddly patchwork in its distribution. Large plot houses could be a splotch of verdant lawns and manicured gardens squeezed between low rent warehouses and an elementary school; simply driving two miles down the road from Cardinal Tower would take her through a vast vacant lot, an avenue of ultra modern biotech firms, a junk yard, pristine community housing, farmland and another vacant lot. There was no apparent reason to the distribution, and the dividing line between luxurious yellow brick homes and a caravan park so poor it didn’t have paved roads might literally be a single street.
It was as if the giant who’d rolled the city flat, had cut it up and scattered the blocks at random, so someone could easily walk into a gang neighbourhood by crossing the road. But the converse of that was one could exit just as swiftly... and they were in a car.
“I can handle a few potholes, George,” She said decisively, “Especially if it means getting home before midnight.”
“It wasn’t the condition of the streets I was referring too, Klara; it’s the reason no city crews are willing to go fix them.”
“I can also handle seeing poor people,” Rheda assured him, resting her hand on his shoulder, “don’t worry; Phoenix has astonishingly low rates of crime for an American city.”
“If you say so, boss.”
After 15 minutes of driving cracked and litter strewn the backstreets, George was beginning to think that maybe his boss had known what she was talking about. The people in this part of the city didn’t seem to care much about where they dumped their garbage, but the few pedestrians he could see were keeping themselves to themselves and enjoying the evening air. He’d been worried that the new car would attract attention by virtue of having been washed in the last six months, but even the pair of men clearly negotiating a meth deal hadn’t spared their shiny metallic blue paint a second glance.
That train of thought ran into a literal roadblock as he made a right turn onto a long, open street bordering a junkyard. The garbage was even worse than in the rest of the neighbourhood; at least that had been confined to the sidewalks, but here it’d been strewn across the road, forcing him to slow down to avoid the heavy looking black bags.
Navigating the pungent obstacle course was demanding enough that he almost didn’t see the large Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser rolling silently out of one of the garages lining the right hand side of the road.
“Shit.” He swore, slamming his foot on the brake as it became clear that the dual toned station wagon wasn’t turning onto the road; it was blocking it.
“What is it?” Rheda glanced up, seeing light flash from the shaved scalp of the Oldsmobile driver, and instantly feeling her hackles rise. She might have been thinking about the ‘placeboid’ treatment, but that was effectively her hobby. Her job was safeguarding the planet, which required an entirely different skill set.
While George pointed, she evaluated the situation. To their left, the junkyard was a solid wall of stacked cars, the six foot rusty fence was almost unnecessary, while to their right, an equally impenetrable row of garages not only prevented them from turning around, but provided easy concealment for anyone lying in wait.
“Back us up, George,” She ordered, spotting two men in tee-shirts sauntering out of the open door. “Back us up, right now!”
George didn’t need telling twice; his hand was already moving on the gear shift, but a quick glance over her shoulder told her they were already too late. A rusty Ford pickup was rolling out of one of the garages behind them and didn’t stop until its dented bumper was parked squarely against one of the heavy looking garbage bags.
She cursed herself; if she hadn’t been preoccupied with the placeboids, she might have wondered how so much trash could end up in this lonely backstreet!
More men were moving in the gathering darkness, although with her eyes she could see them easily enough. There were nine of them, including the two drivers, none of whom seemed older than 21. Her heart beat faster as she spotted the toys these children had tucked cockily into their jeans, and she felt a stab of fear. Not for herself; humanity’s favourite toys posed less than no threat to her, but that did not hold true for George.
Rapidly evaluating their options, she grimaced. She could deal with all nine of the thugs in a handful of seconds, less if she let them get even closer, but not without revealing her inhuman nature to George. Naturally, she’d never considered putting a weapon in the car; being able to literally bend steel bars and deflect bullets off her chest usually made them redundant.
Very, very briefly, she considered telling George to ram their way through the garbage bags that served as the left most part of the barricade, but that would have been a bad idea even if they were filled with old newspapers and rotting fruit. Which was probably why George hadn’t tried it already. Cars weren’t tanks; they were easy to damage and if a bag got stuck in the undercarriage it could lift the wheels and leave them trapped, maybe even flip them over. And that presupposed whoever had been smart enough to come up with this little ambush hadn’t borrowed some scrap metal from the junk yard to make the bags even more dangerous.
Briefly squinting at them, she saw yellow and red handkerchiefs tied tight around each of their upper right biceps; definitely a gang sign, but she’d never bothered to learn what gangs existed in Phoenix, so that wasn’t very helpful. The shaved heads and universally anglo features, however, told her more than she needed. For once, she wished was as blonde as an Andskoti; the skinheads might treat her better if she appeared Aryan enough.
With a prolonged groan, she realized there was only one viable option... and it nearly made her retch.
“Put us in park, George,” She instructed, calmly but with absolute control. “Keep your hands on the wheel and we’ll get out of this.” Maybe a little poorer, but it was only money.
“But ma’am…” George protested; he’d still been trying to count their assailants.
“No arguments,” Rheda shook her head, “We can’t fight our way out so we’re going to have to buy our freedom.”
To his credit, George looked her dead in the eye and pointed to the rear of the station wagon. “Klara, there’s a gap there; I think I can get us through.”
Rheda followed his point; it was true there was a space large enough to squeeze the Octavia through. Her unfamiliarity with cars had caused her to overlook it, but now...
“No.” She said with some reluctance, eyeing the approaching teenagers. Two had drawn their pistols and while they had them pointed nonchalantly at the ground, she didn’t like the careless way they stroked their fingers down the triggers. If they were that careless with their firearms, they probably wouldn’t waste too many seconds deciding to use them... George was too fragile to risk.
“No?” George sounded incredulous. “Klara, they aren’t collecting for the Boy Scouts.”
“They’re not,” Rheda gritted her teeth, “but if all they want is money, then we’ll leave poorer, but we will leave here.” She said with assurance, tactfully squeezing his wrist as it inched towards the parking brake.
“And if they don’t want just money?” He responded with an intensity that made Rheda realize that, while his heart was racing, he was more scared for her than himself. “Klara, they might...,” he hesitated and glanced downwards.
Touched by his concern for her well being, she allowed a ghost of a smile to touch her lips as she patted his hand. “They might do a lot of things; if they want to see more than the inside of my purse, they’ll have to handle the consequences.”
“Klara,” he repeated, his voice beginning to waver as the boys came closer, “I can’t protect you from six thugs!”
She decided not to correct his miscount and merely patted his hand again, saying in a kind tone, “And I’m not asking you to; you’re my driver, not my bodyguard. And I can look after myself; just keep us in park and let me do the talking.”
George’s brow became fractionally less furrowed as her confidence washed over him. She hoped it was justified because if any of the Fourth Reichers did want to rape her, the results would be difficult to explain. For once, she wished she’d worn something that wasn’t quite so tight; the male gaze was only fun when she was inviting it.
With what she thought was admirable patience, she waited for the first of the young bucks to reach her. It was an agonising wait; the tick of each second felt like it was slicing an inch of skin from her body. She itched to move, to do anything, but she forced herself to remain still and stare straight ahead, not giving the thugs the pleasure of her reaction.
When one finally reached the car, she resisted rolling her eyes in relief and gave him an appraising look. He was tall, even more than her six feet, and muscled as only someone able to dedicate most of their day to honing their body can be. Given that he’d opted for a tight camouflage patterned Tee, he wanted others to know how much time he’d spent on his body.
Under other circumstances, she might have been happy to spend time with the fledgling. Cocky men usually turned her off, but sufficiently pretty ones were tolerable if they were smart enough to let her lead.
There was a glint of intelligence in the boy’s eyes, but it was cruel; not something someone could like, only fear, or hate. She had no doubt he’d been the ambush’s architect, though she thought the inception was probably beyond him; there wasn’t enough originality in his wardrobe to suggest much imagination. More likely he’d got the idea from television.
As he approached, his eyes took liberties with her form that made her itch, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of covering herself. Rheda was proud of her body, had used it to distract enemies before, and her dignity was something she was willing to spend on their safety.
To her complete lack of surprise, however, once the mutt had taken his fill of her curves, he mentally dismissed her and approached the driver’s side, lazily using the barrel to tap the window.
It took every inch of Rheda’s self control not to yank George out of the way and shove her fist through the glass when she saw the pistol being pointed within a few inches of his head. Yet somehow, she managed to keep her hands in her lap as her driver swallowed and wound the window down.
“‘Ello, Old Bean,” The youth smirked in a truly atrocious attempt at an English accent. “Sorry to be a bovver, but could me and my lads ‘ave a minute of your time?”
The mutt’s attempt was so bad that Rheda was certain, Faré, her young British friend, was probably twitching somewhere across the world. It was all she could do not to roll her eyes as George peered out at the man and, with a pallid smile, said, “It’s no trouble... how can we help you?”
“Wot a right nice gent we’ve got here,” the mutt chuckled darkly, turning his back on George to announce to his crew, “I mean, ‘how can we help you?’” The parroted line earned some vulgar laughs from his crew. “I mean, fellas; here we are, a rich man in his expensive car, out for a jolly with his old lady and his first impulse upon seeing a few lads who’re down on their luck, is to see how he can improve their lives. Wot a humanitarian. No, even better; I reckon we’ve got some kind of... missionary ‘ere!”
The revelation earned more harsh laughter and broke Rheda’s patience. “Can we please dispense with the idle banter?” She stated coolly, knowing it wasn’t the wisest course of action, but her nerves were on edge. “We know why you’re here.”
The mutt’s shoulders stiffened at the icy challenge, anger replacing the carefree mockery and Rheda’s muscles tensed to steel hardness as he turned back to face her. If he so much as twitched the gun in George’s direction, she was going to take him down and to hell with the consequences.
However, while the mutt rested the butt of his pistol on the window’s edge, he kept the barrel pointed at the roof. “Care to repeat that, love?”
Rheda revaluated her opinion of him; if he knew enough to let the presence of the gun serve as his threat, he had some military training, though given his lightning change in temperament, he’d probably washed out of basic. “I said, we know why you’re here. You want money?” She arched a firey eyebrow though it wasn’t really a question. “I have money. It’s yours if that will get us out of here.”
The mutt’s eyes glinted in the evening light and Rheda heard his heart pulsing faster, from the predatory trot of a hunting wolf to the pounding roar of an enraged bear. She had to hold her hands in her lap to stop them from lashing out as he levelled the pistol at her. George gulped as the blue steel barrel passed before his nose and she prayed he wouldn’t try something heroic; from that position, he’d probably be able to deflect the gun enough that the bullet wouldn’t hit her, but there was no way she’d be able to protect him from the resulting fusillade. Maybe if she dragged the mutt through the window; hopefully his friends wouldn’t want to risk shooting him and she could use the confusion to deal with them directly.
“Oh your money’s mine alright, darling,” The mutt snarled, “It was mine the moment you got in the car, the second you and your boy toy got up this morning, the instant you decided trespassing on my backyard was a good idea.”
“George...” Rheda warned as she saw her driver’s eyes narrow, “The boy is entitled to his opinion, and he’s right; the money is his. I apologize for interrupting; I just don’t believe in prevarication. We all know what’s going on, and the sooner we admit that, the faster you gentlemen,” she indicated the gang with a toss of her head, “can continue with your evening.” That was actually a lie; she usually enjoyed bantering with her opponents when the situation wasn’t serious.
“Yeah, ‘George,’” the mutt scowled, apparently remembering the driver existed, “I guess this lady’s your boss? Well, you listen to her and don’t do anything stupid. She and I are just going to complete a little business transaction; then you and her can go on your way.”
Rheda noticed his phoney British accent vanished as he got annoyed, but she didn’t like the emphasis he placed on ‘transaction’. Never taking her eyes off of him, she raised her hand to her grey jacket, “May I get my purse?”
“Slowly,” The mutt nodded, levelling the pistol on her once again.
Keeping her motions simple and obvious, she did as instructed; pulling open her jacket just far enough to reveal she wasn’t hiding a weapon as she retrieved a slender vermilion purse. The mutt’s eyes dilated in pleasure as she unclasped it and revealed the quarter inch of crisp bank notes inside.
“I trust this is sufficient to pay our passage?” She asked, tossing the purse into his hand
“Maybe...” The youth muttered, pale moonlight reflecting his greed as he ran a blunt thumb across the stack of bills. “What else you got?”
Rheda had expected this; the young fool wasn’t going to take her word that that was all she had. And in fact he was right; she was old enough not to keep all her eggs in one basket. However, handing all of it over would have just have given him an excuse to frisk her and, aside from the fact she would rather kiss a slug, there were things she really didn’t want him finding.
“That’s all I’ve got,” she said levelly, sitting back and crossing her arms.
“Really?” The mutt lifted a disbelieving eyebrow, his accent returning as he scoffed. “Pull the other one, darlin’. If you don’t bat an eyelid at dropping three hundred bucks, then three hundred bucks ain’t all you’ve got.”
Releasing a carefully controlled breath, Rheda refused to look at him. “I’m a successful business woman,” She stated coldly. “Of course I have more; in banks. Look, you’ve got all of my cards there; you can have my watch... my phone. What else do you think I have?” As she spoke, she angled her wrist to him, letting the Skoda’s interior light play over the gold swan of the Swarovski brand. It was actually a fake, because she didn’t believe in paying $400 for a piece of clockwork, but he wouldn’t know that.
“...Hand it over,” The mutt grumbled, as if frustrated she hadn’t done so immediately, “Then get out of the car.”
Rheda paused in the act of unbuckling the slender leather watchstrap, realising she’d made a mistake. Not in holding back the $300 in her other pocket, but her attitude; he didn’t just want money, he craved power so his own pathetic life seemed a little better in comparison. She had only fulfilled the first part of that covenant... was it too late to pretend to be scared of this puppy?
“L-look...” She allowed herself to stutter, “You were right; I’ve got more. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lied to you.” Lowering her eyes, she started to fumble with her other interior pocket, “I’m sorry!”
Beside her, George flinched, obviously believing her performance and she flashed her hand around his wrist, locking it in place, hoping the mutt wouldn’t notice the fast movement.
Obviously he didn’t because he merely waved his pistol at her, “Out of the car, bitch.”
“Fine; sure.” She conceded with bare lip service to her new, frightened, persona. “Just don’t hurt me.”
“That’s up to you, ‘love.’” The mutt snorted, making her tense ready to spring over the car as he briefly directed his weapon back to George. “Now don’t you go gettin’ any ideas, mate; or else me likely lads will ‘ave to ‘ave a word with ya.” With a sweep of his hand, he indicated the other members of the gang, now all gathered around the car.
“Don’t hurt her,” George stated impotently as the gang laughed.
“It’ll be OK, George,” Rheda promised him, closing the car door. “The boy just wants to re-assert his alpha male status by demonstrating his ability to make unrestricted sexual contact with a female, without suffering the consequences such groping would suffer in normal society.” She practically spat the final words, directing a glare that would have vaporized the mutt, had she been Supergirl from the comics.
“Ooh, doesn’t she know a lot of fancy words, lads,” the boy waved his hands in mock horror. “I’m all aquiver in my knickers.”
“I wouldn’t say I know everything,” Rheda said, calmly watching him cross the front of the car as two of his crew took position either side of her. “For example; I don’t have a clue what accent you’re trying to pull; Cockney, East End, Nadsat?”
When he looked blank, she laughed. “You don’t even know your own source material.”
The mutt’s confusion only lasted a second as he stepped forward, gun raised to her forehead. “If you don’t want to find out what happens when I fire a bloody bullet into your head, you’ll shut your fucking mouth!”
Rheda debated telling him she already knew what would happen, but since she couldn’t tell him the bullet would shatter, decided against it. Slowly raising her hands, she apologized, “OK, OK; I’m sorry.”
“You will be,” Mutt growled, tossing his head towards the car. “And so will your boy toy there. How does your business sense factor in a bullet to the kneecap? Will your insurance cover that?”
Rheda could have said Cardinal provided free healthcare to all of its employees, but refrained. “I’d prefer not to find out,” she said, with absolute honesty. “Look; there’s no need for unpleasantness. I wasn’t kidding when I said there was more money; George, get my emergency funds from the glove compartment.”
The driver frowned up at her. “Emergency funds?”
Looking aggrieved, Rheda confessed. “...There’s a thousand dollars rolled up inside the spectacles case next to the map.”
George’s confusion remained, but he leaned towards her side of the car, only to stop when Mutt bellowed. “Don’t! Yeager?” he indicated one of the shortest thugs in a blue wife beater, “Go see what surprise Boy Toy was reaching for.”
As all eyes moved to the side of the car, Rheda stamped her foot, “I told you, it’s money!” She declared, jabbing a finger at the car then, as he turned his head, grabbed the pistol’s barrel and driving her knee hard into his groin.
A faint whimper escaped the Mutt’s mouth as he folded around her leg, eyes crossed while white agony exploded behind them. Rheda squeezed him to her, supporting his entire weight with one arm as she slipped her index finger over his and forced him to fire the pistol into the thigh of the man he’d called Yeager.
Switching targets, she endured the boy’s fetid breath against her throat while he acted as her human shield. The two youths before her were still staring at her car when she squeezed off two more shots, tearing delicate human muscle with hot steel, then pivoted and shot the man who’d been behind her in the bicep.
Dropping the whimpering gelding, she kept hold of his weapon and concentrated on the pups on the far side of the car. They were only just beginning to react to her first shot when she ended the fight with four more, the pistol firing as fast as the action would allow and all four went down like dominoes.
It would be unfair to call what followed silence, but compared to the echoing pistol retorts, the pained screams of nine gang members rolling in their own blood were a balm to Rheda’s sensitive ears. Ducking to see inside the car’s window, she was relieved to see George was still ok; the excitement must have caught him as he was reaching for the glove compartment because he’d thrown himself across her seat.
Turning her attention back to the boys writhing on the ground, she took careful aim and very emptied the pistol’s magazine into the road around them. Pistols weren’t precision weapons, at least as far as she was concerned, but with her strength to control the recoil, it sufficed and tarmac chips fountained over the helpless gang.
Once the magazine was empty, she prodded Mutt with her toe until he rolled over, allowing her to extract extra ammunition from his pocket and repeated the exercise. By the time she’d finished, the road looked like it’d been target practice for an entire platoon and detailed forensics would be required to tell she’d been the only shooter. There was a risk that George or, perhaps, one of the pups might have noticed, but in the excitement of the moment, she doubted they’d notice most of the shots came after everyone was down.
Once she was sure she had at least a reasonable expectation her cover story had a chance of success, she knocked on the car window, making her driver spring up and greeting his look of wide eyes terror with a victorious grin.
“Hey,” She said with a flick of her head, “if you’ve got five minutes, I could use your help with something?”
The use of the word ‘help’ made George move; kicking open the door, he rolled out into the road, instinctively ducking the anticipated cloud of bullets... only to look around at the war zone in front of him. Rheda didn’t blame his stunned silence; maybe 30 seconds had passed since the first shot was fired, which she considered a barely passing grade, but would have been a few moments for him.
“Uh.... what with?” He finally stammered, peering incredulously across the roof at her. His expression said it all; what more could be done to those boys.
“First aid,” Rheda gestured with the now empty pistol. “Those boys are leaking onto the asphalt.” When he looked questioningly at her, clearly wondering why she wanted to help the same men who’d been trying to rob them, she shrugged, “Do you know how hard it is to clear up dried blood? This road is going to be hard enough to repair without asking the work crews to scrub away a few gallons of it.”
The urbane comment, even in the presence of such carnage, made him chuckle and nod. “Yeah... that would be regrettable. Shall I use the rope in the trunk?”
“I don’t think any of them will require a tourniquet?” She replied, checking the boys over again and confirming that, while painful, none were bleeding enough to be truly in danger.
“Uh... I meant to bind their hands and feet?”
“Oh, right; good idea.” Rheda felt herself flush; she hadn’t actually thought of that. “If you don’t mind, would you do the honours while I cover you?” She twitched the pistol again.
“Of course,” George nodded, no doubt thinking his boss didn’t want to get within arm’s reach of the bastards who might have been thinking about raping her. That was true, but only because she was worried one of the ‘big tough’ thugs might think she would make an excellent hostage; there was no way she’d explain away breaking his wrist.
Fortunately, it turned out that the sheer ferocity of their defeat had knocked all the wind from the gang; one glimpse of a vengeful George, who’d equipped himself with a tire iron in addition to a medical kit and rope, was quite enough to keep them cowed. Rheda’s unwavering aim was little more than background detail.
When all the thugs were tied up and bandaged, Rheda allowed herself to rest against the Skoda’s trunk while George called 911. He’d done well, she thought, considering that, aside from the first aid, none of this was in his job description. Even then, when she’d requested a driver who knew how to patch people up, she imagined he’d be putting his talents to use on victims of humanity’s vehicle obsession, not criminals.
“The police will be here soon,” George said, somewhat subdued compared to his usual ebullience.
“That’s good,” Rheda nodded and stretched her arms, listening to the soft pops of her joints sliding into place before wrapping her arms around him. “I don’t think I’ve thanked you, have I?”
“For what?” George seemed surprised by the embrace and tried to extricate it.
“For patching those guys up, for driving me around... for not running off the first chance you got.” She said, gently pressing his cheek until he faced her.
Her driver merely looked embarrassed. “I didn’t do anything.”
Rheda studied his troubled brown eyes and knew he wasn’t being modest; he was beating himself up for his inaction. But she could hardly tell him that keeping his head down was exactly what she’d needed him to do; he’d consider it pathetic, instead of pragmatic.
“I told you,” she said, loosening her arms around his neck, “I didn’t hire you to be a bodyguard. There were nine of them, George, all armed, all prepared; trying something would just have led to you being laid out on the road, with considerably more than a flesh wound.” She added pointedly.
“It didn’t stop you,” He replied, still refusing to bend.
“I also had the element of surprise,” She said softly, “and a hard knee.”
“Yeah, but I...” he tailed off.
“You were in the car,” She reminded him. “There was literally nothing you could have done in there except get yourself hurt. Perhaps if they’d let you get out and within arm’s reach like they did with me, you could have done something, but they didn’t; there’s no shame in being in an impossible position.” She didn’t add that staying in the car had greatly simplified her own plan since she hadn’t needed to worry about protecting him. “You didn’t have the position, or training.”
A skeptical look entered his eyes as he asked, “And you did?”
“The training? Yes.” Rheda admitted with a shrug, releasing him and stepping away. “Sweden practiced conscription until a few years ago and, as you know, I have always committed myself, heart and soul, to whatever duty is assigned to me.” She spun back to him, an amused smirk.
“You were... conscripted?” George sounded more shocked by that than the carnage earlier.
“From a tender young age,” Rheda placed her hand on her chest. It wasn’t a lie, but she wasn’t sorry it’d happened either. She loved fulfilling her duty.
“And that training... allowed you to do... all of this?” George blinked, spreading his hands over the bound gang.
She arched an eyebrow, daring him to find another explanation. When he sheepishly apologized, she nodded. “I was at the head of my class, so to speak... and on that note, I... need you to do me a favor,” Rheda bit her lip, taking the pistol from where she’d rested it on the car roof and presenting it to him, handle first. “Could you take the credit for this, please?”
“What?” George exclaimed, taking the gun before he’d fully processed what she was asking. “Rheda... I can’t!”
“It’d mean a lot to me, George,” Rheda said sincerely, “it would cause a lot of... trouble, if it got out that Cardinal’s owner gunned down some street punks.”
“But you didn’t kill them!”
“That... would only cause more problems,” She shook her head. “It’d raise a lot of questions and...” she bit her lip helplessly, “you know I don’t like publicity. I can make it worth your while?” She added, “A thousand dollars, just to say you did the shooting?”
“I don’t know...” George wavered, and she pressed her hands to his chest, begging.
“Please George, I mean it; I can’t stand media attention. I just want to help people; that’s all I've ever wanted to do. If the papers hear I shot someone trying to rob me, they’ll call me the Cardinal Cow Girl or something and I couldn’t bare that!”
Seeing the look of genuine fear on her face, George relented. “...Fine. But I'm not going to take any of your money for this.”
“I understand; thank you!” Rheda nodded, patting his hand with genuine gratitude. She wasn’t truly worried about the papers, but rather who might be reading them; the story of a red haired female subduing nine thugs would do more than raise eyebrows if an Andskoti happened to hear about it.
As the sound of sirens got closer, she cast her eyes over the Mutt; of all his colleagues, he was the only one glaring at her instead of curling up around his own private agony. She’d been a little relieved to find she hadn’t done any permanent damage, not because she particularly cared for him, but because, as a principal she didn’t like hurting humans, even the bad ones.
“Learn from this,” she told him, reflecting on her earlier thoughts about Batman; now that it was over, she found she quite enjoyed the adrenaline rush. It’d been... interesting to engage an enemy that only wanted her money, and it’d been almost fun to restrict herself to human toys, even if they’d made her almost criminally slow. Maybe there was something to the vigilante lifestyle after all?
...Except that she would have preferred not to get emergency services involved. The fewer times Klara’s name appeared on documentation, the less likely it was someone would connect it to her real one. But as much as the pups deserved disciplining, she couldn’t let their wounds go untreated; not only was it unethical, but it wouldn’t have matched the persona she’d built for Klara. It was also just pragmatic; as she’d noted earlier, Phoenix was relatively peaceful for an American city and it was possible, even likely, someone would call in the gunplay. In which case, it’d be easier for the police to have a nice simple aborted robbery on their files than a lot of wounded gang members telling tales of a mysterious red head in a Skoda.
Sometimes it was just easier to let other people do the legwork, with a few suitable nudges, then create a narrative from whole cloth, or worse let them try and figure out what happened for them themselves.
Hearing the sound of tires taking a corner at speed less than a block away, Rheda guessed they only had a minute or two left and started to make herself look less presentable; ruffling her shirt and hair, and wetting beneath her eyes to make it look like she’d been crying. She didn’t mind putting on a little show for the police, especially if it deflected attention from her inhuman accuracy; the trick would be pushing things hard enough to garner sympathy, without making the paramedics think she was in shock. She was going to have a hard enough time convincing them that her ‘odd’ heart beat wasn’t something they needed to worry about.
“Sorry, boss,” George sighed, putting on his cap and standing straighter as he too started to hear the distant cars, “I guess you won’t be getting home as soon as you hoped.”
Rheda, re-buttoning her top to look like it’d been put back on in a hurry, merely shrugged. “A change is as good as a rest; at least it stopped me thinking about the placeboids.”
“The...drugs we were talking about.”
“You want to call them placeboids?”
“I was thinking about it; why not?”
“You don’t think there’ll be some... backlash given that placebos only work if you believe in them.”
“And placeboids make you believe in them.” Rheda chuckled at her own joke, spreading her fingers at an imaginary banner, “Maybe we can market them like some cheesy 50’s style hypnotist?”
“Or a flying saucer?” George stroked his chin, “You know; ‘Placeboids, from Planet Alpha Nine!”
Rheda frowned fractionally; that was pretty good, but a little too on the nose. Using the screech of tires as a distraction, she wiped her nose and hunched her shoulder like a woman who’d been crying for half an hour. “...Maybe; it’s not a bad idea. They’re certain out of this world.” She chuckled. “I’ll throw both ideas at marketing and see what they think will stick.”
“Well that’s why you have them isn’t it; so they can do the work for you?”
“Yeah...” Rheda blinked, then stared at him with her piercing blue eyes. “Sorry, what was that?”
George scratched the brim of his cap, “...Umm, I said that you can get marketing to do the job for you?”
“I can get others to do the job for me...” Rheda repeated as if it was some new revelation.
George only looked more puzzled. “Uh yeah... that’s why you have a company boss?” Surreptitiously, he looked her over, wondering if perhaps one of those bullets had struck her after all. Her jacket had a worrying hole over her chest, indicating that at least one of the gangbangers had got off a shot, though thankfully she’d shown it had... somehow passed through a fold of wool without hitting her. What if there’d been another, further up? Her hair wasn’t quite blood red, but if she’d been hit in the head, would he have seen? “...Maybe you should sit down?” He offered, pulling open the rear car door.
“I’m fine,” she held up a hand, waving off his attempt to guide her into the seat. “I’m a fool, but I’m fine.”
“Why are you a fool?” George asked in the careful tone of someone talking a friend off a high ledge.
“Because I’ve been thinking too much like a business owner.” She shook her head. “Worrying about budgeting and finances, instead of concentrating on what’s important; the people!”
“Yeah, because you can help people when you’re flat broke and bankrupt?” George crossed his hands sternly, still checking her hair for any noticeably matted strands.
“No, but I’ve been thinking that I need to develop this, alone. Why don’t I just give Pfizer the formula and let them develop the other version?” She tilted her head, thoughts flowing as she justified herself. “They’ll be cautious of course, this is entirely new science, but we have the trials data to justify their interest... and we can claim, uh, some kind of licensing fee.” She muttered to herself; businesses got nervous when things appeared too good to be true, in case they were being sold snake oil instead of gold. Having to pay for a license, would diminish their risk since they wouldn’t have to face huge upfront cost.
Still thinking aloud, she murmured “Plus we’re three years ahead of them; they can justify the risk as we’ll be the one on the bleeding edge, feeding them our data. I can even make a business case since we’ll have three years of sales before they can bring their version to market. Oh George, this is wonderful!” She literally leapt for joy, wrapping her arms around him and pressing her lips to his cheek. “Thank you!”
Unprepared for the enthusiastic hug, George staggered against the car door, trying to hold his boss’s surprising weight. “Uh... you’re welcome?”
“Now you can really say you’ve done some good today,” she smiled, caressing his jaw affectionately as she released him, “certainly more than saving one woman from some thugs.” As blue lights started to flicker off the fence at the far end of the street, she turned to face the oncoming cruisers. “Now though, you can be a hero in another way.”